Homilies and Poems

I am a Catholic Deacon and a Professor of English at Oregon State University. I've created this BLOG as a way of sharing my Sunday homilies, for anyone who would like copies, as well as some of my poetry. I'm also very glad to continue the conversation, over email or in person. Just click on "profile" and then onto my email address. Peace be with you and the Lord be with you. Also visit me at my website.

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Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Way of the Child

January 8, 2012
Epiphany
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-11

The stories of Christmas aren’t just stories. They’re theology. The stories of Christmas aren’t just children’s stories. They’re about a child, they use the image of the child, and that image is telling us something astonishing about the very nature of God.

*

There’s the way of Herod, the way of the King in the story today, the way of power and domination and lying and deceit. It’s the way of the dishonest politician. It’s the way of the corrupt corporation. It’s the way of competition and consumption and it’s in the culture, it’s outside of us, pushing in on us all the time, and it’s inside of us, too, in our own natures, in our own appetites and insecurities. It’s the way of the world, the world that slaughters the innocents, as Herod slaughters the innocents.

A child dies of starvation every three seconds on this planet. Every three seconds. Four out of ten young girls are sexually abused in this country. Four out of ten.

But also: that the world tries to exploit any simplicity or enthusiasm, that something is always trying to tear us down and use us and consume us.

*

And then there’s the way of the child, there’s Jesus the way the wise men see him today, in the story of Epiphany: kicking his little legs, balling his little fists. A baby, cradled in his mother’s arms.
And this, the story is telling us, is God.

We keep getting this mixed up in our minds, we keep thinking of God in Herodian terms, as a dominating King, as a being of power to beseech or condemn, to worship when He helps us and to abandon when He doesn’t. But these Christmas stories are giving us a completely different image to contemplate. God is a child, and the way of God is the way of the child, the way of gentleness, the way of powerlessness, the way of ordinariness, the way of obscurity, the way of spontaneity, and this should be our way, too. This is the way of wisdom.

What’s wise about the wise men is that they seek out innocence even in the face of Herod’s inducements and threats. They don’t act out of greed and they don’t act out of fear. They follow the star, and it leads them to a child, and when they see the child they do what we’re supposed to do, too. They kneel. They give up their own claims to power and privilege. In the presence of the child they become children themselves.

What defines us as Christians is what we do for the weak and the vulnerable--and an inner gentleness, an inner orientation, towards listening and openness and service.

*


Isaiah tells us that when we behold the splendor of the Lord our hearts shall “throb and overflow.” We shall be “radiant.” Matthew tells us that when the wise men see the star they are “overjoyed,” and we all have moments like this. When we feel happy and free. Maybe the way we felt this Christmas, with our families. Any moment when the burden seems to fall away.

And these moments are normative. It’s in moments like these that we can discern the will of God for us, because God calls us in our joy. God wants us to be who we are, the way we were as children, before we learned to doubt and hide.

What are the terms of this happiness? What are the conditions that obtain when we are able to come back to our “own country,” to our true selves, as the wise men do at the end of the story? And when we go back to work, when the term starts again, when we reenter the fray, how can we keep from forgetting our own truth?

And how should we act so that others can do this? What conditions must obtain in the world for everyone to have this freedom?

*


We have to come back, as the wise men do, “by another way. “

We have to stand up to Herod, and when we can’t, we have to avoid him, as the wise men do. We have to slip away. Turn off the screen. Walk away from the abuser. Avoid the friends who are not really friends. In our minds, if we can’t in fact. We have to just not listen to all the false voices.

*

Mr. Rogers was a wise man, I think, a wise man who sought out the child.

And once he went to Washington, to the Whitehouse, to give a speech. And in that speech he asked the audience to take a minute to think of someone who had made a difference in their lives.

Imagine all those dignitaries, sitting there in silence.

After the speech, as he was leaving, Mr. Rogers heard something from one of the military guards standing like a statue at the door. He heard the guard whisper, “Thank you, Mr. Rogers.”

So he stopped, and he went over to talk to the guard, and he saw that there were tears in his eyes. And the guard said he’d been thinking of a great-uncle he hadn’t thought of in years. How this man had given him a fishing pole when he was a kid, and how important that had been to him.

And here’s how Mr. Rogers concludes this story:

"As far as I’m concerned [Mr. Rogers says], the major reason for my going to Washington that day was that military guard and nourishing the memory of his great uncle. What marvelous mysteries we’re privileged to be part of! Why would that young man be assigned to guard that particular room on that particular day? Slender threads like that weave this complex fabric of our life together."

This is epiphany: the gift of moments. This is the way of the child: an openness to those moments.

Not the Whitehouse. Not the speech. The guard, and the tears in the eyes of the guard.

*

Let’s all of us take a moment now to think of someone who was important to us when we were young, someone who reached out to us and helped us. Let’s remember who this person was and what this person did, and the effect that it had on us, and that it still has.

For just a moment, let’s hold these people in our hearts.

What marvelous mysteries. What slender threads.

This is epiphany. This is the way of the child.