Today is the liturgical feast of the Epiphany, the time when “God with us” (Emmanuel), is revealed to the Gentiles. As we all know, in the Christmas story the Gentiles are represented by the three Magi, who follow a star to Bethlehem to worship the Christ child (Mt 2:1-12) .
Epiphany is also the twelfth day of Christmas and concludes the season, which may come as a surprise to those who toss their trees to the curb on December 26, as if the Sanitation Department’s pickup schedule takes precedence over the manifestation of the divine in human form. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to put it that way. Efficiency, bureaucracy, and consumption, not ancient myths, inspire us to cross deserts today.
Every year at this time I am reminded of William Butler Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming” (1919), in which the poet laments the “blood-dimmed tide” that spread throughout Europe, causing chaos and destruction. Yeats had the horrors of the First World War in mind when he wrote the poem, but his mention of the center not holding and things falling apart apply to the whole of Western civilization in the near future.
“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.”
Yeats was prophetic in that description, but his warning about the Second Coming is even more chilling. That is, it might not be what we are hoping for. The worst could be yet to come. Yeats describes the future birth not of a child to save us from ourselves and our self-destructive drives but a “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem.” But what of it? he asks, as if to remind us that mercy does not arrive at our doorstop alone. It comes with justice, which should be no surprise.
Justice, as in every case in scripture, has to do with fairness. How can we expect anything other than darkness when we have not been faithful to our promise to walk in the light? When we have not kept our part of the bargain? That might sound harsh, but perhaps the thing slouching toward Bethlehem comes from the spiritus mundi, or spirit of the world, as Yeats puts it, rather than the spirit of God. Its gaze is “blank and pitiless as the sun.” Can we expect mercy from anything that slouches?
If slouching comes from the spirit of the world, then I admit that I do it myself. I spend plenty of time doing the things of the world, because that’s what institutions and their systems compel us to do: projects, meetings, traveling, ideas coming at the speed of light as if in a life-sized video game. The irony is that it is possible to travel at the speed of light but still be in darkness. I disregard people, events, opportunities for relationships. How many of us do that?
If the spirit of God is the opposite of slouching, if it amounts to sure birth on a clear, cold night under the stars, then what does that look like in my life? How do I follow the star to such a birth, not slouching but in anticipation and with confidence? Yeats did not say the beast approaches or draws near. He said it slouches, and for all its slouching we are left to wonder just what kind of beast it is and what its purpose might be. One thing is certain, however. It cannot be good.
It is time to put away the baubles and beads of what passes for Christmas not in Yeats’ world of 1919 but in this digitized world one hundred years later. For “Surely some revelation is at hand;/ Surely the Second Coming is at hand.” If not then, now.
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Robert, Thank you for such a beautiful piece. I appreciated most, the questions that you offered to us. I will be re-reading this post several more times in coming days and thinking about your questions.
The celebration of Epiphany, with the scripture from Matthew, Chapter 2 (1-12), has been my favorite part of the Christmas season for many years. The reading of the heavens, the journey across a desert, a journey taken on faith that what they had received was true and worth any travail, the bright, bright star, among many stars in the heavens, the bringing of precious gifts, including the gifts of presence and honor (appreciation, joy beyond joy at what they had found)…and they returned home by another way… All I can say is “Wow!”
A few more questions that I ponder are: The wise men were attentive to the signs in the heavens, to messages about possible changes and journeys to be taken to see and hear what part we may play? In the heavens and in the land are many bright stars pointing this way and that. What light or star do I follow? What are the precious gifts of presence, appreciation, and honor I can bring to the moment? Finally, after receiving all of this, being overjoyed, in the presence of danger and threat of violence, what is the “other way” I might follow to return to home, and what would our home look like? Who would be there?
Blessings, Robert, on the new year.
I know the way, it is narrow, like the edge of a sword. I rejoice to walk on it, I weep when I fall. God’s word is ‘he who strives, does not perish.’ Therefore, although I fall a thousand times, I shall not despair.
I have been thinking about your questions, Susan, and have come to this conclusion: whether we are coming or going, we have to trust in God, ourselves, the event, experience, life, etc. Whether we are going to Bethlehem or returning by “another way,” we have to sacrifice our own desires, fears, and hopes. None of that is easy to do or even understand. All of it is messy. There may be a sort of map–star–to guide us to the manager, but what about the return trip? It is just as important. There is no map for that. No map. And which people–voices–do we trust? I am mired in disappointment. That’s probably my own fault. Thanks for the reflection.
Robert, thank you for sharing this. Yes, mired is where I spend time, more often than I want to see.
The truth, maybe the only truth that can comfort me is that I do not know anything, really, Robert. I have questions and questions and at times I receive mercy upon mercy upon mercy.
Not that what I think means anything at all, but for me, disappointment is what it is, and no one’s fault.
Remember that cartoon of that little hairy guy with the sun glasses who held up a sign saying ” The End is Near”! That depiction always perplexed me when I was a youngster I couldnt find that line of thinking.
When youve sewn good seed and/ or rectified indiscretions during your existence, Whats to worry?
I m not sure if I buy into the program about this dogma in Christianity. Does it ring true for me because im now 62?
Why would a loving God shut the lights out on these beautiful children in which their major stain is what they inherited from my cohorts?
And Why would a King have a prophesy, folow a star and bring a newborn a gift of a burial spice? If I were Mary and Joseph Id tel him to take the A train! Wouldnt a rattle be ore apropriate?
Bernard, blessings on your new year! I liked the questions you asked:). I had a question for you: If the end is near, what would the end look like for you? What is the end?
Bernie, two things: (1) I think you’re reacting to stereotypes that do not portray Christianity honestly and are rampant in our culture, (2) I don’t know why God would “shut the lights out.” The official answer is that he doesn’t, that he suffers with the children. But then why do they suffer in the first place?