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.