Saturday, January 11, 2020

Continuing in Epiphany

Epiphany is actually over. I was remembering it (mis-remembering it) as lasting until Lent; the little book ("Bread of Blessing, Cup of Hope") that contains sample prayers for the Elders at table list "Sundays After Epiphany" rather than "Sundays of Epiphany" (which is what I guess I was remembering it as).

So, we're officially in Ordinary Time, which means the parments on the pulpit and lectern get turned to green until Lent begins (just before my birthday this year) when they are turned to purple.

(The Liturgical year, as I remember it: Advent is purple, because it's like a mini-Lent, Christmastide through Epiphany is white, the color of purity and I guess rejoicing? Because it's also for Easter...Ordinary Time is green, Lent is purple again, Easter is white, then back to Ordinary Time with a short detour for Pentecost (red) in June...and then the cycle starts again. I LIKE following the liturgical year; in a world where so much is changing and unsettled and even violent and upsetting, it is oddly a relief to walk into church, and see the color of the parment, and know where in the year you are)

Ordinary Time is.....kinda when nothing really happens? Or at least, that's how it seems. The lectionary cycles through things from the Gospels (the parables, stories of healings) and the Epistles and readings from the Old Testament, but there's not the hopeful expectation of Advent, or the joy of Christmas, or the seriousness and soul searching of Lent, or the horrors of Good Friday, or the joy of Easter. It's kind of....keepin' on keepin' on, I guess*.

(*The phrase "keep on keepin' on," which I learned from Luvada Hunter - a much-loved African-American member of my parents' church - she has long since gone onto her reward - is one I really love. Because to me, it carries the connotation of "you'll get there eventually" and also "you're doing fine, keep going." I remember once when I was working on my dissertation and it wasn't going well, and I had mentioned it to Luvada, she smiled at me and patted me on the arm and said "Just keep on keepin' on, I believe in you" and that was something....that was exactly the thing I needed to hear then)

Anyway. The thing about Ordinary Time 1, as this is sometimes called - well, Christmas is newly put away, it's kind of dark and cold (if you live in the Northern hemisphere), many of us are trying to drop the weight we put on during the holidays and cut back on spending to pay the bills from the holiday's just kind of a hard time. And there's not a great deal after Epiphany to look forward to (I have said before: I don't really do Valentine's Day, I don't really do St. Patrick's Day, though this year I may be up visiting my mother for it). There's my birthday, but as I said: no one around here really cares about it that much other than me, and I'll be teaching my longest hardest day of classes on it, and I may or may not be able to go do something that weekend because it's likely Honors Weekend, which I am working.

But I do think of this poem. It's part of a longer piece, sometimes called "Christmas Oratorio," by WH Auden. I've liked it since I first heard it - more than 20 years ago now, probably closer to 25, when we had an interim minister at my parents' church. His name was Jim Pruyne (he has also since gone on to his reward) and I know some people disagreed with some of the things he said and he was probably more theologically liberal than the average congregant in that congregation. But he always made me think, and I liked that, and he based his Epiphany sermon on the poem, and I've always thought of it every year since that, because there's a lot to "chew on" in there.

And so, I quote it here:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It. 

 The parts that strike me so much - other than the idea of putting away Christmas and bracing for the new year, is the "Begging though to remain His disobedient servant" because that seems such a good description of the modern (and perhaps, not-so-modern) average Christian: we want to be obedient, but our natures work against us. (Similar to what I commented on twitter, that the 'creating a calorie deficit thing to lose weight would be easier if I weren't so hungry all the time"). And also the idea of the whiff of apprehension of Lend and Good Friday - and the realization, perhaps, behind that for some of us is the intimation of our own mortality (oh, so brought more home to me in the past year) and the daily chores existing alongside the mysticism....and it's so hard, sometimes. 

And also, the whole idea of living In The Time Being - the time we are stuck in now, neither at the start of times (0 BC, or perhaps more correctly, some theologians have argued, 4 BC) nor at the end of them (though some days, I don't know, it starts to feel like it, and that's what makes modern life so worrisome and exhausting). I remember some writer made the comment that the shepherds were lucky in one way: that they could look down and see God there, as a baby in a stable, but all the rest of us, we have to believe it (if we do) because we can't see it. 

But also...the last line: "Remembering the stable for once in our lives, everything became a You and nothing was an It." That connectedness, that feeling part of all creation (I wonder if Auden had read Buber's "I and Thou," it reminds me a bit of the main themes in that). 

And you know? That's what I want. I can get intimations of it when I am at my best - that everything around me is a You and nothing is an It - but again, this is something my nature and the world works against, when I get behind someone going 20 miles below the speed limit on the interstate and when I pass them and look over and see them jabbering on a cell phone and I cringe and my blood pressure ticks up a tiny bit, or when someone calls me in my office on my phone and ask-tells me to do something I have no time to do and no wish to do, but because they are higher in the org-chart than I am, I will have to do, or when I see someone on the news who has done something monstrous to another is sometimes hard to keep that sympathy.

And I don't know. That's one of the real conundrums of life, at least for a Christian: how do you keep that feeling of Christmas Eve, when you sat in the darkened church surrounded by people you know and some of whom you would openly say you love, and there are candles and there is music and everything seems prettier and nicer somehow, and you just want to STAY there forever, but you know you can't; you will have to go back out into the cold and if you're a parent you will have to settle your kids down for bed and there will be food to cook for the next day and maybe contentious relatives to wrangle (or, in my own personal case this past year: go through the day trying to be as happy as possible even though everything is different and there is a very noticeable hole in the family). And the following week it may well be back to work or at least it will be back to cleaning and doing the marketing....and how do you sustain that good feeling on into January? It is a hard thing. You want it, but it is so hard to hang on to. Perhaps that is the difference between "the Kingdom" (as described in the Bible) and "the World," and the World fights to make you forget that time of light and music and fellowship and get mired in the cleaning and the people-wrangling and the arguing....and it's so hard to transcend that, even if you do stop in the middle of it and realize you want to.


anita said...

Beautifully written! Thank you.

Roger Owen Green said...

I like the liturgical colors, which were more prominent in my Methodist church (1983-2000) than my current Presby church.