Twelfth Night: The Manger and the Cross

S. Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
[Sermon on the Eve of the Epiphany at the Chapel of the Cross, Chapel Hill, NC, with the Renewal of Ministry including the Installation of Elizabeth Marie Melchionna ('06) as Rector.]

Merry Christmas! I hope Christmas has been good for you, all twelve days, and here we are on Twelfth Night, the Eve of the Epiphany - so for the last time, Merry Christmas, and for the first, Happy Epiphany. This is a time between times, a hinge time as it were, and not just in our Church year but in our civil year as it starts and not least in the life of this parish as you welcome a new Rector.

W. H. Auden’s poem Christmas Oratorio includes a word picture of this time of transition:

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. …
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.

Auden evokes a familiar wistfulness and fatigue as the feast winds down; but at the end of that passage a more sobering note, that “unpleasant whiff of apprehension," is struck.

If there is always some moment of pause as Christmas draws to a close, this particular year we are starting together, and that you will face as a parish community with your new Rector, is not shaping up to be an easy one. The earth itself shakes under our unwieldy footsteps, and even climate witnesses to our arrogance or at least our lack of foresight. Acts of terror around the world, that add perversity to violence by being committed in the name of faith, seem to be worsening. Closer to home, many are wondering what standards or ethics will be shaping both executive and legislative leadership for this country this year and beyond, and how fragile our diversity may prove to be when voices of exclusion are given oxygen by political climate change.

Let’s put it this way - if we had to organize Christmas here next year, we might find ourselves in trouble. Shepherds are low-paid service workers, and might well be undocumented - we will have to hope that they haven’t been deported by then. The Magi, our Epiphany companions, are of rather higher status but are foreigners and their visa applications will have been thrown into doubt by our new policy of hiring only Americans; for that matter they actually come from Iran, so all deals involving Gold are off, even if Frankincense and Myrrh might slip through.

You may or may not see the signs of the times in quite these terms, and bless you in either case. But each year brings realities that map onto the universal truths of human need and brokenness, and speak of the need for hope in troubled times. For this the child came once and was manifest to the nations; now again we must seek his presence and make him known.

So for now Christmas goes, but Epiphany comes - this time when what Christmas had begun "how silently, how silently” now grows, and in this crescendo our holiday fatigue gives way to Gospel glory. For while Christmas began with a word that God spoke privately by an angel to a fearful woman, and continued as a rumor in the obscure fields and back alleys of Bethlehem, beyond the probing eye of kings and away from the curiosity of crowds, the time has now come for what was once told in whispers, or shared among unlikely poor folk lacking in influence, to be manifest to the world.

What is manifest is however no simple thing. There are still tidings of comfort and joy, but they come in a form none of us would have chosen, if those were the only criteria. That “whiff of apprehension” of which Auden spoke concerns the fact that the one born in poverty and under occupation will not only live among us with love we have not otherwise known and can barely imagine, but that the consequence of this will be that "Good Friday...cannot, after all, now Be very far off.” The wood of the manger will become the wood of the Cross. Or as the Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe put it, "if you don’t love, you’re dead; and if you do, they’ll kill you."

Another poet, T. S. Eliot, pondered this strange connection in another famous Epiphany poem, Journey of the Magi, where one of the wandering sages reminisces:

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

And this, we insist, is good news to proclaim, and the true way for our own journey; that this God-with-us is manifest not only to mysterious travelers, not just at his baptism, not just at his Transfiguration, but in his abandonment and his desolation and his death.

These are not things we seek, or should seek. But these mean that his presence and his love is manifest, not only in our moments of feasting and festivity, but in our deepest needs and in the hardest places: in Aleppo and in Istanbul, in our toughest neighborhoods, and on both sides of any walls, conceptual or literal, that are built to separate what and whom he would hold together. For in manifesting the triumph of God’s life over death, he allows hope to be manifest to our eyes even in these places, and calls us to them, like the Magi, to bring our gifts and worship him there, there, there - and here. You cannot worship him at the manger if you will not worship him in these crosses that the world continues to manifest.

And in this Renewal of Ministry tonight at this Chapel of the Cross, what is manifest in the world of him is unquestionably what you all this evening, along with Elizabeth Marie your Rector, are affirming your willingness to seek, to embody, to proclaim, privately and publicly, in workplace and home and public square, as well as in Church.

Your ministry here - yours Elizabeth Marie, and all of yours sisters and brothers - is needed, not just because we have religious urges, or because we enjoy dignified worship, or because it’s good to have a moral compass in life, or helpful to have a community, even if those things are all true. We need your ministry here for the same reason we needed the Word to become flesh and to reveal his glory - to manifest the profound, the unimaginable depths of the love of God for a world which is broken. You may at certain times overestimate your powers, or occasionally lose your appetite for all this - but the one who has called you is faithful and loving beyond our imaginings; come, let us do him homage.


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