Advent is now long behind us (well, it seems long to me), we areat the end of Christmas, and Epiphany lies ahead of us. I am lucky; unlike most people who must return to a daily schedule as soon as the New Year is in place, I generally have an extra week to clean out the old and make space for the new, and recover from the extra services and extra music that have filled the season just past. These are the moments when I file the old music and ready the new; finish the readings devoted to the liturgical season and select those for the coming weeks and the coming season of Lent, and in general compose my “to-do” lists for the first quarter of the calendar year.
So I’m thinking about calendars, and so I’m also thinking about my favorite topic, the ancient practice of following the liturgical calendar. This morning, as I sat reading T.S. Elliot’s poem “The Journey of the Magi“, thinking about the journey from Advent through Christmas towards Epiphany and what a different journey it has been for me this year, it did occur to me that I do understand why we as human beings have to be very mindful with our marking of the liturgical year. We are finite, time-based creatures; we count time to give ourselves some sense of control over the fleeting passage of our lives on this planet — it would be possible to use the liturgical calendar in a negative way, as an attempt to capture and encapsulate the Divine in a form that we can understand, and therefore think that we can control.
I am not so used to the passage of liturgical time, yet anyway, that I am in danger of losing the mystery. And this season has indeed been for me a mystery. Never before have the words of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) held such real meaning for me, as I myself faced the realization that I was refusing to look at the call on my life because of fear of the consequences of that call; and as I myself felt a wave of peace that came with the acceptance of that which could no longer be denied.
But I find myself during this week between Christmas and Epiphany identifying heavily with the Magi, just as I have felt the fear of the shepherds and the fear mixed with acceptance and peace of Mary, and the joy and light mixed with anguish of Christmas, the birth of the child. Right now I feel weary, and as if I have journeyed far following something I do not understand and something that I cannot possibly see realized in my lifetime.
This too, shall pass. It will pass as I work my way through the to-do list on my desk, as I remove the human-world obstacles from my path. It will pass because this year, unlike any other, I understand the three-fold experience of this season: our private fear and confusion (the Annunciation), calmed by our private realization and rebirth (the Magnificat and Birth), and finally our true understanding as we release as these gifts to the world (Ephiphany).
How long will it take? Many have tried to pin the events of these stories to the passage of human time (one particularly interesting attempt may be read here), but does it really matter? And it could take even longer, if I get wrapped up in secular problems like the current frankincense shortage (thinking like a Magi and all). It has taken me this many years of life to understand this much; somehow how long it takes no longer matters. I’m guessing that the journey with the Magi will take just as long as I have life and breath, and maybe longer.