Too often, we who are Christians have taken the life out of our religion. Our traditions become relics, almost bloodless, empty of connection with how people, we, actually live (and how the people in the stories on which the traditions are based actually lived, too).
Of course, this varies by culture and particular religious traditions. For example, Three Kings Day, or the Feast of the Epiphany, does not get much notice in many western Christian circles–but in Hispanic or Latino/a cultures and churches, January 6 is a really big deal.
Despite the song that celebrates the “Twelve Days of Christmas”–omnipresent in every store for at least six weeks prior to December 25–most people are surprised that, according to the liturgical calendar, Christmas actually lasts twelve days.
Surely, they think, the last day of Christmas is the day, or maybe two days, after Christmas Day when people rush to the malls for bargains and/or to return or exchange gift items. Truly, Christmas has become a secular holiday for most, and a much-needed boost to consumer spending. For most, Christmas begins when the shopping season begins, and ends with Christmas dinner or a day or two of post-holiday shopping. In the church, Christmas Day is the beginning not the ending. Or at least, it is supposed to be.
And, much of the time, when there is attention to Epiphany, it is the magi who are most noticed, even though they came to see the infant. Of course, the infant is the center of the story. Infants usually are.
The infant. Do we really believe he was a baby? He is usually pictured soundly sleeping, or at least resting quietly–“no crying he makes,” says the carol we sing each year. What kind of baby is that? Is that a real baby?
And what about his parents and the situation they were in? The stable and the manger-crib always look so tidy, as if Housekeeping had just come by and gotten everything in order.
Several pictures that I have seen over the past couple of weeks have reminded me that despite the sweet carols we sing, and the adorable pageants that youth offer in many churches, this was not an easy time for Mary (any one who has given birth or even been present as someone else is doing so knows it is incredibly hard, painful work), and even Joseph and Jesus, too.
And the magi–whether there were three or 103, the biblical record does not say, despite the tradition–seem an odd group, bringing treasure and worship, even though they were not Jewish, let alone Christian(!).
So, pictured to the right is a humorous attempt to make the story a bit more real–the Three Wiser Women arriving to provide more homely, practical gifts needed by the parents of every newborn.
And pictured here are two views of a sculpture at the entrance to St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Anglican Church), Trafalgar Square, London, by Michael Chapman. In one, we see the whole sculpture from a side view. The sculptor has chiseled the phrase “In the beginning was the Word and the Word became flesh and lived among us” from chapter one of John’s Gospel around the stone (visible is “In the beginning” on the right, and “lived among us” on the left).
The second shows the top of the sculpture, with the baby Jesus looking different from most portrayals. First, he has baby boy genitals. We don’t often see Jesus this way. And even more startling is the umbilical cord still attached.
When I saw this, at a Jazz Vespers service at the Gayton Kirk (Presbyterian Church) in Richmond’s West End, I was deeply moved. Here is a “real baby,” vulnerable like babies are–not wrapped in swaddling clothes with angels singing and shepherds and worldly wise men praying–given a prominent place among the high and important buildings (including the towering monument to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar) in this historic section of one of the world’s major cities.
Yes, he is carved out of stone–the sculpture can appear as a tombstone, so perhaps the artist seeks to remind us of what happens later–but I can actually hear a baby cry, and know that he will pee and poop, and that when the cord is cut there will be blood as there always is during birth.
This baby became a real man, the most perfect and wise and powerful man of whom I have ever known, and for me, as for so many other believers, he lives among us still. Seeing him this way, and seeing the women above, reminds me that just as the baby was a human being so was the full-grown man.
He is the Lord to me, but he is Lord with whom I can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine, and shoot the breeze, as well as Lord from whom I can continually learn how to be fully human, that is, how to live the fullness of the divine origins we share, as children created in the image of God.