My Christmas day dinner this year was perhaps the worst I’ve ever made. I like to insist that actually, I’m a pretty good cook. But Christmas dinner wouldn’t have convinced you. I ran out of tin foil and the turkey was dry to the point of parts of it being inedible. Definitely no gravy. The mashed potatoes would have been good – if they hadn’t been cold as ice by the time we sat to eat. And the green beans. Well, I was lucky I didn’t start the house on fire.
It all started out well enough. I’d prepped the meal by putting out the steaming pots for the vegetables and chopping and washing the beans for the meal earlier in the day. So when the time came, because I was distracted by phone calls, and in a bit of a press between one child arriving and another who had to leave for work, I was happy that everything was already ready to go. In between checking potatoes I just took the beans, put them in the steamer pot, and turned on the burner. It seemed that ten minutes should be about right.
However, when the turkey came out of the oven, the beans weren’t even close to done. In fact, strangely, they still looked hard. Hmmm. A watched pot never boils, I guess. Anyway there was the turkey to cut, the potatoes and rutabagas to mash, the lack of gravy to explain, and more phone calls coming in from far away family. I guess it’s just taking a long time for the water to get going, I thought, and went on to something else.
Finally, with dinner almost ready and on the table, I glanced over one last time. Still no steam. What is the matter with those beans?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying: ‘where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising.’
Epiphany has SO many messages for us that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the fact that, like the Magi, God brings strangers into our lives. That’s a good learning all by itself, and one we’ll come back to. Who were the strangers that God brought into your life this past year, and what unusual and meaningful gifts did they leave you?
Epiphany is also about the importance of giving, and maybe even more, of receiving, gifts. It teaches us a new relation with others, instead of just feeling we have to earn or bill or always be on a tally sheet somehow, plus or minus. Then, also, Epiphany is about the ways in which our lives really are a pilgrimage, because what the Magi were doing was definitely that. Like the Magi, our pilgrimage extends out to the worldwide family of our Creator, including people who at first seem different to us, or strange, or even dangerous. All of these are important parts of today.
But there’s something even more basic about Epiphany, something that lies behind and beneath all these other learnings. That is, Epiphany is about a way of SEEING. It is about a way of being conscious in a world that seeks to keep us stupid and unconscious.
I know stupid is a hard word. But it’s accurate. Many forces in our world want us to be, or to become, stupid. That’s no accident.
You can’t hide a star in the heavens. And yet only the Magi came looking for Jesus. Everyone has eyes, but among the sighted, at least, not everyone sees equally. Moreover, neither do WE see, equally well, at all moments of our lives. Like with me and the beans.
Jesus is reported to have said “those who have ears, let them hear.” Maybe we can rephrase that for Epiphany: those who have eyes, let them see.
We tend to think of seeing as something we do automatically, by virtue of just being alive. What we don’t realize is that, more than we think, what we see is a matter of choice. Likewise, what we DON’T see is a matter of choice.
The truth is, for most of us, life can be threateningly dull much of the time. We get up. We shovel some food in our mouths, worry about getting fat or getting old, or getting out of shape or getting redundant at work, worry about our children or our grandchildren or our parents or our health or our career; and then we do our job, or watch our TV, or talk on the phone or surf the internet or do whatever it is we do for most of our waking hours. And then we go to sleep again, knowing we will repeat more or less that same pattern, again and again.
That’s what life has given many of us. And to face – or maybe NOT to face – that routine, the problem is that we tend to turn off the very ability to see that might save us.
Of course there’s more than one suggested way to open our eyes. Lots of folks – especially advertisers – want us to believe that the way out of the daily grind is through desire. New clothes will change you. The more things in your closet the safer you are from loneliness, or death.
You have the power to be great, the most subtle of the advertisers even tell us, mimicking the serpent in the garden. And they’re right. But the problem is, the ways they suggest usually mean buying something, and usually make us focus on ourselves even more than we already do. If we open our eyes and only see ourselves, then it’s just a mirror game. We’ve missed a whole big wide, wonderful world, including the stars.
Not the Magi. They’re pictured as powerful figures. Rich. Kings, maybe. Wise. Respected. And yet what do they do? They travel, despite hardship. At the end of their journey they worship someone other than themselves. Theology might call that a revelation of the spirit. Others call it enlightenment.
It takes incredible discipline, and constant reminders, to pull ourselves again and again out of our ruts of not-seeing. It takes mindfulness to take the time and make the effort to open ourselves, consciously, to see the beauty of the world and wonder at it. To see the strangers and the outsiders who are always there, but rarely noticed. To see the small uncertainties in another’s hands as they fidget, or to care for the revealed fears in another person’s facial tics, or how beautiful are the details of almost every other human being, God’s gifts to us.
Which brings me back to strangers. Today is a day for remembering those who were once strangers, and came into our lives bearing gifts. It’s a day for pulling our eyes out of auto-focus and seeing the very real pleasure and pain and tragedy and beauty and joy – better than any Hollywood movie – that are given to us in almost every moment. It’s a day for really seeing the beans.
When, at the very end of all my preparations for Christmas Dinner, I actually really looked at the beans, instead of seeing them through the fog of my schedule and my distraction and my family plans and my worries, I realized what most of you have probably known all along. There was a simple reason the beans weren’t cooking: I had forgotten to put any water in the pot!
I grabbed it and pulled it off the stove. Good thing I have good pots. Even so, the bottom was becoming more and more bronzed from the heat. It steamed and sizzled as it went into the dishwater. I cooked the beans another way.
Today may we be moved to open our eyes and see what is really in front of us. May we take our place among modern-day Magi, those who spend the time and effort to really live and not just BE, to voyage, in some way. And may we be blessed by others, strangers or not, who can take our hands, hold us carefully, and gently but firmly, help us to look up and see the promise that is there shining for us, and for all of creation.
Yes, not-seeing seems to be our default as adults. Children, on the other hand, seem to be consummate seers. But just as we hush them, we give them blinders. A sorry state, this but hope is a perdurable category all the same!