Wednesday, January 5, 2011

At Sundown, Christmas Becomes Epiphany

"We keep our Holy Day adored with three miracles: to-day a star led the Magi to the crib, to-day wine was made from water at the marriage, to-day in Jordan Christ willed to be baptized by John to save us." - T.S. Eliot

In the early 1960’s my mother and father received their first credit card. “Diner’s Club”, if I remember correctly. The first big-ticket item that they bought was a new mattress and set of box springs. It was from a local merchant who was also experimenting with this brave new world of credit cards and had just begun to offer telephone sales. The system was not yet perfect, however.

On the day the order was to arrive, at shortly after nine o’clock in the morning, a delivery truck, complete with a friendly, uniformed and bow-tied deliveryman, brought the mattress and box springs into the house. The sale was complete and my parents happy with their purchase. My father went to work and my mother, sister and I left to visit my grandparents. However, according to the story told by our neighbors, about thirty minutes later, another mattress and box springs arrived with another friendly, uniformed deliveryman who left the items on our back porch. Later still, a third set arrived, this time delivered by the first, and rather puzzled, driver.

By late afternoon, when we returned home, the purchase of a single mattress and box springs set had blossomed into fourteen mattresses and box springs. Our back porch looked like a flophouse. The story was picked up by the local newspaper [Fourteen Mattresses Delivered: Area Family Baffled] and made us into minor celebrities for a day. Even with the publicity, it took about two weeks for everything to get straightened out and for the credit card agency to delete the charges for the thirteen extra mattress sets. Naturally, I enjoyed the entire experience. From having my elementary school classmates stop by the house to see what was rapidly becoming the ninth wonder of, if not the world, at least the east side of Cleveland, to savoring the endless possibilities for building forts and other obstacles of childhood fun when there are thirteen mattresses stacked up around the house.

I am reminded of this endless series of unexpected gifts as we have come to the end of our great expectations for Christmas and are beginning to, once again, settle into our routine practice. The trees and decorations begin to disappear; the presents are settled into drawers, toy chests, or armoire. Even our spiritual selves begin to return to normal, with the high expectations for Christmas replaced with the approaching and altered expectations of Lent.

Between those two seasons rests that of Epiphany. Epiphany is celebrated for a variety of reasons, not the least of which in recognition of how the gift of the Incarnation, presented to us during Christmas, continues to be received with an incrementally increasing bounty. We may have ordered our spiritual “mattress” for Christmas, and received that which we expected, but Epiphany is the season in which the gift, like that seemingly infinite series of mattresses and box springs, begins to develop and deliver. And, as with much that is spiritual, it is delivered whether we are ready or not.

In Epiphany, the Magi will arrive to present to Jesus gifts that reflect his task and its majesty; Jesus will also be named in the Temple in Jerusalem and receive the blessing of the priest Simeon, securing his role for the future. He will be baptized by John in the Jordan River and experience the Holy Spirit in its descent upon him. At a wedding in Cana, Jesus will perform his first miracle. Significantly, the miracle will be that of change. While his birth began the liberation of those who were to follow him, it is these events that enrich and refine his developing ministry and aid us in our continuing pilgrimage. While Jesus’ birth is that for which we waited and prepared, it is its unfolding realization that we celebrate in the season of Epiphany.

This, then, becomes the moment of our Epiphany, too, when we notice what has been delivered when we least expected it, often through humble and quiet circumstance. For, as James Joyce wrote, “The moment the focus is reached the object is epiphanised. It is just in this epiphany I find…the supreme quality of beauty.”