It is snowing. In the English language we do not know anything about the ‘it’ that is snowing. It might be God. Maybe. Maybe not. Anyway. It. Is. Snowing.
Deep enough for the dog to disappear, ears reappearing like wings. Cars are mounds. Sounds are children, excitedly.
Let’s build a snowman!
Nicky and Jerry started rolling the snowball bigger and bigger and rounder and rounder. Soon they had a body bigger than either of them.
Do you think she’s too fat? Said Nicky.
How do you know she’s a she?
Well, I don’t until we put the clothes on her.
But you keep calling her her.
Because she’s fat.
Nicky’s mum came out with two mugs of hot chocolate.
Hey, he’s great!
He’s a she. Have we got any clothes for her?
Sure! Go and see what’s in the charity box.
Nicky ran inside, leaving her chocolate to steam.
Nicky’s mum was attractive. She was slim, with hair colored three kinds of blonde. She smiled at Jerry.
How’s your mum, Jerry; is she OK?
Jerry nodded. Her mum had to work hard and she had to work nights at a hotel. Sometimes she drank too much and passed out. Jerry’s dad had left them last year, just before Christmas, and he hadn’t come back.
Why don’t you sleep over tonight? Nicky would love that.
I’ll ask, said Jerry.
You can call, said Nicky’s mum, but Jerry couldn’t call because her mum’s phone had been cut off. But she didn’t want to say that; instead she said, I’ll run over later and ask.
As her mother went indoors, Nicky came back out with an armful of clothes, and they dressed the SnowWoman. She needs eyes, Jerry said. Give me your bracelet. Those green stones – those can be her eyes.
What are you doing? That’s my bracelet!
But Jerry wasn’t listening. She broke the bracelet and fixed the SnowWoman with great green staring eyes.
She looks real now, said Nicky.
It wasn’t long before Nicky’s mother called out from the kitchen door, Jerry, go and see your mother now if you’re coming back later!
Jerry ran off, promising the SnowWoman, and Nicky, that she would come right back. But when Jerry got home, her mother wasn’t there. The house was dark. Sometimes the electricity got cut off. So she went to the store where her mother worked.
You lookin for your ma? Asked Mr. Store, who ran the store called Store’s Store. She’s not here. She went out and didn’t come back – what’s new?
Mr. Store was horrible. He had a horrible face and a horrible stare and horrible pair of brown overalls and a horrible, mean temper. Mr. Store turned and walked away.
Jerry lingered as night fell. Lights came on in the windows of houses. People sat down to eat. They watched TV. They said something to someone else. Jerry waited, and she thought about the SnowWoman, tall and bigger than anyone. Her mother stayed gone. So she walked back to Nicky’s house.
Jerry broke into a run when she saw the house, all lit up. But as she reached the gate, the lights went out, just like that.
Jerry was suddenly scared and tired and not knowing. Jerry turned from the dark house toward the garden, and she saw the SnowMama looking at her with two bright green jewel eyes.
I wish you were alive, said Jerry.
A live what? Said the SnowMama. A live cat? A live circus?
Did you just speak, said Jerry doubtfully?
I did, said the SnowMama.
Are you really alive?
Watch this, said the SnowMama, and skipped a bit sideways. Not bad for no legs. That’s the way you fixed it.
I’m sorry, said Jerry, I didn’t know how to do legs.
Don’t beat yourself up about things you can’t change. You did your best. Anyway, I can glide. Come on! Let’s go for a glide!
Jerry and the SnowMama left the garden and set off down the road.
Where are we going? Jerry asked.
To find the others, the SnowMama answered.
Soon the two of them were speeding down the street, past the school and the post office, past the garage and the factory, until they came to City Park.
All day long, children had built SnowMen, and now all the children had gone home, and the SnowMen were still there.
Then Jerry saw that some of the SnowMen were moving slowly. When Jerry and the SnowMama moved closer, one of them took off his porkpie hat and said, Welcome – I hope you’ll stay for the barbeque. The weather’s perfect.
Jerry stood there, stunned.
Let me take you on a tour, the SnowMama said to Jerry. I can see this is all a little new to you.
Isn’t it new to you, Jerry asked? I only made you this morning.
That’s part of the mystery of history, said the SnowMama. I was not. I am. I will not be. I will be.
That was deep for Jerry, like the snow around her, and so the SnowMama sat her down, and explained.
Every year the snow falls, and children build snowmen. Grown ups think the SnowPeople are just snow, but children know better. They whisper to us and tell us their secrets. They sit down on the ground and pull up their knees and lean their backs against us when they are sad. They love us, and so we come alive.
Look around the park. You see how many SnowPeople there are? Every year we meet again, because once we come alive, we live forever. You see us melt, and we do, but that’s us moving on, to the next place where it snows. And when the children roll the snow, there we are again.
Jerry thought about this….But if you melt…
The SnowMama held up her hand in pause…
You can’t melt our souls. Every SnowPerson has a soul, and the soul goes on through time and space and frost and ice. You’ll find us waiting in white clouds to begin again. When the snow falls, we’re not far behind.
Jerry looked at a SnowPerson sitting nearby, not moving. What about this one she asked? Why isn’t he saying something?
He will never say anything. He’s just snow, not a SnowMan. A grown up made him, didn’t believe in him, and didn’t love him. So he didn’t live.
Jerry said, My friend Nicky didn’t love you. She thought you were too fat.
I am just right, said the SnowMama, and you loved me, and so I was waiting for you in the garden.
What if I hadn’t come back? Said Jerry.
I knew you would, said the SnowMama. Love always comes back.
They joined the barbeque for a while, and Jerry laughed and danced with all the SnowPeople. But soon she tired, and found her way to the SnowMama.
Will you melt? Said Jerry.
Yes, I will.
I don’t want you to melt.
You know what I’m thinking? Said the SnowMama. I’m thinking we should get you home. And the SnowMama picked Jerry up, and they glided home, to Jerry’s street, and to Jerry’s house, where the lights were still off.
Here, said the SnowMama, let me open the door. I can freeze the lock open.
Inside, the house was cold and empty. There were dishes piled in the sink and on the counter. The floor was dirty. There was a Christmas tree in the corner of the room, but it had no decorations.
My dad left last Christmas, said Jerry. I think my mum’s upset.
Let’s clean it up together, said the SnowMama. You start with the dishes. I’ll wash the floors.
And so they did. Soon, the SnowMama said, You see to the beds. I’ll be back very soon.
It seemed like no time had passed at all when the SnowMama walked back through the door, pushing a shopping cart loaded with fruit and coffee and cake and vegetables, and bacon and eggs and milk and bread and turkey. The SnowMama was grinning.
I broke into Store’s Stores, she said.
But that’s stealing!
Yes, it is.
But that’s wrong.
So is a child with nothing to eat. Here…and the SnowMama set to work heating some milk and making some toast for Jerry. After Jerry had finished, the SnowMama said, I have to go now. You can see me tomorrow in Nicky’s garden.
I don’t want you to go, said Jerry.
I need to be in the cold. Big goodnight. I love you.
Jerry jumped up on a chair and kissed the SnowMama goodnight. She felt a little bit of snow melt in her mouth.
The next day Jerry woke up hearing the front door open. She jumped out of bed. Her mother had come home. She looked tired and defeated. She didn’t notice the beautiful, clean kitchen or the sparkly windows or the warm, happy feeling of the house. Jerry put some bread in the toaster. It’s nearly Christmas, she said.
I know, said her mother. I’ll get you a present, I promise. We’ll decorate the tree together. I just need to get some sleep….I….she stood up, went into the bedroom, came back out again. Did you clean everything? I’ve never seen it look like this.
I washed it all. And there’s food. Look!
Jerry’s mother looked in the fridge and in the cupboards. Where did you get the money for all this food?
The SnowMama did it.
Is she, like, a charity? For Christmas?
Yes, said Jerry.
Jerry’s mother looked nearly like her old self before Jerry’s dad had left. I can’t believe someone has helped us – been kind to us. Did she leave a number?
Jerry shook her head.
Her mother looked again at everything in the house. This is like a miracle, Jerry! Go out and play, and when you come back I’ll have made dinner, like I always did.
Jerry ran round to Nicky’s house. She ran up to the SnowMama. But nothing happened. The SnowMama was still as a statue. Jerry waited and waited, colder and colder. She walked through the park, and saw all the SnowMen, still there, but not moving. So she walked home. When she opened the door to her house, delicious smells filled the air. There were carols playing on the radio. Her mother had made a lasagna. And she was filled with life, and with plans. I’ll get a different job – no more nights. We’ll keep this place nice. Just somebody helping us has made a difference. Do you know that?
That night Jerry’s mother had to go back to her job, but it didn’t seem so sad or hard as before. When she was alone in the house once again, Jerry heard a tap-tapping at the window. It was the SnowMama.
It’s so warm in there now, I can’t come in, said the SnowMama. But I brought you these decorations to put on your tree.
Why didn’t you talk to me when I was at Nicky’s, Jerry asked? I waited and waited, and you were just snow.
It’s a mystery, said the SnowMama. How is your mother today?
She was happy today, said Jerry. And she made a lasagna.
You have to look after each other, said the SnowMama. If not, you’ll both be sad and cold, even in the summer.
Parents are supposed to look after their children, said Jerry.
Life is as it is, said the SnowMama.
Can you come and live with us? Jerry asked the SnowMama.
The SnowMama’s eyes flashed green in the light. Then everyone would know what we know – and that can’t happen, because everyone has to learn it for themselves.
Learn what, asked Jerry?
That love is a mystery, and that love is the mystery that makes things happen.
That night Jerry slept the whole night in a bed of softness and a million falling stars. She woke when she heard her mother come home, and she decided that she had to introduce her mother to the SnowMama.
She ran to Nicky’s, but the weather was changing. Already there was rain and the snow was softening and the roofs were shedding great slabs of snow.
When she got to Nicky’s, she found a car parked in the place the SnowMama had been. All that remained were the two emerald eyes, lying on the ground. Jerry began to sob uncontrollably. She ran to the park, and found the SnowMen melted there as well. They had all moved on.
She went home. When she woke up, Jerry tried to explain the SnowMama to her mother, but she didn’t understand. But she did understand that Jerry was upset, and so she held her close, and promised that their lives would be different now. There would be food, and warmth, and clean clothes, and time. I won’t be drinking. I won’t leave you alone. I won’t be depressed, she said to Jerry, and though these things are easier to say than to do, Jerry’s mother kept her promise, and there was never another cold and hungry Christmas.
Jerry grew up. Over the years she built the SnowMama again and again, but she never came alive. In time, she had her own children, and they grew to love the story of the SnowMama, even though they had never seen her.
And then, on a Christmas Eve, after the kids were in bed, Jerry went to turn off the lights. For some reason, she pulled on her boots and went outside, to see the three SnowPeople her kids had built. She studied the snowflakes around her, marveling that life could be so multiple, unexpected, ordinary, and utterly miraculous.
It’s like love, she said out loud.
And a voice she knew replied. Love always comes back.
There was the SnowMama. Standing in the garden.
It’s you, said Jerry!
Always, said the SnowMama.
But all these years…where have you been?
It’s a mystery….
I’ll tell the kids – they know all about you!
Not tonight, said the SnowMama. Maybe one day, but not tonight. I just wanted to see you again. I always hoped I would.
It worked out, said Jerry.
I know, said the SnowMama. Sometimes a little bit of help is all we need.
Don’t go, cried Jerry, as the SnowMama began to spin away.
I’ll keep an eye on you, said the SnowMama. And who knows what the future will bring.
And away she went, gliding as silent as the stars. A million million stars, like the falling snow, like falling prayers.
I’ve chosen this line of work, strange though it is, because I believe in SnowMamas. I believe in that to which we can whisper our secrets, that which we can lean against when we are sad. I believe in mysteries too deep and too true to be explained by rational thought, and I believe in a presence that simply is – that comes, that goes, but that is, and that somehow comes to life within the objects we live with. I believe that sometimes a little help is all we need, and I believe that love always returns.
I recognize a piece of myself in the little girl Jerry, and maybe you do too – a little lost, a little abandoned, a little sad. And I recognize the gracious presence that binds up a young broken heart, one that helps a promise to be kept, one that helps a wound to heal. It’s the very story of the gospel that Winterson gives us, in refracted form, a form that helps us to hear it and feel it all anew. There is a magic and a power that only those who are a little lost can discern, that only those who are a little lonely can discover. But once you do, it’s a story that bears telling and retelling over and over again, the way Jerry does with her children, and the way we do with ours. We tell the story of a loving presence that comes, that goes, and that comes to be within us. We tell it until that love returns.
You can read a story a hundred times. You can hear it told over and over, year after year, and still miss a detail that, after the hundred and first time, suddenly leaps out at you. That’s what happened to me earlier this season, when I reread the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, announcing that she would bear a child named Jesus. We fixate on the angel, or the young woman receiving the announcement, or the issue of the virgin birth, or the child she will bear, all of them worthy of consideration. But this year it was the greeting that leapt out at me. It was the way Gabriel addresses Mary. “Greetings, favored one,” the text says. In Greek, it’s, “Chaire kecharitomene,” chaire being the greeting, and Kecharitomene being the name by which Mary is addressed. It’s a word, a name, found nowhere else in the New Testament, and indeed, nowhere else in all of Greek literature. It’s particular to Mary, particular to the moment in which she finds herself. Our Catholic friends might know that the word means “full of grace,” and indeed, that’s something of what it conveys. But insofar as the name is singular, found nowhere else, it’s meaning is bottomless. We can look up the meaning of “Mary,” or “Steve” or “Carleen” or “Joan,” and find a reasonably sure etymology of the word. Kecharitomene belongs to Mary alone in her singularity, and while we can parse its meaning as best we can, it is untranslatable, because it belongs to her alone. The events that follow, from a mysterious pregnancy to a troubled birth, from political exile through her son’s public ministry, and later, his trial and death, would be enough to undo most people. I wonder if something about the encounter with the angel, and being given a new name, carried Mary through those moments, helping her to recall her deepest and best self. I wonder if her new name, Kecharitomene, was one of things she pondered in her heart.
Were we to read this story with our Lakota friends out in South Dakota, they would likely have an immediate understanding of what is taking place in this encounter. It’s a naming ceremony, a moment in which Mary is given a spirit name. It’s an honorific name that somehow captures the fullness of who she is, a fullness hidden until that moment even to her. It’s something that traditional and indigenous cultures often practice, whereby in a ritual or ceremonial moment, individuals are given names that convey both who they are in all of their singularity and individuality, as well as who they might yet become. Our Lakota friends refer to it as a spirit name, which for them, is far more important than their legal name given at birth. To undergo a naming ceremony is to undergo a kind of second birth, a rebirth. There’s often suspense and anticipation when the new name is given. And tears are often shed after the spirit name is offered. “You are ‘Takoda,’” friend to everyone, someone might hear. “You are ‘Napayshni,’” the courageous one, another might discover. “You are “Kecharitomene,” is what Mary hears in her own ceremonial moment with the angel.
Thinking about Mary’s encounter with the angel led me to meditate on names and the power of identity – the ambiguity of names, the grace of new names, the violence and control that are sometimes implied in names. We’re given names at birth by our parents, and often, though not always, we grow into those names, so that I can’t imagine being called “John” rather than “Steve.” But as we travel through life, we come to have names attached to us, names that confer an identity upon us that may or may not be welcome. It happens all the time. Sometimes it has to do with vocation – you’re Jacob the baker or Monica the teacher or Edward the lawyer. Sometimes it has to do with something you’ve done, or that has befallen you. You’re the one that experienced this or that tragedy, the one who committed this or that transgression, the one who made this or that painful mistake. Sometimes life itself names you – as an illegal resident, say, or as a convicted felon. It’s hard to escape such a name. Names such as those are branded on you, the way 24601 was branded onto the forearm of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. Those are naming ceremonies that have an insidious effect on our souls.
Biblical writers and theologians have thought carefully about the vagaries of names throughout the centuries. There’s a skepticism about proper names throughout the Bible that’s worth thinking about, and perhaps heeding. In the book of Exodus, when Moses encounters God in the burning bush, Moses inquires with whom he is speaking. “I am,” comes the response, as if to say, “I am that which cannot be named, who should not be named. I simply am.” Throughout the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures, God is never given a proper name, instead being designated by four letters YHWH, or by titles, such as lord, almighty, the holy one, etc. The insight behind that practice is that God is a reality that must not be named, for to affix a name is to define and control and limit a reality that cannot, finally, be controlled or defined. And so the word “God” becomes a placeholder, a designation for that which overflows proper names, for that which spills over, exceeds, and outstrips the capacities of language to contain it.
That fundamental insight from the Hebrew Scriptures is what led a whole tradition of mystical theologians to develop what gets called “Negative Theology,” or “Apophatic Theology.” Now, I’m going to get abstract for a little bit, but stay with me – this is important, and I’m going somewhere, I promise. Straight theology, so called “positive theology” trusts the capacities of language, at least up to a point, and so feels confident enough saying “God is this, God means that,” and so forth. Negative theology does the reverse. It operates by saying, “Whatever you say or think of God, that is what God is not. If you can say it, or think it, then it cannot be God, because speech and thought are finite capacities, and God is infinite. God exceeds the designation of every name, slipping and eluding those names. That’s what led the great medieval theologian Meister Eckhart to offer his famous prayer: “I pray God to rid me of God,” which is to say, “I pray to that which I cannot name to rid me of that idol, that reduction, which attempts to place boundaries around whatever it finally is that we name “God.”
But if that’s true of God, might it not also be true of you, and of me? If sometimes it’s necessary to have a negative theology as applied to God, might we also require a negative anthropology, applied to us? Isn’t there something bottomless, something unfathomable, something dimensionless about your heart, your soul, your being, and mine? Isn’t there something within us that always eludes our proper names and whatever qualities might be ascribed to us? Isn’t there something within you, within me, that exceeds the names given to us, that exists as so much more than can be understood or articulated about us? Is there not a reduction that comes when we’re assigned names by our culture? That’s been especially true in this moment of identity politics, when it’s become all too tempting to treat each other according to real, but also superficial designations – as white people, or as black people, as straight folks, or as gay or lesbian or transgendered folks, as Christians, as Muslims, or as atheists, as affluent, as poor, as educated, as uninformed, as Republicans, as Democrats, or, as I heard about myself recently, as a “Commie.” We may or may not be those things, but is there not also something within each of us that screams out “But that’s not who I am. That’s not all that I am.” Perhaps we require a negative theology of the soul, where we might say, alongside the medieval theologians, “if the politicos and lobbyists say I’m this, that’s what I’m not.” Perhaps we need a way to twist free of the names and designations with which we’ve been saddled, in the name of preserving our interior freedom. Maybe from time to time we could all benefit from being offered a new name, one infused with grace and understanding, one that speaks into the best of who we are and wish to be.
Most young people know about the casual naming ceremonies that occur in the hallways of high schools, or junior highs, or even elementary schools. They know, better than many of us, what it is to be boxed in by a name, by an identity that they did not choose. For a young person, there’s often no more painful experience than to be labeled – she’s just a theater kid. He’s just a jock. She’s just a book nerd. He’s just a computer geek. There’s such a violence, such confinement, built into that tiny phrase “just a…” Young people, like everyone who experiences such casual naming ceremonies, rightfully rebel inside, often insisting that “I’m not just a….I am so much more. So much more than you can see, so much more than you can understand, so much more than anyone gives me credit for. I’m not just a….”
Over Thanksgiving I had the pleasure of listening to R.J. Pallacio’s outstanding and beautiful novel for young people, called Wonder, which was recently adapted for film. It’s about a boy named Auggie Pullman, who, because of a strange gene mutation, was born with a terribly disfigured face. He’s like every other kid his age, save for the fact that when people first see him, they invariably grimace, or do a double take, or move to avoid him. Auggie’s parents have tried to shield him from the cruelty of others by homeschooling him, but by 5th grade, it’s clear that if Auggie’s education will proceed, he’ll have to begin attending school. What follows is a kind of meditation on the terror and anxiety of the casual naming ceremonies that young folks so often perform on one another. Auggie is labeled a freak by his classmates. He’s called deformed. But often the names are more specific: Rat Boy. Monster. Freddy Krueger. E.T. Gross-out. Lizard Face. Auggie bears it – sometimes with a practiced stoicism, sometimes with anger and frustration, sometimes with pained confusion. But over the course of the year, Auggie manages to win over his classmates with his humor, and with his spirit. I think the reason for that is revealed in the final line of the novel, when Auggie’s mother, a fierce, protective, smart, and above all, loving woman, looks upon her son and marvels: “Auggie, you are a wonder,” she says. I believe that the final line of the novel is another kind of naming ceremony. And it’s something that Auggie had been hearing about himself his entire life, spoken with tenderness and love by his mother, but indeed, by his entire family. “Wonder” stands as something far more than a quality. It is a name that somehow managed to carry Auggie Pullman through some of the most trying moments of his young life. Like Mary’s new name in the gospel of Luke, it’s a name that proves to be stronger than any name the other fifth graders can hurl at him.
This past Tuesday, Lina Tuck and I accompanied a Guatemalan friend named Guisela to the courthouse in Hartford, for her immigration hearing. The hearing went OK, but as we stood outside the courthouse waiting to get in, our attention was drawn to a demonstration occurring in the plaza in front of the courthouse. A man named Mariano Cardoso had a deportation date, and a small crowd had gathered to draw attention to his case. At one point, Mariano stood with his daughter, who turned toward the courthouse and said loudly: “This is my father. This is my dad. Don’t take him away from me.” It was a powerful kind of naming ceremony, where Mariano’s daughter refused the names that had been affixed to her father – an illegal, an immigrant, a foreigner, an undocumented worker – reminding any who would listen of Mariano’s deeper identity as a human being, a man with two sons and a daughter who were already grieving his absence. Lina, Giusela, and I looked on in tears as Mariano’s daughter reminded us all of an identity far deeper and truer than any of the designations that had been attached to Mariano through his ordeal.
Little did I know that two days later, Mariano would arrive in Old Lyme, to take up residency in our church. He and his son spent the night here on Thursday, and then waited most of Friday to learn if Mariano would be forced to stay. Throughout the day, we witnessed a man who was under unimaginable pressure exhibit gentleness and grace and dignity, as he wondered if the courts would decide favorably. And then at 3:01 in the afternoon, a stay was issued by the courts. You should have seen Mariano smile when he learned the news. I wish you could have been there when his family came rushing to Old Lyme shortly after that, to celebrate with him. When they all stood in front of the Meetinghouse during the press conference, it was yet another naming ceremony that was taking place. Mariano was not “just an immigrant,” “just an illegal resident,” or any of the other “just a’s….” that could be attached to him. He was a man surrounded by a family who loved him, who needed him, who fought for him. He was, and is, a man beloved and adored by those around him. Standing before the cameras was a visible reminder of the deep humanity of Mariano and indeed, of his whole family. But it was also a reminder to each of us to remember our own deep humanity during a time that threatens to dehumanize us all. It was a naming ceremony for Mariano, but I believe it was also a naming ceremony for everyone who witnessed it, whether in person or from afar.
There are times when it’s necessary to resist the names that are affixed to each one of us, insisting that we’re so much more than a reductive designation. But there are also times that we need more than simple negation. We need spirit names that call forth the deepest and best parts of who we are. I believe the moment in which the angel offered Mary a new name isn’t necessarily particular to Mary. Instead, I’ve come to think that in one way or another, in one guise or another, the angel comes to each of us, providing a name that reaches into the core of our being, a name we can carry with us through the depths of hell if we must. “You are a wonder,” Auggie Pullman’s mother tells him. “You are a beloved father,” Mariano’s family tells him. “You are Kecharitomene, overflowing with grace,” the angel tells Mary.
Throughout the coming days, as we approach the manger yet again, I hope you spend time reflecting about your own spirit name. There’s something within each of us that longs for such a name, that cries out to the angels around us: “Tell us our names.” We require names that enable us to adore our own humanity, which allows us to adore the humanity of others as well. “Tell us our names,” we say to the angel. How does the angel reply to you?
 An idea I encountered from Kathleen Norris, “Annunciation,” found in Watch for the Light (Farmington: Plough Publishing House, 2001), pg. 48.
“This is my quest; to follow that star; no matter how hopeless; no matter how far.” Those are the words that Don Quixote sings in the musical Man of La Mancha, words that I’m grateful we were able to hear from Brian Cheney and Simon. The musical is very loosely based on the great novel by Cervantes, which I spent much of the summer and fall reading. It’s a novel about the wisdom of folly, and the folly of the so-called wise. You likely know the story, or at least a version of it. Alonso Quixano is an aging landowner in early 17th century Spain, and he reads so many novels that he loses his sanity, thereafter assuming the name of Don Quixote of La Mancha and riding into the countryside on his emaciated horse Rocinante, along with his faithful squire Sancho Panza, in order to renew the tradition of courtly love and honor and to set to right the injustices of the age. Comic misunderstandings abound, and Don Quixote’s family and friends conspire to trap him and bring him back home, a place that, for the Don, bears all the features of a prison. Three times he breaks free and ventures into the countryside on adventures, dreaming his impossible dreams, following his unreachable star.
Quixote has been on my mind, and so it’s no surprise that when we entered the season of Advent, and as I began to think about the characters surrounding the Christmas story, the wise men took on shades of folly akin to Quixote that I haven’t been able to shake. You’ll notice on our communion table two sets of statues – on one side we have Quixote and Sancho Panza, and on the other we have the wise men, stories that I’ll be running together this morning. To follow that star, no matter how hopeless, no matter how far – are those not words that could just as easily describe the mad journey of the wise men, guided by a star toward the Bethlehem event? They’re deemed “wise” in Matthew’s text, the only Gospel in which they appear, and generations of Christmas hymnody and pageantry and iconography have given the impression of three sage men, who alone discerned the stars correctly. A closer examination reveals characters who may have been closer to Quixote than not, closer to folly than what usually passes for wisdom. While the appearance of the wise men usually comes after the birth of Christ, it’s their mad quest, born of an impossible dream, that I’d like to think about this morning. That journey, that quest, yields several insights that are valuable on our own journey toward Bethlehem this Advent season.
Who were those ancient sages, and where did they come from? Matthew’s text gives us precious few clues. Tradition tells us that there were three. It’s true that three gifts are mentioned, but Matthew’s story doesn’t specify the number of travelers on that journey. There could have been two, or three, or twenty for all we know. Tradition tells us that they were from Persia, where present day Iran is located, and that their practice of consulting the stars marked them as ancient Zoroastrians. Perhaps, but the text says only that they came from the East, and were magi, or astrologers. Nevertheless, they came. They set out. That basic truth constitutes the first important insight we can draw from these old astrologers. They discerned a message in the stars, and it proved compelling enough to load up their pack animals, to kiss their wives goodbye, and to set out on a perilous journey across deserts and through villages where God only knows what dangers awaited. Were they ridiculed when they set about making their plans? What did they tell their children about what they were doing? How did they explain their quest? Perhaps a few in their community understood their reasoning, but a more likely refrain might have been: “What difference would it even make, even if you are reading the stars aright, even if something is poised to take place, what difference could it possibly make to travel thousands of miles just to see something?” Perhaps they discerned something true in the stars, the way Quixote discerned something true in his books of chivalry, but that no more made it necessary to launch an expensive and arduous journey than discerning the motion of the planets makes it necessary to travel to the moon.
Soren Kierkegaard wrote about the difference between the wise men, and the scribes mentioned later in the story, after the travelers have entered the courts of Herod. Kierkegaard notes that it’s movementand motion that set the wise men apart from the scribes, for while the court scholars could explain where the Messiah was to be born, they remained quite nonplussed there in Jerusalem. Though Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only several miles apart, the scribes stay put, while the magi continue on. “The scribes were much better informed, much better versed,” Kierkegaard writes. “They sat and studied the Scriptures like so many tenured professors, but it did not make them move. So too, he says, “we may know the whole of Christianity, yet make no movement. The power that moved heaven and earth leaves us completely unmoved.”
Which one are you – a scribe, or a magi? What earthly difference does this rumor of divinity in the hay make to you? Is it, as so many Hallmark cards have it, just a pleasant reminder to be nice, or kind, or compassionate, or does it involve something more, something that unhouses us, sending us into the desert on a mad quest whose outcome is far from certain? Does this rumor impel us toward motion, or is it the kind of thing that we know, while never letting it interrupt our just-so-orderly lives?
But let’s confront another important feature of the story. Matthew’s text is very specific about placing the birth within history. What’s more, the text places it within political history. “In the time of King Herod,” the passage begins, which is a way of conveying what sort of world Jesus was entering, and what sort of world the wise men, those ancient Quixotes, were visiting. We know some things about Herod, that he had ordered two of his sons to be strangled on suspicion of conspiracy, for example, and that he had ordered one of his wives killed. We know that around the time of Jesus’ birth, some three hundred public servants were executed, again, for suspicion of conspiracy. Matthew’s text confirms that cruelty in the story of the slaughter of the innocents, when children under the age of two are killed because of Herod’s raging paranoia. The point, however, is this: when Matthew introduces his story by telling us that it took place during the time of King Herod, he’s introducing politics into his story, telling us that Jesus was born in a time of political repression and terror. Everything that follows in the text, from Jesus’s public ministry through the events of Holy Week, is set against that backdrop. Even so, note that it doesn’t deter the wise men. They journey toward the star, even as it leads them directly toward a scene of tension and conflict.
Last week I listened to a radio program on NPR about the tax bill, and how portions of it allowed religious institutions to engage in direct political action, without jeopardizing their tax exempt status. Most of the listeners were rightly concerned about that development, and they argued, again, quite rightly, about the separation of church and state in our country. But I was stunned by the simplicity of the assumptions about those twin realities, religion and politics. Without exception, those listeners ceded any kind of public moral dimension to religion, arguing that religion ought to be a private matter of the heart. So too, politics was imagined only along the lines of electoral gains and losses, rather than a long conversation about how we organize our lives together. No one seemed to remember the biblical and theological foundations of the civil rights movement, of how that movement took shape in churches. No one recalled the social gospel movement of the early 20th century, or the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th century, both of which found their origins in a reading of the gospels. No one mentioned the biblical foundations of the abolitionist movement, or the fact that much of the impetus toward those reforms came from the pulpit. And no one, but no one, noticed that the story of Jesus told in this season is couched in explicitly political terms: “A decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered,” Luke’s Christmas story begins. “In the time of King Herod” is how Matthew begins his narrative. A star shines and a child of hope is born precisely into that drama and not outside of it, within the public sphere, and not simply in the private recesses of the heart. “The time of King Herod” is the world the wise men choose to enter.
Even so, we shouldn’t miss another crucial nuance about those ancient Quixotes, those half mad astrologers tracking that star across the whole of the Middle East. The detail is this: by the time they arrive in Jerusalem, the trail has gone cold, and the star has ceased to shine. And it’s here that the wise men make a terrible error. In the absence of GPS devices or gas stations from which they might seek direction, they show up at Herod’s palace, reasoning that if a king is to be born, surely it would occur in such a place. Later in the story, the star reappears, helping them to locate their hope not in the palace of the king, but among a poor peasant community outside the city. But how should we understand the star’s disappearance? Was there something within the magi that clouded its presence? Were they prone to place their hope and trust in palaces? Were they tempted, the way many religious folk in our day are tempted, by the blandishments of political power? We can’t say, except to note that something clouded their vision, leading them to enter Herod’s palace, inquire after the new king, and set in motion a chain of events that the magi couldn’t have foreseen. Those events include the murder of the city’s children, and Mary, Joseph, and Jesus’s refugee status in Egypt, forced as they are to flee the terror. And it’s all caused by the wise men, who prove to be less than wise in that particular moment. There are grave consequences, sometimes, when we lose sight of our guiding star. The wise men learn that even if their hope has a public dimension, it doesn’t reside within palaces. It’s only after they depart the palace, training their attention away from it, that the star reappears, guiding them toward their ultimate destination at the manger. It’s a lesson for all of us who care about public affairs. If we are looking for hope, we must remember that it is not found primarily in kings, presidents, and prime ministers, but rather in villages, ghettos, favelas, and barrios, far outside the capitols and centers of finance. The star leads to a peasant village, not a palace mansion.
By the story’s end, after some twists and some fateful turns, the wise men do find the child, the source of their hope. They do pay him homage, and they deposit their gifts, frankincense, gold, and myrrh. They sense his greatness, but they also sense his end. The gift of myrrh indicates that apprehension of death, for it was a resin used for embalming bodies. They sense it all, they take it all in, and then they return home, as the text tells us, “by another road,” having consulted not the stars, but their dreams. What becomes of those ancient astrologers when the story has concluded? How does chasing the star change them? What’s it like to encounter a revelation, a god incarnate, but then to have to return home?
T.S. Eliot imagines the return in his poem “The Journey of the Magi.” It’s narrated from the perspective of one of the magi, and it concludes this way: “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. We returned to our places, these Kingdoms, But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, With an alien people clutching their gods. I should be glad of another death.”
I don’t understand Eliot’s words as a wish for the termination of life, as if encountering Jesus had somehow elicited a depressive and suicidal impulse within the magi. I understand the “other death” for which the magi would be glad to be that within him that hinders the fullness of life that he experienced at the manger, that which diminishes and prevents a life of flourishing, that which still clings to the appurtenances of power evidenced in their encounter with Herod. I understand the “other death,” for which he longs, to be that within him which veers toward despair, or nihilism, or lassitude. I understand it as a wish to return, again and again, to the scene of the manger, as we each of us do year by year, to be reminded of that hope born in a donkey’s stall. The Scriptures don’t tell it, but I like to imagine that perhaps one day, those old magi ventured forth again, returning to find the lowly one they had once worshiped, entering the new dispensation once and for all.
And what of you, and me? It turns out that the saga of those ancient wise men, those old Quixotes, is a story about each one of us. Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to mount our Rocinantes, to saddle up our pack animals, and to ride forth? Aren’t we all called, each in our own way, to dream impossible dreams and to follow unreachable stars as those astrologers of old? It’s a story about what it means to be set in motion, rather than simply remaining at home with all of our insights and knowledge. It’s a story of what it means to be guided by a rumor, a fleeting sign, a flimsy and impossible dream, one that cannot help but seem foolish to the respectable, but that might be more true than all of the good sense and learning and common wisdom that the world has ever known. It’s a story about what it means to lose our way from time to time, and to wind up in the wrong company. And it’s a story of what it means to live in the in between, having glimpsed a reality that is too good not to be true, even while being forced to take up residence within the old dispensation. We know what it means to live in the old dispensation. And we also know what it means to come to the manger year by year, and to pay homage to the birth of this child of hope called the Christ. And yet the world grinds on. A shooter takes aim. Powerful men consider women their prey. Jerusalem becomes a bargaining chip for yet another palace ruler. Refugees shiver as winter sets in, and the impossible dreams of another year seem just that – impossible. We know what it means to live in the old dispensation.
And yet the star still shines. It still beckons and calls and lures and prods us out of our stasis and into movement. The star still calls forth the Quixotes and the wise men and women alike in each one of us, asking us to dream impossible dreams. The star disappears from time to time, it’s true, and we do lose our way, but I believe it’s there still, if only we’d notice, waiting to lead us to the manger, waiting to shake us free of the old dispensation that weighs upon our souls and shackles our feet. It waits, to set us in motion, this impossible dream, this unreachable star.
 Soren Kierkegaard, as found in the book Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Farmington: Plough Publishing, 2001), pgs. 288-289.
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