Nollaig na mBan
Texts: Isaiah 60, Matthew 2
Nollaig na mBan – “Women’s Christmas” – is a great Gaelic tradition. How will you take a Sabbath rest after the busyness of the season, at the beginning of a new year? Can you repent, and do less? I confessed that I use ‘the barrel’ on this ‘Low Sunday’, when ‘nobody ever comes, anyhow’. That’s what preachers call their collection of old used sermon notes – in my case, exposed online here.
At the turn of the century, I simply preached for people who had not read a bible and relied upon the nativity pageants and crèche scenes:
Not necessarily three
Not necessarily wise
Not necessarily men
In January 2001, I was quoting Peter Gomes, the Harvard chapel preacher (in head-to-head competition in the ‘naughties’ with Yale’ star, Cleophas J. LaRue):
We have a nodding acquaintance with bibles,
like that we often have with other people at church.
We’ve seen and heard them a fair bit,
and we can fumble and fake our way through a conversation
without admitting we don’t know their names, or much more about them
– but it’s rude to ask, here.
So taking the bible seriously, or at least showing it more courtesy, whilst rude to most of you about your willful ignorance, I reviewed the lessons briefly. First, however, I indulged a rant about spiritual disciplines. I pointed out the Tupperware containers of ‘leftovers’ from 2018 bible study CDs on every chair. My job was to equip the saints for your work of ministry: how’d we do in 2018?
While you couldn’t interrupt to tell me how you were too busy for such things, I reminded you that I had not demanded weekly worship attendance or donation envelopes on the plate last year, but had asked you to take 5 or 10 minutes a day, 30-60 minutes a week, to equip yourself, care for yourself, with some quotidian and hebdomadal Sabbath rhythms to equip and support your soul.
Eleanor read Isaiah 60: ‘Trito-Isaiah, third generation of the prophetic school in the bible book of Isaiah, or Isaiah 3.0’. Chapters 1-39 reflect an original prophet voice anticipating exile. Then 40-55 sound the ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ voice of a second generation in that school of thought and practice of piety, developed in exile in Babylon. Chapters 55-65 are realizing the end of exile, still in Babylon.
What would we do if we could do anything? Wait – we could do anything! We are such a privileged community, with education, economic security, relatively good health, and few demanding dependents, as a plurality of ‘child retirees’. Our congregation has too many gifts and assets, tempted to do everything, unable to choose something, and likely as a result to become nothing.
Imagine, if not only our scattered people, but all nations streamed to an ideal, holy city? Written from Babylon, imagining a guiding star over the homeland Judah and Jerusalem, Isaiah 60 visualizes a celestial cosmic GPS system. For some it says come north from Egypt, for others come west from Babylon. For most it’s a long trip, for a few it is close at hand – the message is contextual.
Isaiah 60 is not a tight fit for the ‘Jesus prediction’, which I have derided through Advent on Sundays and online with a reading of ‘The Twelve’, ‘Minor Prophets’. Coming home from Sheba in Africa, with only two of the three gifts of Matthew’s Magi, only approximate the shape of the vision. But what do we anticipate and seek in any generation, coming from any starting point?
don’t we anticipate it, and seek it still?
Bonnie read the Magi from Matthew 2: the Magi find and meet the child. They offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. This baby is worthy of all, as holy king (gold), holy priest (frankincense), and holy healer (myrrh). They were anticipating something good and true and beautiful before Jesus was born, and arrive before he says or does anything. What do you anticipate or seek now?
The Magi don’t convert to Judaism or Christianity. They remain Zoroastrians. Many Persians still practice that faith. I took this Sunday off last year for my nephew’s Zoroastrian wedding in Toronto. In York Region, Zoroastrians were active partners in our MOSAIC, sponsoring “Out of the Cold” locations in Jewish, Islamic, Roman Catholic and Protestant places of worship and community.
The Magi, the ‘other’, simply show by what they seek and what they offer that Jesus Christ is revelation or manifestation of God in realms of worldly, spiritual, and healing power - not excluded from any, nor limited to any. That was my quick Sunday school, youth group, and bible study summary for today. Who might be your Magi this year? How might you find Sabbath with their help?
Perhaps a bit more poetry and a bit less prose would help. Some of you caucused before worship, wondering what I’d be on about this time. One called me the ‘expert’, with ‘ex’ meaning has-been, and ‘spurt’ meaning leaking like broken plumbing. Others were clucking tongues like theatre reviewers of my performance which has not been to their taste for more than a year now.
Who now could tell this body of Christ who you are? For too long, I have echoed the modern poets of the last century. For them, Magi represented worldly sophisticates, and I quote one or the other most Epiphany Sundays:
T.S. Eliot: “Journey of the Magi”
W.B.Yeats: “The Magi”
W.H Auden: “For the Time Being”
Those are DWEEMS, all three of them. Dead White English-speaking European Males get too much airplay, and God knows we need more estrogen and melanin in those giving us voice here. I still think these are worth re-reading, like scripture, and I put them on your chairs with the leftover CD’s, and I post them at the end of these notes online.
However, you could anticipate and seek other voices, now and in this year to come of 2019, as we prepare to re-staff at Trinity. You will hear Jennifer Henry, the boss of KAIROS ecumenical social justice agency, on January 20 in joint worship with St Matthews. February 24, you get to hear Dr. Alydia Smith, editor of the UCC Lenten study “Everyday Skeptics: Devotions for Spiritual Growth”.
I begged you to treat them differently than you do your regular pastor: not like some ‘supply teacher’ giving me even more time off. What if you were not smug consumers and critics of religious products, but people who longed to be all that God still wanted you to be, to do all that God intended for you to do in 2019. What if these voices, like Magi, could help equip you, or support your Sabbaths?
Meanwhile, I offered you more poetry for this Nollaig na mBan, not DWEEMs, but very accessible voices from beyond our wee narrow subculture:
William Carlos Williams: “The Gift”
Langston Hughes: “On a Pallet of Straw” and “Wise Men”
Jane Yolen: “We Three Camels”
Brenda Shaughnessy: “Magi”
William Carlos Williams
Puerto Rican, d.1963 Rutherford N.J.)
As the wise men of old brought gifts
guided by a star
to the humble birthplace
of the god of love,
as an old print shows
retreated in confusion.
What could a baby know
of gold ornaments
or frankincense and myrrh,
of priestly robes
and devout genuflections?
But the imagination
knows all stories
before they are told
and knows the truth of this one
past all defection.
The rich gifts
so unsuitable for a child
though devoutly proffered,
stood for all that love can bring.
The men were old
how could they know
of a mother’s needs
of a child’s
But as they kneeled
the child was fed.
They saw it
and gave praise!
had taken place,
hard gold to love,
a mother’s milk!
their wondering eyes.
The ass brayed
the cattle lowed.
It was their nature.
All men by their nature give praise.
It is all
they can do.
The very devils
by their flight give praise.
What is death,
Nothing. The wise men
came with gift
and bowed down
Black, gay, b Mississippi, d Harlem NYC 1967
“On a Pallet of Straw”
They did not travel in an airplane,
They did not travel by car,
They did not travel on a streamline train,
They traveled on foot from afar,
They traveled on foot from afar.
They did not seek for a fine hotel,
They did not seek an inn,
They did not seek a bright motel,
They sought a cattle bin,
They sought a cattle bin.
Who were these travelers on the road?
And where were they going? And why?
They were Three Wise Men who came from the East,
And they followed a star in the sky,
A star in the sky.
What did they find when they got to the brn?
What did they find near the stall?
What did they find on a pallet of straw?
They found the Lord of all!
They found the Lord of all!
Let me become dead eyed / Like a fish –
I’m sure then I’d be wise
For all the wise men I’ve seen
Have had dead eyes.
Let me learn to fit all things / Into law and rule:
I’m be the proper person then
To teach a school.
b 1937 USA
“We Three Camels”
I carried a king,
But not the Child,
Through desert storms
And winds so wild
The sands crept into
But never did My king look back.
“Forward!” he cried,
“We follow the star,
We do not stop.”
So here we are.
I carried a king
But not the One,
Through searing heat
And blinding sun,
Through nights so cold
My nostrils froze,
And slaves wrapped cloths
About my toes.
But forward we went
Led by a star.
We did not stop,
So here we are.
I carried a king.
But not the Babe,
And also bozes
My packs were stuffed
With scents and spice,
The grandest ladies
No ladies saw we,
But only a star.
We did not stop.
So here we are.
b.1970, Japan, USA resident
“Magi” © 2012
If only you’d been a better mother.
How could I have been a better mother?
I would have needed a better self,
and that is a gift I never received.
So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?
The gift of having had a better mother myself,
my own mother having had a better mother herself.
The gift that keeps on not being given.
Who was supposed to give it?
How am I supposed to know?
Well, how am I supposed to live?
I suppose you must live as if you had been
given better to live with. Comb your hair, for instance.
I cut off my hair, to sell for the money
to buy you what you wanted.
I wanted nothing but your happiness.
I can’t give you that!
What would Jesus do?
He had a weird mother too . . .
Use the myrrh, the frankincense, as if
it were given unconditionally, your birthright.
It’s a riddle.
All gifts are a riddle, all lives are
in the middle of mother-lives.
But it’s always winter in this world.
There is no end to ending.
The season of giving, the season
when the bears are never cold,
because they are sleeping.
The bears are never cold, Mama,
but I am one cold, cold bear.
T.S.Eliot d. 1965
Journey of the Magi (1927)
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
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 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.
W.B. Yeats d 1939
Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.
W.H.Auden d. 1973
For the Time Being
“The Three Wise Men
The weather has been awful,
The countryside is dreary,
Marsh, jungle, rock; and echoes mock,
Calling our hope unlawful
But a silly song can help along
Yours ever and sincerely:
At least we know for certain
that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long,
that we want our dinners,
and miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
but have only the vaguest idea
why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.