Old Dispensations

Yesterday, as I prepared our biweekly church newsletter, I found myself returning to “Journey of the Magi,” the poem by TS Eliot I first read when I was 20 and still have read at least once yearly for 40 years. Today, the description of life for the Magi when they returned to their own homes is especially poignant as I reflect on the Christmas season ending today. 

It wasn’t that hard to fall into the old rhythms of planning and preparing for Christmas. One of my deepest joys as a priest right now is my partnership with Randy Foster, organist-choir director at Holy Comforter. It has opened an especially commodious and grace-filled space to explore ways in which liturgy and music go deep, help our congregation find its place in the presence of the mystery of God. That has not changed. The pandemic has not undone the delight I find as we prepare for worship during Advent and Christmas. 

At home, I did a lot more cooking, decorating, wrapping, preparing, than I’ve done in years. The work was all about connective tissue; how, after so much isolation, I needed to remember I am connected to my past, to our little homestead, to my parish, my friends, my family. All of that was meaningful. I also never stopped feeling uneasy.

Today, I am taking a day of ‘in place retreat’ here at the farm. Jan Richardson, a woman whose wisdom I cherish, publishes resources for a “Women’s Christmas Retreat” each year.” It was from her that I learned that in Ireland and other places, the 12th day of Christmas is an opportunity for women to celebrate and regather themselves for the start of a new year.  If you are interested in this resource, rich with reflections, poetry and provocative questions, check out this link

I’m trying make sense of the uneasiness I could not shake off all season. I see some bits more clearly. Sherod and I give each other very, very few gifts these days. Others are so very generous. On Christmas day, after we had opened all the gifts, I was overwhelmed by the number of gift bags, paper, and ribbon I gathered up. I have folded as much of it as I could, will recycle it next year but that will still leave me with way more than I need in the foreseeable future. It isn’t about being an ingrate. In this age when the earth is suffering to the point of death from our excesses, how might we show love and generosity in new ways? How do we get there from here, in an economy that depends on our consumption, our always needing more.

A couple of relatives sent us gift baskets—the kinds that come with all manner of celebratory goodies. Again, the gratitude. Again, that food that tastes delicious and is not particularly nutritious, and is also poison my body can’t handle well, while I am endlessly tempted. 

I don’t mean to go down a rat hole, and especially, I don’t want to sound like I am incapable of joy, incapable of celebration, incapable of receiving the love offered to me. And I was and am so uneasy because the world has shifted, has changed fundamentally for me. I know so much more now about the ways in which “old dispensations,” old ways of moving through seasons in unexamined time did way more harm than I gave myself time to consider.

There’s more. I can barely stand to read the news these days. As priest and pastor of a church, I’ve always been very careful about how, when, and where, I express my political views. Mostly, in the past, I have avoided falling into the kinds of political binaries that shut down conversation and close off possibilities for work and relationships. That is still where I prefer to be. But the Day of Epiphany, when we see revealed and behold, when we are filled with wonder, in the presence of God’s love made flesh, this day, will also always be the day this immigrant’s heart began to break, and continues to, in the shadow of the storming of the Capitol. 

A significant number of my fellow Americans (some of them very, very close kin) and I see the world, the choices, and the possibilities for our country, in diametrically opposed ways. It isn’t just that the old dispensations no longer give me comfort and a sense of safety. It is that, as one of the Magi says in Eliot’s poem, reflecting on that journey to Bethlehem:

“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 experience loved ones, neighbors, so many others, as “alien people” clutching a way of seeing the world that only feels death-dealing from where I stand. This Christmas there was birth, for sure. And now I am not sure I can tell the difference between birth and death as I bid it farewell on this day.

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