Sunday, January 5, 2014

Gifts for Today: Epiphany

It’s a long way from Bethlehem to the frozen Canadian north. But that’s where I’d like us to go, with the help of a Canadian novel called Coppermine.

Coppermine is a story about an officer of the North West Mounted Police—later the RCMP—who is sent to investigate the death of two missionary priests in the far north. Since Corporal Jack Creed can’t speak the language of the Inuit First Nation, he takes along Angituk, a half-English, half-Inuit guide and interpreter.

While speaking at Christmas with two hunters, Sinnisiak and Uluksuk, Jack Creed offers to tell them the story of Bethlehem and the birth of Christ. I will read you a bit of it, as translated by Angituk…

“When Jesus was born, his parents, Mary and Joseph, were travelling.”
“To new hunting grounds?”
“Well, yes, sort of.”
“And the baby was coming and there was no room in the inn, or…the big igloo, so they had to go to the stable…or little igloo, and have the baby there, surrounded by cows and sheep.”
“Tell us, what are cows and sheep?”
Creed was beginning to warm to the telling. “Actually, they were caribou and husky dogs, and they loved the baby. And three wise men came, who has seen a star that marked the birth of Jesus”
“Wise men?”
“Shaman,” Angituk ventured.
“Absolutely. Powerful shamans who saw the star, and they brought gifts.”
Angituk prompted him. “Walrus oil. Narwhal tusk. Hard wood.”
“And then the shepherds came,” Jack continued.
“What are shepherds?”
“Seal hunters,” Angituk suggested quietly.
“Did I say shepherds? I meant seal hunters. A bunch of seal hunters came in from the ice edge to see the baby, because good spirits had come to them and told them that Jesus was born. But then there were enemies.”
Creed now had the hunters fully engaged in his narrative. Angituk too.
“There was a king, an evil shaman named Herod, who was jealous and sent hunters to kill the child.”
“Probably Cree,” Sinnisiak ventured, looking at Uluksuk, who nodded.
“Could be. But the seal hunters and the shamans protected the baby and the bad hunters didn’t find him, so there is a happy ending to the story of Jesus’ birth. He went on to be a great man. A teacher and the best hunter of all.”

I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know its message. But this brief passage tells us something about today’s feast of the Epiphany: it needs some translation.

We know the story well, and we know the meaning of sheep and cows and shepherds. But do we really know what is happening when those three kings lay down their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh?

Ancient translators have helped us understand—gold for a king, frankincense for God, and myrrh for a man who was to die. But perhaps we need to understand the story in terms a bit closer to home.

So let’s leave symbolism aside this year, and be as direct as Corporal Creed was with the hunters: because every one of us can understand giving and receiving.

Today let’s look at two simple questions: What have you received from God? And what have you given back to God?

I can’t answer these questions: each person must give his own reply. But let's try to answer the first one together. What have we received from God?

In a poem for children, Robert Louis Stevenson said “the world is so full of a number of things/I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.”

We adults can be tempted to miss some of those things, which is one reason we’re blessed to live in this area where the gift of creation is so easy to see. We might be tempted to take credit for a lot of the good things around us—and people from Toronto think we do—but truly all of us see the beauty of the created world as a gift.

There are other gifts we enjoy some of the time: health, friends, family, peace in society... freedom from the sort of oppression and violence that greeted Jesus at his birth.

And our first and second readings today remind us of our spiritual gifts also. We have received the dawning brightness that the ancient prophets longed and hungered for, because the light has come, and the Lord’s glory has appeared. The mystery that was long hidden has been made known to us.

When Christ took on our human nature, St. Paul tells us, he gave us a share in his divine nature, heirs to all that God has promised.

All these things come to us, more or less obviously, from the hand of God. We might take credit for our friends, for our success—though we shouldn’t—but we sure can’t do that for most other blessings. As St. Paul said in his First Letter to the Corinthians, what do you possess that was not given to you? And if you possess it as a gift, why take the credit to yourself?

And so the next question arises: what do we give to God in gratitude for all he has given to us?

I don't suspect the three wise men are an easy act to follow... yet we're never empty handed: the wise men simply gave what they had; the gifts they placed before Jesus were simply symbols of who they were and what they had.

And we must do the same thing.

For starters, at Mass. So much of the symbolism of the Offertory is stolen by the collection! (Not that we plan to abolish it). The offering of money may seem to be the moment when we give back to God in gratitude... and so it is, to an extent. But the big moments are the procession of the bread and wine, and the offering of those gifts on the altar.

We lift up to God the gifts to be transformed into Christ's body and blood... but we lift up ourselves too, equally to be transformed in a different sense into the presence of Christ in our world.

That transformation should make us more grateful still, and eager to find ways of giving to others what we have ourselves received. The deep sense of volunteerism, by no means restricted to Christians, is something that arises from gratitude deep in the human spirit. How much more should we Christians seek to serve, we who have been so richly blessed with hope and healing by the revelation of the Word made human flesh?

And giving what we have received also means witnessing to our faith, sharing it with others, inviting them to discover more, reflecting in our lives and speech the wonders we live each week at Mass.

If I was translating today’s Gospel to someone today who had never heard of gold, frankincense and myrrh, I might rewrite the story like this: they knelt down and paid him homage. Opening their calendars, they offered him gifts of time. They told him of the people they had gently invited to the Alpha Course, and of the Monday evenings they’d spent cooking and cleaning up after the Alpha dinner.

Or they might tell of their efforts to help new parents prepare for the baptism of a child, or to share the Word of God with children or adults as a catechist.

If we understand the Epiphany in simple terms—what have I received, and what have I offered—the feast really doesn’t need a translator or a theologian. I know, for a fact, that everyone in the church this morning has received blessings from the Lord, even those who suffer, even those who may be somewhat on the outs with him.

And I know that you know—some may be more grateful and devout, some less naturally religious, but everyone here knows in his or her heart what I'm talking about: whether you're a new mother or father, a skier who just came back from Whistler, or just a prayerful soul who really felt the meaning of Christmas this year.

We know what we’ve got, and we know pretty much where it came from.

Like that Mountie and his guide, let’s bring Bethlehem closer to home. Each Sunday let us place before the altar, or place on the altar of our lives, some time, talent or treasure as our homage to Christ.

(The image above is from William Kurelek's beautiful book, A Northern Nativity.)

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