“What are you preaching about tomorrow?” someone asked me last night. “Doors and camels,” I said, off the top of my head, “doors and camels and something else.”
That door in St. Peter’s! That door has been bothering me for days. The Holy Door was opened last Christmas to inaugurate the Holy Year of Jubilee. The walls smashed down with a hammer and the doors swung open to receive the pilgrim people of God walking through to a new age. 25 million did just that. At least the door thing. Because the door is a strange symbol. Open doors are great. But even then they promise the possibility of being closed. We know being open is temporary. When is a door not a door? When it has been ceremoniously shut and bricked up. The Holy Door is buried deep in bricks and mortar. And, like Robert Frost, I worry what it is we keeping in or keeping out.
The idea of Jubilee rests on the extraordinary significance of times, of this time or that time. Time when it is fitting to open the heart and open the hand and open the floodgates of justice. Those bricks tell me we are back in ordinary times. But is there ever a fitting time to close the heart, close the hand, and reduce justice to a trickle? Ordinary can’t mean that.
Epiphany is about the ordinary. The light of God shining in ordinary times. The Magi are extraordinary because they are ordinary, secular, worldly. They find their way by science and not by faith. Their journey is a tough one and the endpoint is, at best, unexpected, maybe disappointing. “We came all this way for this—this ordinary tale of poverty and hope—an ordinary baby surviving the cold in a cattle-cave.”
But in my imagination that cave has no door.
There is a story of a Moslem king who was incredibly wealthy in the things of this world but wanted to be wealthy in heaven too. One night the king was roused from his sleep by an awful stomping about on the roof above his bed. Alarmed, he shouted: ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend,’ came the answer from the roof, ‘I’ve lost my camel.’ Well, the king didn’t think much of such stupidity and screamed out: ‘You fool! Are you looking for a camel on the roof?’ ‘You fool!’ the voice from above came back. ‘Are you looking for God in your silk pyjamas, lying on a golden bed?’
Epiphany means manifestation, means showing. God’s showing up in all the ordinary places. But recognising God when she shows—that’s another matter.
The Jewish people have always expected a lot of themselves. In Jesus’ time though there was one social group known instead for its low standards. In fact, it was said, this group worshipped the body so much they could not control their desires and were subject to all sorts of sexual immorality. They had no shame. It was a sin for a pious Jew to leave one of these people alone with an animal because wickedness would ensue, so contrary to nature were they. Who were these people so constitutionally incapable of keeping the commandments, so hopelessly ordered to immoral ends? I’m afraid to say, sisters and brothers, it is you and I—Gentiles.
We don’t belong among the chosen people of God. We are the hopeless case. Our very natures against nature. But God has done something just as much against nature. Paul tells of this new and shocking thing: the Gentiles have been made coheirs, members of the same body, and co-partners in the promise.
It’s so hard to capture any of the surprise of that news because we have taken over. We, gentiles, have become the standard. We see ourselves as the natural heirs of the promise—as if we deserved it, as if it wasn’t grace, as if it wasn’t scandal. We have become ordinary. And we have passed on the mantle of intrinsic evil for other groups to wear.
But while we are ordinary, so too we are not. We are as ordinary as a camel on a roof or a saint in silk. When the Magi saw that baby and didn’t move on in disappointment the whole meaning of ordinary was changed. Ordinary opened up its treasures and laid them down. Ordinary did away with doors—and with fences, borders, boundaries, with in and out. Ordinary now shines with starlight—if we have the eyes.
January 8th, 2001