Heart Healthy

Above all, guard your heart, for from it flows the wellsprings of life. – Prov. 4:23

I am not one to make New Years’ Resolutions. It seems a puerile practice when one fully anticipates returning to the couch ten days after signing up for a year-long gym membership. But delusion is a powerful drug, and it works hardest after Christmastide, when jollity and feasting are followed with the hangover and return to work. We know we should be better, but we do not know how—or do not care for the discipline it takes. So the whimsical pledge is unnecessary at best, crippling at worst.

Though I do not wish to resolve, I nevertheless use the extra space at the end of the year to reflect and listen to what I believe the Spirit has been whispering over the past year. And what I have been hearing is that I need a deeper level of hospitality. Not merely the welcoming of the stranger into my home or the student into my office, but the warmth of those I already know into my life. I tend to hold people at a distance, even those in close proximity of space or of blood. I have become increasingly aware of the walls I intentionally construct between myself and others. Perhaps I fear exposure, or worry that others might use information about me to hurt me in some way, or doubt that they will treat me with charity. Though I do not know the reason, I feel the distance and know that I need to bridge it.

But how to do this? In giving more of myself to others, I cannot vomit emotions on the unsuspecting, who, in their reasonable effort to remain clean, will close themselves off to me.  Nor do I dare expose myself to the exploitative lest I lose parts of my self to the injurious and wicked. If you also bear this heavy baggage—and it is you, my friend, to whom this missive is written—I wonder if the answer is proper armor.

The thoughtless and unreflective heart bares its soul widely, showing its wounds to any who will see. These precious people believe they will find catharsis in the sharing, and at times they do, but the constant sharing doesn’t always result in scaring—only keeping open the wound. We all know the types: the indulgent mother who lives entirely for her children, the friend who cannot listen without talking about his own problems, the Eeyore who can find the storm on a sunny day, the Scarlet Witch who cannot bear the burden of reality. By contrast, the hardened and callous heart keeps its wounds hidden, sometimes even from itself, sometimes without the recognition of any wounds. Here, too, we know these people well: the husband and father who finds more meaning in his work than in his family, the hedonist who reframes all suffering into pleasure, the Tin Man who doesn’t know how to feel. Every injury scabs quickly, quickly becomes a scar—until the whole organ is so scarred as to be unrecognizable. Such a heart is idle, dried up and hollowed by the fear of use.

Between these two extremes, I think, lies a heart neither over-exposed or under-used. The armored heart protects itself against unneeded pain, feeling and sharing the anguish of a fallen world while refusing to be overcome by it. The armored heart tastes deeply of life, taking part in community without losing itself entirely to it. The armored heart opens itself enough to love—and by extension, to the grief without which love cannot exist. The armored heart, then, will bear scars, but it will learn from those scars without hardening itself against all future wounds.

If you bear this burden as well, then you might also do well to guard your heart. Armor will give us the space to exercise our hearts and open them to others wisely. For to be fully human is to be humane, to feel rightly in the right time and place. In everything, it seems, moderation is the mean and wisdom the means.

What’s in Epiphany?

There is a strangeness to the power of a calendar. It has not the strength of a pagan deity. It does not circle the earth, give light or heat, nor energize the solar system. Yet it holds over the Western mind a need to observe, to chart, to catalogue. By it we can memorialize the past, anticipate the future, and understand our place in the present. It keeps our appointments, and it—we think—confirms our destiny.

St. Paul provides a new vision of time in Christ, a time that acknowledges days and seasons but is not bound by them (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10). He liberates us from the constraints of chronology and spatial distance, allowing us to move—like the Spirit—in and out of human history, as from the microscope to the airplane and back again. And though we have the freedom to inhabit a cyclical view of time in which all days are identical, we often choose to return to a linear view of time that checks off each day as progressively toward some unknown end, helps us grasp our temporal moorings and experience life in a measured, predictive way.

It is difficult to say with any precision how “most” Christians mark time, as they vary by individual, family, and culture. Some choose not to celebrate days and seasons at all, and do so unto the Lord, and they have my respect. I find myself among those who celebrate enthusiastically, aware of each commemoration day in the liturgical calendar throughout the year. Others take a mixed approach, observing the high feasts only—and that in a low fashion. Some of them, for instance, vehemently protest Halloween’s presumably pagan origins, but they accept Christmas with its commercial customs; both holidays share some pagan roots, though not nearly as much as Christians and pagans popularly believe. Yet for the many American Protestants who celebrate Christmas, some of them religiously and some more secularly than the most ardent Modernist, most are unfamiliar with the earliest Christian holidays, of which Epiphany (January 6) was one of the first.

We should note that all Christians, regardless of their position on holy days, nevertheless celebrate and commemorate—through the weekly observance of the Eucharist, if nothing else. Early Christian practice shifted worship from Sabbath to Sunday (Acts 20:7), and the sheer number of Gentile believers by the mid-second century over their Jewish counterparts made such a shift nearly a foregone conclusion. The process of universalizing a Jewish sect for all peoples meant that Hellenistic culture would have an outmoded influence over its Hebraic roots. Similarly, Easter (or “Pascha”), like the Jewish Passover, was calculated then, as now, using the “computus,” which counts down days from the vernal equinox (the first full moon after the beginning of spring) and corresponds to Mosaic instructions (Ex. 12:2-3). Second-century Christians celebrating the resurrection used a more roundabout, though similar computation to celebrate Christ’s birth as well. This approach created some conflict for Christians even into the seventh century (see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History), a reminder of how pervasive the calendar’s influence even then.

The Gnostics, some of whom did not believe in a physical birth, believed instead in Christ’s manifestation through the Spirit (or “epiphany”), which occurred at his baptism. Clement of Alexandria (160-220) tells us of an Egyptian sect of Gnostics (Basilideans) who celebrated Christ’s baptism as a festival on the 11th day of Tubi in the Egyptian calendar (which is January 6, modern day Epiphany). A pagan holiday already existed on January 6—a festival of the virgin goddess Kore and her daughter Aion. Egyptian Christians may have been eager to skip out on pagan festivities and celebrate Christ instead.

They found support for this practice in their beliefs about time. Joseph F. Kelly in The Origins of Christmas (2014) articulates the complete years theory, a Jewish tradition that claimed biblical peoples lived for whole years—meaning they died on the day of their birth. So when scripture says Moses died at 120 years old (Deut. 34:7), he was exactly 120 years old when he died. The ancient mind’s capacity for symmetry in symbolism matches the modern mind’s only in its need for symmetry in science. Thus, the Basilideans may have believed Jesus was baptized on the day of his birth. The Western church fathers found this subject of significant interest as well. The Julian calendar places the vernal equinox at March 25. Hippolytus (170-235) places March 25, therefore, as the anniversary of creation and of Christ’s crucifixion; Tertullian (155-220) concurs with this calculation, and the complete years theory would support this claim. Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240) also agreed, but argued that Jesus was incarnated not at his birth but at his conception. Nine months before March 25 is December 25. This day, as all know, will eventually become the day Christians will choose for Christmas; and the Feast of the Annunciation becomes March 25. Epiphany was still very popular in the East in association with the Nativity, so Western Christians also came to practice it, though associating it specifically with the appearance of the Magi. Which, of course, is from whom we have inherited our tradition of gift-giving.

Epiphany, then, is the final chapter of the Christmas story each year and the movement into Christ’s ministry. On the twelfth night of Christmastide, Christians conclude celebrating the birth of Christ, looking forward to other elements of the Gospel story: Candlemas, Lent, Easter. The liturgical calendar reminds us of each milestone of the birth, life, death, and resurrection.

For those who overlook this holiday, those who turn off the Christmas tunes and take down their trees and decorations on December 26, Epiphany seems one more named feast day, along with the Feast of St John, St. Steven the Martyr, and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. All must do what they have resolved to do in their hearts. It is surely true that the Gospel does not stand in need commemoration in days and seasons. Yet to stand against commemoration entirely as some vague spiritual principle runs against all human proclivities to the contrary. We eagerly mark days off of the calendar in anticipation of marriage, birth, and retirement. We eagerly celebrate our own birthdays, days of political independence, and federally approved vacations. Shall we not all the more so make our days of commemoration holy?

A British Thanksgiving

There was no day off, no wandering treks over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house, no Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Special. No turkey. There was merely our small family, huddled together in a frigid flat in a Scottish winter, reviving our traditions, reflecting on our blessings, and remembering the Lord’s goodness. We were alone, strangers in a strange land, without family, without the familiar experiences of home.

Thanksgiving is a wholly American holiday, our only truly national one. While other nations celebrate their independence or national patron saints, the period of giving thanks is one unique to the States. Our founding myth, commemorated in William Bradford’s On Plymouth Plantation, is much ignored and much derided today, mocked by critics with a cynicism that chips away at both national need for unity and the spiritual need for gratitude. So, too, the 1864 Thanksgiving proclamation of Abraham Lincoln, wise in recognizing those needs even in the tumult of a civil war, is rarely recited these days. Football and shopping loom large as distractions to feasting and family. Yet despite its seeming loss of significance, this holy day remains part of our national DNA. As evidenced by the weekend travel schedule, all hear the call to return home—even the prodigal.

Ours that year was a humble Thanksgiving, but not a wasted one. Without the holiday hallmarks, we experienced both the disappointments of estrangement and the joy of needful things. After all, even among family one may find it difficult to discover gratitude. One can easily feel lonely in a crowd, and a party is no guarantee of fellowship. Yet the presence of shalom, no matter how small the gathering, infuses life and provides a glimpse of the greater feast to come.

This poem wrestles with those dual impulses: to grumble and to praise. Sorrow is never permanent, and joy is never without the echoes of bitter experience. On the one hand, we can hear the voice of the Spirit saying “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” (Psalm 50:23). On the other we hear the diaspora cry out, “By the waters of Babylon, we lay down and wept” (Psalm 137:1). For like those heroic Jews in exile, celebrating the Passover in a pagan land, setting their faces toward Jerusalem as they slaughtered the paschal lamb, so we all are pilgrims in exile, awaiting our heavenly home.

A British Thanksgiving

is not what you’d expect:

no crowded placemats,

no children nipping at your food,

no boxed ears, nor arguments at table.

lacks the pilgrim feel of yore,

but trades one conquest for another—

or maybe we criticize too harshly,

judging a generation by its supposed betters.

returns the sacred fowl

and grandma’s dressed stuffing

for purple taters from the Farmer’s Market

and a roast chicken from Sainsbury.

delays for want of things most needful,

aborted till we make a second walk

to Lupe Pintos for an American can

of pumpkin and a case of A&W.

goes quiet after prayer

without the worry of whose family

we must navigate this year—

a wishbone’s hope half granted.

preludes Christmas out of season,

sharing a peppermint latte outside Starbucks

and watching fireworks spark the Festival,

thankful for the silence of ingratitude.