January needs a better agent. As the months of the year go, January and February are invariably the least popular members of The Twelve. But February has the advantage of brevity…and Valentine’s Day. January? January’s when the Christmas ornaments start to look ragged and winter tightens its long grip. A better agent might call public attention to January’s several charms. It’s the chronological home of neglected holidays. January gives us New Year’s Day—the biggest day of the year in some cultures. But in America, it lives in the shadow of its bacchanalian December neighbor: New Year’s Eve. January also hosts the Eighth Day of Christmas, as well as the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth. The Eastern Orthodox celebrate Christmas on January 7; they can do their holiday shopping when stores are having post-holiday sales. (Wouldn’t it be a lot thriftier if we bought our gifts on December 26 and opened them on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 5?) The year’s first month also brings us Martin Luther King Day. And an obscure church holiday called Baptism of the Lord—which is known only to clergy who use the lectionary. What else? My birthday is in January. And Epiphany—which celebrates the arrival of the Magi to visit the infant Jesus.
Much has been made of the story of the Magi—those wise men (of indeterminate number) who came from the East to visit the baby Jesus with strangely inappropriate gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In his well-known poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” T.S. Eliot describes their harrowing travels to discover the infant. The poems speaks not a word about the wonder, or the revelation, or the joy of it all. In fact, it asks:
« Were we led that way for birth or death?
There was a birth, certainly…
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. »
Yikes. Not exactly the holiday cheer that I’d like to see. Does it not suggest that the openhearted must make changes despite themselves. Some “progressive” preachers have pointed out that after discovering the Christ, the Magi “went home by another way.” They regained their old lives but with new insight, new light.
This is always the case when the living Christ calls us to himself, leading us with light we cannot help but follow. He’ll make us ill at ease with ourselves as we are, and the world as it is. The call of Christ is never to remain the same. It’s always to something better than we are—and yet somehow consistent with who we are. It’s something to think about as January fades into February.
Chair of Church Council