Today is the day; Christmas is over. The decorations have been put away. The tree is on the street. The leftovers are gone. The house no longer looks magical but mundane: and so does life. Back to school and work, paying the bills, doing the grocery shopping, driving carpool, and worrying about taxes. It was joyful and light—a nice break from the daily grind but now it is time to get back at it. And pretty soon the ordinariness of daily life and stress of meeting expectations will begin to render our days a little darker and our hearts a little duller as the lights of Christmas grow dimmer and dimmer until they have faded away. And maybe we will ask the question, “What was Christmas about? “ Or, “Does it even really matter?” In our heads we will say, “Yes.” But in our hearts, the doubts and darkness has already begun to enter in.
I wonder how long the shepherds and the magi maintained the glow of celestial brightness they encountered in Bethlehem. Did the wise men even make it all the way back to their respective lands in the Far East before the awe and wonder began to wear off? How long before a shepherd had to ward off a wolf or rescue a lamb such that the memory of the Heavenly Host began to wane? How often did Mary, who pondered these things in her heart, have to peek at the treasures the magi gifted her son to remember the divine promise? How many diapers did it take or sleepless nights because a baby was crying before she too doubted the truth of the angel Gabrielle’s visit?
In the bleak mid-winter of World War II, W. H. Auden wrote a poem, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. In it he describes the fading of the Christmas Spirit, “Once again as in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed to do more than entertain it as an agreeable possibility… The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory, and already the mind begins to be vaguely aware of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now be very far off.” Auden understands that our sense of wonder and awe cannot be maintained. We may have delighted in the light after awaiting its coming yet now it will wane in our lives and in our hearts.
It’s not that deep down we don’t want to dream; that we don’t want our lives to be defined by wonder—we just lost our way. Our need for order, for control, for productivity; distracts us. We are more comfortable in Herod’s world of rules and institutions than a barnyard with its cacophony of sound, chaos, and disorder, much less the mystique of the Far East that is strange and unfamiliar. But even in our comfort, we yearn for more; we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, something that matters. And that requires us weighing our desire to be comfortable against our willingness to embrace our fear in order to discover how far we are willing to live into our imagination.
As children, we reveled in the imagination. The games we played carried more wonder than savvy sophistication. We were blissfully naïve not worldly and so we approached life with joyful abandon as we built forts and forded ditches embarking on our own endless quests. As we grew older those games faded into sports and competition—our joy faded into winning and our imaginations became less elastic, less willing to embrace the impossible possibilities. And yet, we still yearn for that. We yearn for our childlike nature. We want to play we’ve just forgotten how.
I cannot count, much less name all the movies with this desire to recapture our childlike nature and innocence. Movies like Big and Hook spring to mind from the eighties. And just this past weekend, I saw Mary Poppins Returns in which the “practically, perfect” nanny comes back to 17 Cherry Tree Lane not simply to take care of the Banks’ children but to help everyone, especially the adults, recapture their imagination. It is not a story about recapturing that childlike imagination, just for the sake of returning to a simpler time or easing the cares of the world. It is a story that connects our search for the light, for illumination, with imagination. Instead of a chimney sweep, the male lead is a Leery, a lamplighter. His role is not to simply “trip a little light fantastic” but to connect imagination to illumination as the path to wisdom and to hope.
Mary Poppins is no less guilty of chiding our lack of imagination. Her first musical number is “Can You Imagine That.” Though it seems a bit silly and is sung to the children, it follows on the heels of a conversation between the grown up Jane and Michael Banks in which they question their own childhood adventures with Mary Poppins—doubting that she ever slid up the bannister or that they ever jumped into a pavement chalk drawing and participated in a fox hunt on carousel horses. Even at the end of the movie, there is a line about how the adults will have forgotten all of the imaginative, impossibilities they have experienced. The implication being that tomorrow, the world will be a bit duller and the light a bit dimmer but for now there is joy and hope in embracing our imagination.
Even the villain in Mary Poppins Returns, a man who is driven by corruption, greed, and orderliness, is known by his shadow and a figment of imagination. The youngest of the Banks children, Georgie, sees the shadow of the wolf in his animated adventure into the Royal Doulton bowl so that when he encounters the real life villain only Georgie recognizes him because he has fully embraced his imagination. Georgie, though the youngest of all the characters, has the most wisdom because he allows his sense of wonder to guide his purpose.
Imagination and illumination as the path to wisdom and hope is exactly what the wise men were following when they discovered “the child with Mary his mother and they knelt down and paid him homage.” They had been to the kingdom of order and rules and corruption and greed, Herod’s kingdom: a kingdom of darkness. But it is in the place of wonder and warmth, bathed in celestial light that they find a kingdom of hope and impossible possibilities. So, they return home by another way, hoping to maintain the glow of divine brightness for as long as possible.
We, too, return home so to speak as we return back to the normalcy of our daily routines. But I wonder what it might look like to return home by another way—to try and hold on to the royal, beauty of that bright star. How might we invite wonder and dreams and imagination back into our own lives? What books might we read or movies might we watch? Would we go to the museum or the symphony or the Shakespeare Festival? Or maybe we could go fly a kite? In whatever ways we can invite the sense of wonder back into our lives and allow the magic of awe to put its spell on us then will we have the capacity to dream, the desire to ignite our passions, the courage and childlike wonder to follow our imaginations. Instead of limiting our certainties, we can engage in the impossible possibilities that following a star will lead us too.
I don’t know how long the magi maintained the glow of celestial brightness they encountered in Bethlehem. But I feel sure it would have grown dimmer a lot quicker had they not returned home by another way; a way that actively avoided the darkness of our need for power and control and corrupt sense of greed. That is the impossible possibility of Epiphany—looking up to follow a star that we might be guided to thy perfect light.
Epiphany: Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12
Church of the Ascension, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, January 6, 2019
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer