Tomorrow is Epiphany, the day Christians celebrate the coming of the Magi to visit the Christ child. So here’s one last excerpt from my book:
One of the themes Epiphany raises is of call and response. The wise men saw the star and so they left all they held familiar and dear to follow it, knowing it would lead them to something even better.
Traditionally on Epiphany, people bless their homes by marking the lintel of their door in chalk with the initials C, M, and B. The initials have two meanings. They are the names of the three wise men, according to tradition—Caspar, Melchior, and Baltasar—and they are the first letters of the Latin phrase Christus Mansionem Benedicat (“Christ, bless this home”). Marking the door of one’s home in this way is a reminder to us, each time we enter or leave, that we are to be like the wise men, willing to leave all we have, if necessary, to follow where Christ leads.
Raised in a church culture that viewed suffering and even martyrdom for the sake of God’s Kingdom as signs of true faith, I have a lot of baggage around this notion of leaving it all to follow Jesus. A dear friend of mine perfectly articulated the deleterious effect of the evangelical mindset in which I was raised when she wailed, “But I’m afraid to follow Jesus. I don’t want to go to Africa!” I could relate. I used to be afraid of that, too, of Jesus asking me to follow him to some far-away place with giant spiders. I had learned early and well that you proved your devotion to Jesus by the sacrifices you were willing to make on his behalf.
This is partly why, when I was in eighth grade, I chose Mother Teresa as the subject of a year-long research project for a national competition. Mother Teresa obviously loved Jesus; her life of (what seemed to me) great sacrifice was clear evidence of her devotion. I wanted to know how she did it.
As part of my research, my teacher insisted that I call Mother Teresa. Now, I was 17 before I could phone Pizza Hut and order a pizza without breaking into a cold sweat, so imagine my terror when, at 13, I had to call India and speak to Mother Teresa. “Why couldn’t I have chosen to research someone dead?” I moaned more than once as this horror loomed over me.
At last I could put it off no longer. My list of questions on my lap, I shut myself in my bedroom and made the call. My voice shook and my hands trembled as I lamely introduced myself and then idiotically launched into my questions. “What advice would you have for someone who wants to help the poor?” I squeaked into the phone.
I expected some great thing: Come to India and join the Missionaries of Charity, work in the House of the Dying, adopt 16 orphan children. Instead, her voice quavery, her accent difficult to understand, Mother Teresa said, “Love the poor around you. Learn to see the poverty in the people you live with, and love them in the midst of it.” That’s all she said. For years, I thought it too simple, too easy, too pat. Love those around you? That’s it? That’s how I love the poor of the world? I had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the good-Christians-go-to-Africa-and-die-of-poisonous-spider-bites worldview.
Lately, though, I’ve begun to see that loving those around me isn’t simple. Nor is it easy. It’s not easy, for example, to love my son when he whines and won’t eat the dinner I’ve prepared. It’s not easy to love my daughter when she throws a temper tantrum because I won’t let her eat a Lego. Some days, believe me, the poor of Calcutta seem a lot better deal. But that’s not where I’ve been called, not yet anyway.
For most of us, following the star means paying attention to the people around us, our families, friends, neighbors. Christ calls us to minister to them. If we don’t heed that call, what makes us think we’ll really be able to love and care for our Indian neighbors once we move into the House of the Dying?
Epiphany calls us to move beyond the familiar, to be sure. But sometimes, maybe even most of the time, the familiar is not geographical. It may be the familiarity of something we own and hold dear. It may be the familiarity of an unhealthy relationship; the strained and fruitless ways we try to reach out to God; the soul-eroding habits that keep us from loving God and others as we ought; or a familiar pattern of relating or responding to others that Jesus is calling us to set aside that we might follow him.
Perhaps these days I am called to leave behind my usual response of raising my voice and barking orders at Jack when he whines about his dinner. Perhaps Jesus is inviting me to quit throwing my arms up in frustration at Jane when she wails because I won’t let her choke on Legos. Perhaps, instead, I’m supposed to give them a hug, extend my arms—and my heart—toward them with love.
After all, isn’t that what God did for us?