Men from the East Bearing Gifts

December 28, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is the revision of an article I wrote just after the bombing of the World Trade Center. I offer it in honor of the recent tenth anniversary of that bombing, and of the feast of the Holy Innocents which is celebrated today.

One problem with writing for periodicals is lag time. Back in 2001, an editor asked me to write an article about Christmas: ho, ho, ho. But the request came on October 11, 2001, when my mind was filled with bombed skyscrapers and the fear of anthrax.

In such a conundrum, it helps to remember that the incompatibility between Christmas and death is a consumerist construct. Fundamental to the Christian tradition is the understanding that Christmas and Easter are different manifestations of the same mystery. Jesus himself may have escaped Herod, but those other Jewish babies did not. The liturgical calendar keeps them out of sight for a few days, but ultimately, there’s no separating life and death.

Even the kings themselves, those wise men from the East, are implicated in this part-ho-ho, part-horror story.  In Matthew’s rendering of it we learn not only that these men brought gifts with them but what those gifts were: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.  Gold and frankincense fit nicely with the spirit of the season, thank you very much, but myrrh is another matter.  John the Evangelist makes the connection clear when he writes of Jesus’ burial: “So (Joseph of Arimathea) came and took away his body.  Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight”  (19:38-39).

A week or so after the September 11 attacks, at the end of an interview, NPR’s Terry Gross asked the writer Karen Armstrong if she had any last thoughts to leave with the audience.  Armstrong replied that although people might not appreciate her approach immediately, eventually she hoped they would come to think of the bombings as a revelation.  If we consider the suicide bombers to be our own version of men from the East bearing gifts, what the nature of that revelation might be becomes clearer.  We are more interested in the gold and the incense, but the myrrh is under the tree too.

“Years ago Thomas Berry, the cosmological prophet, remarked in a lecture at Grailville, in Loveland, Ohio, that Christianity had become preoccupied with the crucifixion in the 14th century, when the Black Plague killed one European out of every three.  I took him to mean that this preoccupation was some sort of distortion; only years later did I realize that the need of many of us 70s liberal Catholics to distance ourselves from the morbidity of the cross was another form of distortion, or rather, another moment in the centuries-long Christian oscillation between resisting the cross and embracing it.

During the heydays of the women’s movement, Christian feminists struggled with the meaning of the cross. In Embracing Travail: Retrieving the Cross Today, the Canadian feminist theologian Cynthia Crysdale rejects the Anselmian argument that God, like an offended medieval warlord, required the death of Jesus as retribution for sin.  But she argues that this is not the only possible interpretation of the cross.  For Crysdale, “embracing travail” means struggling, along with Jesus, against the evil that is part of human existence, not from a desire to sacrifice our selves, but to heal and free those very selves.  In Tracing the Sign of the Cross, I explore the writings of four post-war American Catholics who know very well that there is no escaping loss, even if our financial resources exceed those of our immigrant forebears.  Embracing the death of Jesus is one way to work through those losses to new hope and understanding.

In many respects, I am a New Yorker.  My parents began taking me from Philadelphia to Manhattan as a small child, sharing with me their modernist passion for the bright lights and the big city.  I love every minute of the fifteen years I have lived in New York, identifying with its energy and relishing the sense that everything I want is a subway ride away.  During our decade in Berkeley, when I tried I try to explain my homesickness to my California colleagues, I invariably spoke of my longing for skyscrapers.

The World Trade Center was like a Christmas tree, a tall, glittering fantasy of promise and possibility.  I spent one of the happiest afternoons of my life there, at The Windows on the World, the famous restaurant at the top of World Trade Tower #1, celebrating my graduation from seminary with my family, my future husband, and some of my closest friends.

But after 9/11, the World Trade Center didn’t look like a Christmas tree any more.  The shards of building that were left standing looked more like a severe, modernist crucifix with its jagged ribs piercing the sky. Of course, another skyscraper will soon be completed near the place where the Golgotha-like remains of the previous towers once stood. And who knows?  I may even come to love it.  But I will never love it as optimistically as I did its predecessors.  .

Again this year, a few miles north of Ground Zero, a huge Christmas tree is glowing in Rockefeller Plaza, and people like me are looking up at it, singing carols.  Together these men and women will recreate an image of peace and harmony, of new birth, and the promise of salvation.  But if they get as far as Balthazar’s verse of “We Three Kings,” they will remember something else, something 9/11 taught us all too well:

“Myrrh is mine; its bitter perfume

Breathes a life of gathering gloom.

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying

Sealed in a stone cold tomb.”

Perhaps 9/11 has made us better able than we once were to hold the two parts of the Christmas mystery together in our hearts.

A longer version of this article appeared in the December 2001-February 2002 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeast Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.

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