1st Sunday after Christmas

Image - statue of Wisdom ancient Ephesus
One of the wise people

One of my New Year’s resolutions last year was to read some of the books I’ve bought over the years that I haven’t read, especially ones that might be useful for religious studies. One of those was the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which I finally finished up last night. One of the things I learned from reading the CCC is that the faithful customarily begin each day by beginning the day “in the name of the Father and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” This struck me – perhaps because I’m so thoroughly Protestant – as new. Not that I hadn’t heard of people who pray in bed before they start the day, or whose first act of each day is prayer. Still … I think that simple, concrete awareness, however long it lasts, might make some kind of positive difference in the way I go about my day.

What the metaphor of “life in the name of God” actually means in concrete terms, however, seems to require further thought. Does it mostly mean that life becomes a “mission” to be accomplished – maybe the mission of achieving our “chief end” of “glorifying God and enjoying God forever”? Or is it more like being someone’s representative, so that my activities reflect on the Other (as in “we are ambassadors for Christ”)? Or is it mostly that I would want to dedicate the various activities of life to God in some way? It’s hard to square the exaltation of any of those images with most of the contents of a typical day. Even New Year’s Day contains the morning routine: getting up and feeding the cats and letting the dog out and taking medicine and making a cup of coffee and putting away the dishes from last night while it brews and cleaning out the cat boxes before brushing teeth and taking a shower. None of that seems designed to bring anyone any glory, or enjoyment, or to reflect especially well on anyone or anything, even though I derive a distinct satisfaction from getting some of these things done and from not putting them off. And to be honest, most of the stuff of my days is precisely this kind of stuff.

The author of Ephesians exhorted the 1st century citizens of Asia Minor to “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:15-16) Literally, it seems, the author says “see, observe – carefully, diligently – how/the way you walk, not as unwise but as wise, redeeming the time for yourselves, because the days are bad in the sense that they bring toil and trouble, pain and sorrow.” As far separated in time and space as Ephesus, in the 1st century, is from a little town in Southern Indiana in the 21st century, the days here also seem to bring with them heaping helpings of toil, trouble, pain and sorrow. The prayer list this morning includes concerns for aging and ailing and grieving friends and relatives, for our nation and the demands of the days ahead, for the victims of the bombing in Istanbul … troubles and sorrows from the personal to the planetary. In the face of these troubles and sorrows and recurrent crises, all the “small stuff” – the stuff I perennially hear people exhort me not to sweat, the stuff that is almost all the stuff of my days and years, including this new one – seems ultimately insignificant.

And yet – the Ephesians’ lives, at least most of them, were presumably not much grander than ours, but were rather full of much the same kind of small stuff. Nevertheless they were advised to pay close attention to how they walked amid all this small stuff, making of their bad times opportunities for choosing wisdom over unwisdom. And as we have been repeating this advice all this time, presumably there is still something in it for us.

It reminds me of something Thomas Merton said, that “everything is a seed of contemplation.” Everything can be the beginning of prayer; everything can be a reminder to draw closer to God. If even one or two more of those seeds were planted every day, if we made it a point to water even one or two more of those seeds as we walked by, what might happen? What impact might that have on tenor of our times?

Certain events of the past year have reminded me that I am – as are we all – a citizen of larger communities, and that how I exercise that citizenship cannot remain a matter of indifference. Participation is not optional, even though the form it needs to take is not always obvious, and even though the ends of that participation are, as my Tillich professor taught us to say, “penultimate.” Penultimate concerns still matter; it matters to our neighbors whether we do more to help them or to harm them. It matters, somehow, to our common life whether I take some responsibility for its conduct, or treat it as the exclusive province of others – what “they” have made of it in my absence.

But what the careful observation of how I walk seems more likely to reveal is that there are numerous ways – small, but significant then and there – in which it would be possible for me to put into practice that beloved text of the Presbyterians, Micah 6:8, that loving of kindness, doing of justice, and walking humbly with God. Every moment, it seems when I pay even a little attention, provides me with fresh opportunities to choose kindness over unkindness; to choose offering another person the respect and dignity due to a child of God rather than the cool indifference I so often ladle out; to ponder the ever-present signs of God’s goodness and greatness instead of keeping the focus on myself.

I think this year, it might be time to ignore the perennial advice, to go ahead and sweat some of this small stuff – since it is all small stuff, and since all that small stuff may add up to redeeming a little time for myself, whatever that means, and perhaps for my neighbors as well.

So “forth to Thy New Year we go,” in the Name of the Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer. My own resolution for that going forth is to pay closer attention to how I walk among all the seeds of kindness, of justice, and of contemplation I will meet along the way, in these times.

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