I have always appreciated that the date of Easter is not fixed on our calendar, but set by the lunar cycle. We celebrate Easter on the Sunday that falls directly after the Paschal (or springtime) full moon, which is the first full moon that occurs on or after the springtime equinox of March 21.
That the timing of Easter is beyond our control is a reminder that we are part and parcel of the natural world and that in this area, at least, we are subject to its law. The variable timing of Easter means that our spring holidays, our Lenten discipline, even whether the weather allows for an outdoor egg hunt can be influenced by whether Easter falls particularly early or late. In my case, I have on rare occasion celebrated my April 5 birthday on Easter Sunday, a conjoining of events that has impacted my experience of each of them.
Now - before you start to glance at each other nervously, concerned that the deacon may have lost track of the fact that we are celebrating Epiphany, not Easter - I have been pondering how in a similar fashion our secular and liturgical calendars can crash into each other over the Christmas season, with interesting effects. Today, of course, is a prime example. Epiphany, the celebration of the visitation of the magi to the Christ child, is not until January 6th. But it is often celebrated by the parish on the preceding Sunday, and in 2023 that happens to fall right on New Year’s Day.
To be honest, this calendar clash has been doing my head in. I am an advocate for leaving the Christmas lights on until January 6, and I finally allow the three wise men entrance to my nativity scene not long before. I try to put off work duties as long as I can, and bask in Christmastide relaxation, reading and socializing for as many of the 12 days as is humanly possible. And I know I still have some time to do that, but celebrating Epiphany this early - and at the very start of a new calendar year to boot - makes me feel like I should be sharpening my pencils, cleaning out my closet, and launching into a healthy living regimen instead.
But instead of getting grumpy about it (or at least not too grumpy about it), I have been trying to glean what I can from this unusual mash-up of New Year’s Day and the transferred Epiphany celebration, and wondering what lessons it might have to teach me.
Here are some of my musings; inspired by the offerings of the magi, I will present them as three gifts we can unwrap for perusal (and if you don’t like them, I have kept the receipt and you can always exchange them for ponderings of your own!)
First, the gift of gold. Gold reminds me of many of our traditional New Year’s greetings; you will often hear people wishing each other "health and wealth" or "peace and prosperity" in the year to come. And there’s nothing wrong with wishing someone the ability to pay their rent, feed their kids and enjoy some treats along the way. But the magis’ gift of gold rose above a preoccupation with bank accounts - it symbolized their acknowledgment of Jesus as King.
So I wonder if in the year ahead we might consider what gold we have to offer Jesus. Rather than living with anxiety about gas prices and mortgage rates, we can empower ourselves by releasing some of our resources - whether that is money or stuff, space or time - for use in the world around us. My tiny victory in this arena came after a meeting with a clergy colleague in which we both confessed to being the kind of people who hoard their gift cards in their night table drawer, waiting for just the right occasion or the proverbial rainy day. Mom, too, was a firm believer in the virtue of delayed gratification, so when she died I inherited her night table stash as well, and as there was an Indigo card amongst them, that was kind of thrilling.
Me being me, I continued hoarding them until I realized that with every day that passed the likelihood grew that my own children would in turn inherit this growing night table treasury, with half the shops by then being quite possibly out of business. Acknowledging that this was becoming a bit ridiculous, I took my beloved Indigo cards and posted them to an out-of-town niece and nephew to help with their family Christmas shopping, and this gave me a good excuse to reconnect and send greetings. I discovered that being able to gift them with a treat out of the blue made me feel far richer than being able to order myself a few free books.
We offer our gold to Christ whenever we share our resources in ways small or large - when we offer someone a ride in our car, when we pass along goods that we have been keeping "just in case" but that are in fact being wasted on our shelves, when we drop off a meal to someone who is ill, when we tackle our roommate’s dirty dishes for them, or when we share our home in creative new ways with an immigrant, a student, a relative or a refugee. Every time we unlock our resources even a little, we become better at recognizing just how much we do have to share; in this regard, our pockets aren’t just deep but bottomless. So may our new year’s resolution be that regardless of our bank balance, we find myriad ways to offer our gold to Jesus.
Next, the frankincense, which signified Jesus as the God to whom incense is raised. You may recall the second verse of Psalm 141, which reads "Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice."
With each passing year, it it to be hoped that we become ever more faithful in our prayer life and our walk with God. Any good relationship must continue to evolve and grow as our life circumstances change and this includes our relationship with the Divine.
Here l return to John Harrison, the man I mentioned in the Children’s Talk. The British Board of Longitude had offered a prize to the person whose invention could navigate a ship to the West Indies with a maximum error of 30 minutes, or 0.5 degrees longitude. The prize was the equivalent of roughly $4 million today. John Harrison, a carpenter from Yorkshire who had taught himself to read and write, successfully crafted a clock that used counterbalanced oscillating rods instead of a pendulum, allowing it to maintain time even when rocked by stormy seas. This, in turn, allowed longitude to be calculated accurately, leading to vastly safer and faster voyages.
The clock was hugely successful during a trip to Portugal a year later, in 1736, but instead of putting it to the West Indies test, John Harrison asked the Board of Longitude for more time so he could make his clock even more accurate.
He kept improving his timepiece and even though he created two more versions that would very likely have won him the grand prize, it was not until he came up with the fourth version in 1759 that he had completed the task to his own satisfaction. Sure enough, when he finally offered it up for official testing on a trip from England to the West Indies in 1761, the time loss upon arrival in Jamaica was only five seconds. He eventually collected the entirety of his prize money in 1775, three years before he died at the age of 83.
Reading about this, I was amazed by John Harrison’s decades-long commitment to making better something that was already very good. So it is my new year’s resolution that over this next 12 months, as I navigate whatever calm or stormy seas may await, I remember that one’s relationship to God can always be improved. John Harrison kept working on his clock when others would have considered their efforts complete and their quest accomplished. Similarly, may I always resist a premature urge to believe that I have "arrived" in my spiritual journeying, and continue to seek an ever-deeper knowledge and love of God.
And, finally, myrrh - a resin used in burial and embalming rites in ancient times, and said to foreshadow the Christ child’s death. On January 1, as we take stock of the year that was and face the year that will be, it is natural to remember those who have departed this life, and be reminded of our own mortality.
Often enough this leads to a mental "bucket list" of all the adventures and accomplishments we want to tick off before we die. But if there is one thing I have learned, it generally isn’t these red-letter events that bring comfort and wholeness to our later years, but the way we have chosen to live our life in between them.
I think I had my first and best inkling of this truth some years back when Mom was in the hospital for surgery to relieve the pressure on her brain from a bleed sustained in a fall a few weeks earlier. The sudden, concerning impact on her cognition and mobility was significant. But that day as her short-term memory tanked along with her ability to walk, Mom didn’t respond with anxiety or crankiness; instead, as my sister, niece and I tried to help her navigate some of life’s awkward necessities we were engulfed in gales of laughter. Amidst her jumbled thinking, Mom’s natural sense of humour had risen to the surface and was setting the tone for us all
I took it as an important life lesson. In our latter days, as we face physical challenge or our ultimate mortality, we no doubt wish to be kind to those around us, have a sense of humour, and/or keep our complaining to a low rumble. If that’s the case, the time to start practising is now. The social courtesies, states of mind, and attitudes we develop and maintain throughout our life will be our accompaniment at the end - our swaddling blankets, if you will - and these qualities aren’t usually determined by ticking off items on a bucket list.
In some ways we might do better by taking items off our to-do list, rather than adding them. I took a few days away from my downtown job before Christmas, and amidst all the holiday preparation I found myself with some unexpected pockets of free time. To my delight, I was able to sit and visit unhurriedly with a number of elderly friends I hadn’t seen in too long, and for me this was a real highlight of the season. I was reminded yet again of the what is missed when we stuff our schedules full of tasks and projects, then spend our remaining time zoned out in front of the television, too tired to do anything else.
The work must get done, of course. But by being conscious of how we use and organize time, we can create unspoken-for hours that lend themselves to creative endeavour, a chat with a friend, a walk by the sea, or a cup of coffee in a never-before-visited cafe.
As we celebrate both New Year’s Day and Epiphany this morning, we are called to remember two kinds of time - chronos, or chronological time, and kairos, God’s time. It is easy to run our life on chronos and pay too little heed to the kairos. So my new year’s resolution is to ensure I am living as I wish to die, and to accomplish that I need to set aside time regularly for leisure, for learning, and for deepening my relationships with God and with the people around me. Perhaps you too might like to pay greater attention to making opportunities in your week to put aside the tools of production and sink into God’s gifts of rest and recreation. Rabbi Heschel called the Sabbath a "cathedral in time," and that it is. How might we start building our cathedral in the weeks to come?
So, inspired by gold, frankincense, and myrhh, these have been the musings I will carry with me through New Year’s Day and in the lead up to the actual day of Epiphany on January 6. I would be happy to hear from you your own thoughts as we embark on a new year of challenge and opportunity. May God bless and keep us all in 2023, and may we live so as to please God in all our doings, today and in all our days to come. Amen.