Homily for Sunday, January 6, 2019
Preached at St John’s, Newtonville
As a young man in his early twenties, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke traveled with his girlfriend and her husband to Russia. Whether it was the Russian land or people, or Rilke’s encounter with the Orthodox Church, or perhaps his travel arrangements that led to an extraordinary burst of creativity, we don’t know. What we do know is that upon his return, over the course of 25 days, Rilke wrote his Book of Hours, 67 poems that grew out of his prayer at that time. They are wonderful! Here are the openings lines of #45:
You come and go. The doors swing closed
ever more gently, almost without a sound.
Of all who move through quiet houses,
you are the quietest. (I, 45)
But I don’t want to begin with Rilke. Nor do I want to begin with the story of the three wise men we’ve just heard. Rather—perhaps it’s because we’re here at 297 Lowell Ave., right across from Newton North High School— I want to begin with tigers [the mascot of NNHS].
In “Man-Eaters,” an online article from The Ringer (September 25, 2018), Brian Phillips writes of going on safari in India to see tigers:
Of the twelve tigers I saw in India, one might have been a ghost; two were in water, eight were on land, and one was sleeping in a tree…
Phillips might have seen more tigers except that:
In the presence of a tiger what most astonishes is not its size or its power or even its beauty but its capacity to disappear. I’m sure you’ve heard about the stealth of tigers on nature shows. It’s no preparation for the reality. You will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen… The way a tiger arrives is, there is nothing there. Then a tiger is there.
The best way to see a tiger, says Phillips, is to pay attention to the “shiver” in the jungle.
The arrival of a tiger, it’s true, is often preceded by moments of rising tension, because a tiger’s presence changes the jungle around it… Birdcalls darken. Small deer call softly to each other. Herds do not run but drift into shapes that suggest some emerging group consciousness of an escape route. A kind of shiver seems to run through everything… The best way to find a tiger is to switch off your engine and listen. You might then hear, from a distance, the subtle changes in pitch and cadence that indicate the boundary of [the tiger’s arrival] zone.
King Herod was a tiger living in a jungle. In his world of palace intrigue, Herod could surely commiserate with Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” Like Henry’s, Herod’s senses were keenly attuned. So “When the wise men from the east came to Jerusalem asking, Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?’” Herod “switched off his engine and listened:”
He inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born… They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea…”
But since “you will not see a tiger that does not choose to be seen,” the wise men did not see Herod, who slyly and cunningly
sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Herod had felt the shiver.
But just as Herod is wild, so also is there something wild about Jesus—Jesus is not so easily caught. And though Herod might be wild in a tiger kind of way, ready to pounce, claw and devour, Jesus is wild—and perhaps it’s because we’re here, at 297 Lowell Ave., just upstairs from the Bowen Preschool, that I’m going to say that— [Jesus is wild] and not so easily caught in a child kind of way. Let me explain:
“When I was a little girl, I hid in church,” writes Trish Harrison Warren (now a priest in the Church of England).
My best friend Amanda was the preacher’s youngest daughter. We hated to leave each other after the worship service. So we hatched a plan to hide under a table in the corner of the fellowship hall… I’m not sure what we’d imagined our parents doing as we grabbed hands after the dismissal and beelined to our hiding spot. (Did we think they’d give up on finding us and leave?) My parents said they found me within twenty minutes… but in my memory we were there for hours. I remember Amanda’s auburn hair falling in ribbons on the white tile as we huddled on our knees, hidden under the table, the happy murmur of the crowd swelling under the organ postlude; later, the grown-up shins with pleated slacks and shiny black shoes walking toward the table alerted us that our gig was up. We were found. [From “True Story,” in the Spring, 2018, issue of “The Point.”]
If it is true about a tiger that what most astonishes is not its power or its beauty but its capacity to disappear, so is it true about Jesus that what often most astonishes is not his power or even his beauty, but his capacity to disappear. Jesus loves to disappear, he loves to go and hide. Jesus loves to go and hide not for any reasons of cunning or fear; Jesus loves to hide because he wants to take our hand and beeline to a place where he might more fully show us his glory. Jesus loves to hide because Jesus loves to be seen. There is so much more that Jesus wants to show us, that Jesus wants to tell us. So Jesus moves quietly, so very quietly, not only to encourage us to look more closely, but also so that we might learn to look past how we usually see, past our assumptions of what we think we should see, when we “see” Jesus. For, as Rilke puts it later in the same poem: “We become so accustomed to you, we no longer look up when your shadow falls.” And so Jesus comes and goes ever more gently, “of all who move through quiet houses the quietest,” hoping that we will “switch off our engine and listen.” Hoping that we will look carefully, hoping that we will hear his invitation and take his hand and go off and hide—with him! “Come away to a deserted place,” he says in Mark. Or, “arise… and come away… my love, my fair one,” he says in the Song of Songs.
When we are ready, if we allow ourselves, we can—to borrow from that lovely poem by Frances Chesterton (and that the choir will sing momentarily)—come to the “Little door,” where “we need not wander more,” but can
…enter with our gift;
Our gift of finest gold…
Myrrh to be strewn about his bed;
Incense in clouds about his head…
Gifts for His children, terrible and sweet;
Touched by such tiny hands,
and Oh such tiny feet.
On this Feast of the Epiphany this demure and quiet Jesus, invites us to switch off our engines and listen. It is the “tigers” of this world whose stealth causes birdcalls to darken, small deer to call softly to each other, and a shiver to run through the jungle. But Jesus moves even more quietly—“of all who move… the quietest”—who, when he shows himself, shows not teeth and claws but “tiny hands and Oh such tiny feet.” Who leads us to a place, perhaps hidden, where we can enter, and kneel down, and draw close, and offer gifts, and worship, and where twenty minutes feels like forever in a good way… And where we can be “found.” It’s what our hearts really want, isn’t it, to be found with this Jesus, and to kneel down and worship? Why not this Epiphany allow ourselves to go there? Why not allow ourselves to take his hand and to go with him under the table—or to a deserted place, or through the “little door”— and to feel not a shiver but profound satisfaction, not a rising tension but increasing joy. Which always precedes and follows Jesus wherever he goes, and wherever we let him in.