Sunday, January 6, 2013


UPDATE - 11:00pm
About an hour ago, we were leaving from a lovely Epiphany dinner hosted by a neighboring pastor.  As we were getting into the car, I paused: it sounded like the clippity-clop of horse hooves ringing through the falling snow.  Sure enough, an Amish buggy slowly rolled by.  You don't normally see them at that hour, especially on a Sunday night...but hey, they've been out visiting for Old Christmas.

   The Epiphany of the Lord   

For the past few decades,
the Amish have more and more become a part of 
the North Country landscape.
But while we’re getting used
to seeing their buggies on the road,
most of us know very little 
about the folks at the reigns.
The Amish are 
famously private people.
Even if you live right next door
or regularly stop 
at one their roadside stands,
it’s difficult to get much sense 
of what makes them tick.

Which is why my ears perked right up Wednesday morning
about how our Amish neighbors celebrate Christmas.

While many of them have also adopted December 25,
today—January 6—is traditionally celebrated
by conservative Amish communities as “Old Christmas.”
(The difference in date between our Christmas and Old Christmas
have to do with reforms made in the calendar centuries ago.)
It’s a day of rest and a day of fast: no eating before noontime.
But then there’s a great feast,
topped off with pie and homemade candy.
There are no Christmas trees or other decorations.
(After all, where would they plug in the lights?)
And if gifts are exchanged,
they’re usually handcrafted, generally simple, and always useful.
(No Amish parents go into debt
buying their kids the latest and greatest!)
For the Amish, Old Christmas is a visiting day:
a day for gathering with family and calling on friends.
It has few of the outward trappings
of a modern American Christmas,
but shares something vital at its core:
it’s a day for being together.
For the Amish,
the heart of Christmas is being together.

For us Catholics (and for many other Christians, too),
today, January 6—the twelfth day of Christmas—
is also the traditional date for a great celebration:
the Epiphany of the Lord.
“Epiphany” means manifestation or revelation.
And just what mystery is being unveiled?
That heaven’s glory has shone upon the earth;
that the Ruler of all and Rescuer of the poor
rests a helpless child on his virgin Mother’s knee;
that the very Son of God has appeared
in our human flesh.

Epiphany, you see, is all about being together:
not merely with neighbors and relatives,
as the Amish celebrate Old Christmas;
Epiphany is all about God being together with us.
In a serious deviation from the original plan,
sin—and with it, death—had come between God and man.
But the God who had created us in love and for love
would not allow the separation to continue.
Since we could not cross that chasm and find our own way back,
God came in person to be together with us here and now,
that we might in turn be together with God hereafter.

That’s the essential truth which underlies
all of our soon-to-be concluded Christmas festivities…
…but a truth which gets buried too often
beneath the weight of so much tinsel and wrapping paper.
Having—if you will—this second, far simpler Christmas
gives us a chance to reflect on what brought
those treasure-bearing magi to their knees.
Unlike our Amish comrades,
the King of kings and Lord of lords
is not at all standoffish.
Quite the opposite, in fact:
God has gone far out of his way to come close to us.
It’s hard to think of anything more approachable
than a tiny, vulnerable baby.
And yet this child, although appearing weak,
has the power to bring the whole world together.
His birth was the much-anticipated fulfillment
of a promise made to a single chosen people,
but the citizens of every land and nation—
following in the footsteps of a few star-guided foreigners—
have come to adore him.

The day after I heard that piece on the radio,
I was in the grocery store
and saw a pair of Amish women checking out the produce.
(For some unknown reason,
they seemed particularly interested in watermelon.)
If I wasn’t feeling just about as shy as they do,
I might have asked if they were shopping
for a big dinner with visitors on Old Christmas.

As we have gathered on this feast of the Lord’s Epiphany—
gathered here to be fed by him in the Eucharist—
let’s make sure we observe this as a real “visiting day.”
Like the magi when reaching their long journey’s goal,
may we truly be overjoyed
to recognize that God has visited his people—
and has remained to dwell among us still.
What could matter more, really—at Christmas or ever—
than our being together?

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