Imagine sitting down at dinner with an extremely eclectic and gregarious group of people, such as family members from all over, neighbors of neighbors, friends of friends, you know, the hodgepodge that usually gathers over a free meal and free-flowing bottles of wine. What could you possibly talk about to keep things interesting and yet avoid a major social catastrophe? Well, I guess you could talk about current movies (good and flops), food, clothes and fashion, music and even a little about what you do for a living. So far so good? Okay, let’s change gears a bit. Now ask who you’re going to vote for. Tick. Tick. Tick.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There is something quite wonderful at work here as the title of this piece might suggest to you. We are about to open a can of, well, not worms, but simply a starting point to explore where we are right now, sandwiched in-between the Merry Christmas and Happy Easter of our commonly-shared yearly bookends. Could there be something wildly mystical about this space after Epiphany and before Ash Wednesday? No doubt you know the answer to that.
The Christmas story is largely non-threatening to the casual, once-in-a-while, and nonbeliever. Jesus is in the manger, surrounded by Mary and Joseph and the adoring shepherds, even the later visit of the Magi is easy to take. For some, it is a charming story about the birth of a great teacher, a holy man, a historical figure. By amazing contrast, Easter is more than a silent night or eight tiny graceful reindeer. We could easily say that the Easter story is both absorbingly terrible and astonishingly overwhelming with despicable betrayal by a close friend, the three-course meal of denial served by a trusted brother, the most insanely brutal execution by any standards and then the exhaustive resolution of this entire complexity of humanity in only three days. The cute rabbits and pastel-colored-hollowed egg shells simply don’t do the trick and most people know that, which would probably explain why Easter decorations come down as quickly as they surface in stores and window fronts, interestingly enough, like rabbits.
It is clear that without Christmas we couldn’t have Easter and without Easter, Christmas is just another excuse to shop, overeat and watch children make forever memories. So what are we to make of these fifty days or so of rumblings beneath our souls’ surface? How can we link these two stunning realities and make sense of it all? The fifty days shouldn’t be wasted on returning to the routine that we all say we dislike and end up restarting with gobs of regret and complaints. Something very wonderful is at play here and unless we stop for a while, we are going to miss it, again.
A great notion to introduce right about now has to do with the mystery of our existence which nobody can deny. We are all born and we all die while the real quality and overwhelming meaning of each of them lies in what happens in the middle. What have we done with all the seconds and minutes and hours that we have been given and apportioned? This is the time to ask and answer these life-altering and enriching questions. What are we to do to make this life qualitatively magnificent and wonderful?
If what we do with this great gift of life between birth and death has everything to do with success or failure, then let’s take a look at what lies before us between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday. Two moments, Presentation and Valentines, come to mind.
On February 2, fifty days after the celebration of Christmas, there is a spiritual spectacle of the presentation, when Jesus is presented in the Temple according to the prescripts of the Law. Of course his parents, Mary and Joseph are there, but there are yet two other persons who are present for the presentation who have remarkable stories and loads to teach us. It’s all about waiting for good things, the greater the good, the more patience necessary. Anna was “advanced in years” and waited in the Temple for something remarkable many years after the untimely death of her young husband.
To underscore this timely notion that he also serves who sits and waits, the second of these two wonderful reminders of the mystery of life and death appears. His name is Simeon. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Christ of the Lord.” And today was the day. Once he saw the Christ child, his time had come, and he exclaimed, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word, for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory for your people Israel.”
You see, after that one moment of fulfillment had arrived, it was time to place everything on the table and meet the Lord face-to-face. That moment is so different for each one of us that it can take billions of forms and situations which defy the imagination. But make no mistake, it is coming and it is a good idea to begin the dress rehearsal whenever possible, say, during this special interim of Christmas and Easter. What would I do right here, today, if I could see Jesus face-to-face?
About two weeks later, every year, we come upon another interesting pause along the journey of life and love. It is Valentine’s Day. Flowers, candy, red hearts and romance. That’s what Valentine’s day is all about, right? Well, maybe not. The origin of this holiday for the expression of love really isn’t romantic at all—at least not in the traditional sense. St. Valentine was a Roman Priest at a time when there was an emperor called Claudius who prohibited the marriage of young people. This was based on this monarch’s skewed thinking that unmarried soldiers fought better than married soldiers because the married soldiers might be preoccupied about their wives or families if they died. Obviously the Church thought that marriage was sacred for their life and that it was to be encouraged. He then secretly began conducting secret Sacramental marriages despite the edict and the imminent danger to his life. That sad day did arrive as Valentine was eventually caught, imprisoned, tortured and executed for performing marriage ceremonies against the direct command of the Emperor.
Valentines are red today precisely because this priest shed his blood in the name of the sanctity and freedom it takes to love and be loved. This day has the deep potential of reminding us that there comes a time where we have to lay our life upon the line for what we believe. With the power of the Holy Spirit, we absolutely can achieve this—even to the point of death. We can even state more broadly that before we enter into any friendship that we hold valuable, especially romantic and marital love, we express wholeheartedly our dependence on God in order that we can love and love with the heart of Christ which will take us all the way into Heaven. Love—human love and sexuality is wonderful, and blessed by God—but it also exists under the shadow of the cross to remind us that unless we know what it means to sacrifice, we will never know what it means to love.
So here we are back at that eclectic dinner table of our lives with everyone we invited and some of those who surprised us. Between birth and death and new life, there is literally a trove of wisdom to be excavated. What are we going to do, now that we have found ourselves in this spiritual twilight zone of decision and being?
Here are a few thoughts:
Everyone wants to be happy. But not everyone knows how to reach that reality or recognize the sufficient tools they need to achieve that place. What is clear is that unless we can empty ourselves of our selves, often petty and selfish, we might never catch that bus. Let’s avoid the safe and non-threatening topics of our conversations, especially with those whom we love.
If Christmas and Easter teach us anything, it is that they have become twin-portals to a new life with Jesus who is the perfect friend, ally, and Savior who is fully human and fully divine. Who knows why you are reading this right now. Perhaps it is the same Lord who wants to be closer friends with you. Can’t you see Him inviting you on this journey?
Live in such a way that those who know you, but don’t know God, will come to know God because they know you. Say all your prayers with one foot in Christmas and one foot in Easter.