While I was living and working in Haiti, I learned a few Haitian proverbs. “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.” “A beautiful funeral doesn't guarantee heaven.” “After mountains, more mountains.” And, my favorite: “If you want to see, you have to look twice.”
My mentor and friend, Stephanie Paulsell (who wrote a lovely book called Honoring the Body which is all about the Christian practice of taking care of our beautiful, vulnerable, God-given bodies) once told me the story of her wedding day. It had all the usual trappings: a beautiful dress, flowers, hair, makeup, family flown in from out of town, and the rest.
Everything had been prepared; everything was ready. Her father was by her side, ready to walk her down the aisle. The doors to the chapel were opened - and Stephanie saw her soon-to-be-husband at the end of the long aisle.
He was standing there smiling at her, full of love on top of love, and she froze. For a split second she was paralyzed, unable to move, because all she could think about was that someday, he was going to die.
She couldn’t love him, couldn’t marry her Kevin, because one day he was going to die.
Then she looked twice, like that Haitian proverb, and she saw things more clearly.
This is what she saw: the presence of death, inevitable as it may be, makes love all the more urgent, all the more powerful, all the more committed, all the more vulnerable, all the more tender. And so this is what she did: she took a deep breath, stepped into the sanctuary, and began the most wonderful, beautiful walk of her life.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was threatened and frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophets.”
So King Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. And he 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.”
When they had heard the king, they set out - and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child had been born.
I had an Epiphany of my own this Christmas. I was in church, and we were singing, “Joy to the World!” It was bright and full and grand. The organ, the brass, and the timpani were swirling through the air of the big downtown church, and in my mind’s eye, I saw the wise men. I saw them setting out, following the star until it stopped over “City Soleil,” the “City of the Sun,” the “City of Light.”
That’s what they call Haiti’s largest slum, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere, home to half a million people.
Sitting there in church, I saw the wise men following the star until it stopped over those houses made of concrete, plastic, cardboard, and tin.
I saw them following the star right down into those narrow, overcrowded streets, hitching up their regal robes, standing knee deep in the poverty and sorrow.
And when they arrived outside the stable, I saw them standing there paralyzed, as frozen as Stephanie at her wedding, unable to move, overwhelmed by the forces of oppression that made that baby lie in such a mean estate.
But then they looked twice.
They looked at Mary, and at the child nursing so quietly, so quietly.
They looked twice and saw that it was God, God in the flesh, God coming in to the world in the City of the Sun. It was God, creator of heaven and earth, and of Saturn, and snow leopards, and sugarcane. They looked twice and saw that it was God, born in a stable, laying in a manger, siding with the poor, and turning everything upside down.
They had gifts with them, of course: gold, a gift fit for the King of kings; frankincense, the incense fit for the Priest of priests; and myrrh, a herb traditionally used in burial.
They knew he would suffer, they knew he would die. But that only made their love for him more urgent, more powerful, more committed, more vulnerable, more tender. They saw the shadow of death, but then they looked again, and saw things more clearly.
And so this is what they did: they took a deep breath, stepped into the sanctuary, and began the most wonderful, beautiful walk of their lives.
Thanks to Sam Fam for this festive photo!