When the Three Wise Men found what the star in the East led them to—the Christ Child in the manger—they bowed and paid homage before the divine poverty arrayed before them, and presented their expensive gifts. And after the allotted time, they turned away and headed back to the land from whence they came—as the Gospel account records—“by another route.”
With the reading of that story, our Christmas season officially came to an end, and like the Wise Men, we, too, have “turned around” and gone back to resuming our lives in an uncertain world. For us “moderns,” that meant getting back to work after a brief—though very welcome—holiday respite; our Christmas preparations and celebrations have wound down and the confetti that has ushered in the New Year had settled and have been swept away, while the horns that blared its welcomes have gone silent. And we realize: it is still the same world.
It could be a disorienting thought, that.
It is still the same world, the world we have endured through a sometimes excruciating year, with all of its pains and sorrows. Still, there were times when moments of joy and grace broke through, when we were given a chance to realize that there is good and that everything is not entirely bad—though it must be admitted that the bad often threatened what good we saw and what good we did, through no fault of our own, whether it was done as a result of nature’s handiwork or human deeds of commission or omission. The Christmas season was greatly needed, for this past year presented intractable problems made worse by intractable people who very often made it harder for the rest of us to bear, deal with, endure or overcome. “We need a little Christmas” was a phrase that was more of a prayer than the verse of a song for most people. When we most needed to have the Christmas spirit linger a little longer, it was gone, at least “officially,” and real life crept back in.
The somewhat superficial aspects of Christmas—while pleasant and often welcomed—such as the decorations and gift-giving, the civic observances and the holiday get-togethers practically disappeared before Christmas Eve had ever begun. The tell-tale signs that “life was returning to normal” was evident even before Christmas Eve was barely minutes old when the television “infomercials” hit the airwaves that night, replacing the bows and ribbons that bedecked the holiday commercials, shoving Santa and his reindeer aside for what society considers the more important commercial things, like Valentine’s Day and the annual January white sale.
We were bombarded by the annual ritual of being reminded of the need for continual self-improvement. Some of it was serious, but also comical. If you thought about it hard enough and let yourself be influenced by it, you could magically transform yourself, through the power of the infomercial: you can lose up to 40 pounds as in many days and you can have the brightest smile imaginable using the latest dental gizmo. You can also have those mystifying age spots magically disappear (along with the droopy eyes and the sagging neck), not to mention having your food sliced-and-diced to resemble a four-star restaurant’s photographically attractive dish. All the while listening to the “music of your life,” diverting your thoughts to when being young was so promising and oh, so vague. All of which causes you to have unrealistic expectations, thus making the return to normal life that much harder. And on and on in goes…
The first working week of the new year is now over and daily rituals have commenced once again. Before the sun is officially “up” and before we are truly “awake,” we have pushed the buttons on the already reset alarm clocks and have begun once again to seriously pay attention to the traffic reports from either the radio or the TV (or sometimes both, simultaneously) while trying to beat the world record for hightailing it to work, while resuming the unhealthy habits of gulping down what goes for a breakfast: drinking some kind of a hot liquid and eating something on the fly that passes for being “nutritional.” This is what passes for “normal” life: rushing to reach the front door of our job, switching on our official smiles, thinking we’d rather be back home, under the covers, especially when those winter days brings nothing but snow and wet and gigantic traffic jams and delays of every sort.
But just the same…deep down we know different, and better. We know how fortunate we really are: we are alive and we get to see another day, and hopefully, many more days after that. We have our troubles, sure, but there are poor souls who suffer more than we ever will and they bear it with more grace and dignity than we can ever muster. There are people who are richer or poorer than we are and there are people who are saints while many are sinners, slowly working their way up to that exalted status. We have a roof over our heads and a place to rest. There is food on the table and people to share it with: family and friends. And there is faith: God is in his heaven and we are not abandoned. And we have numerous blessings to think about—and be grateful for—blessings which ought to smooth over the rough edges of our existence.
Yes, Christmas is officially over, and “ordinary time” has resumed. Despite the wonder and the beauty of it, ours is still the same world that the Christ child entered into. Many of the problems we have today were ever present then: violence, hatred, greed, inequality. For some people, Christmas can be a time for sorrow and tribulation, though it was not meant—was never meant—to be that. It was in Christmas that God chose to remind us of his love. This is something we take for granted and often forget, this beautiful Christmas mystery that has penetrated our “ordinary time.”
Perhaps this is the “epiphany” we need today, that despite our ordinary lives, God gives us manifold reasons for new years and new hopes; and like the Wise Men, we can go about our lives knowing that our lives can be transformed, just from seeing that star from the East.