(Keith Haring, "Radiant Baby" from his work, "Birth," 1986)
"Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed."
I was reminded of another funny phenomenon in the world of "collective memory" the other day.
A little background: One of the miraculous things that happened when I started becoming a piece of the life of Trinity-Kirksville is that I went from being a "don't go to church at all" person to one of the most regular churchgoers you ever did see. Honestly, I don't know how that happened. But it did.
What I've discovered, is people are simply so used to me being there, when they start telling stories about our shared life in the parish, their memory is that I was there...even when I wasn't.
In the space of the week, three different people have told a story about the parish in front of a group of people, where they started with "Well, you remember when we..." and went on to tell the story. Well, truth is, I wasn't there. There are times I actually was out of town and not at church. Not very many, but there are a few just the same.
But they were telling the story, and they were so happy and animated telling the story, and they didn't ask me to add anything to the story, so I decided, "Well...to correct them...to say I wasn't there, sidetracks their story, and I am enjoying their story so much, as is everyone else...well...there's no point in interrupting the flow of this."
Once in a while, when it's just me and the other person, I will correct them, and when I do, they get this quizzical look and say, "Really? You weren't? That's funny. I remember you there. I could swear you were there."
This has been both a source of amusement and a source of comfort to me. I have come to accept that people just sort of have this collective memory of events in our parish, where I am included as a "fixture," just like the pews or the altar or the holy hardware. It has made me realize that even if I suddenly dropped dead, there is a presence, an "aura" that is me, and it would live on for some time in the collective memory of the parish, as long as there is someone who remembers the story. Whether I was there or not at a specific function is irrelevant. Even if no one remembered anymore, I'm still there.
Sometimes when I am alone in our sanctuary, I look at the walls and say to myself, "Old girl (my nickname for the building,) who's stuck on these walls that I don't know, but they talk to me through the Holy Spirit? What prayers were uttered here decades ago that link to mine? Would I feel I "know" those people? Will I recognize them in Heaven? I sure hope so. Open me up to them, Lord. Let me hear them through you, if there's something I need to hear from them."
That became a comfort to me at a time when I was feeling pretty unsure and down about my presence in the parish. There have been times, frankly, I wish I'd never set foot in it. But these times have been temporary, and they are almost always assuaged by thoughts of all the people who have sat in the pews since 1917 that I don't know, but they are part of my collective history. I get to thinking there has to be at least one of them who felt the way I do now.
This is what I get to thinking about when we hear both the story of the Nativity and the Epiphany.
We all have this collective memory of the Nativity and the Epiphany that has "three wise men." But do we really know there were three? We attribute it to three because we know they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We assume there is "one wise man per gift." The Gospel account of it in Matthew only says there were "wise men from the East." We believe there were three because every Nativity set we ever saw has three little figurines in it.
But really, for all I know, there could have been as few as two, or some unnamed number past three. There could have been even more gifts, we just know of three. But to get bogged down in the details detracts from the central focus of the story; namely, they traveled to see Jesus, and when they got there, they saw this radiant baby. They saw a light and a radiance so pure, the image stuck with them and it made them radiant. It made them want to give both the treasures of the world, and the treasure in their hearts to this baby. This radiance was carried out on their faces and for a time, they felt no shame, no guilt, no righteous justification, no fear. It was so good, they knew it could not be brought back to Herod; that it could induce jealousy and coveting, and could be their undoing, as well as the child's.
But the central theme of this story is simply to describe the light of this radiant baby. To obsess over the factual details of this truth detracts from the central truth in the same way my interrupting parish stories to insist I was or was not there at the time, detracts from that person transmitting the radiance of the story. The central theme of parish stories is to transmit the light of what is Trinity-Kirksville as an image of the light of God.
When you get right down to it, I do remember these parish moments where I wasn't physically present, because I remember the story tellers telling it. For instance, I was not at the ordination of our Priest Associate in 2006. But I remember it, because I heard some parts of her story as it happened for her, and I remember the stories of two different people in the same car who traveled to see it, and some adventures surrounding it. Their memories have become mine.
So in that sense, each of us is allowed ownership in remembering the Nativity, the Epiphany, the life of Christ, the trial, the crucifixion, and the Resurrection. When we hear, "We celebrate the memorial of our redemption," in Eucharistic Prayer A, we are allowed our own "memories" of it through our spiritual imagination.
Epiphany gives us the opportunity to tap into that collective memory of a journey that resulted in the glimpse of a radiant baby. Glimpses that changed lives and thoughts and hearts. Today, I simply invite you to look to that baby and be radiant.