By Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick
Growing up, on the 12th night of Christmas, my siblings and I would go out into the yard to gather “straw” for the wise men’s camels. Through high school and college, we would fill shoe boxes with grass for the visitors from the East who would come in the night. We awoke on Jan. 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, to three small gifts brought to us by the kings. That day, called “Little Christmas” in many countries, celebrates the gift of the Incarnation to all people, Gentile and Jew.
Who were these wise men? Why did they leave their home and families just to meet a baby? What did they do when they returned to their home country? Were they changed by their meeting with God-made-man, even as a baby? Were there others, who studied the heavens for a sign, but did not give up everything to follow the star?
As we imagine what it could have been like for these men, I wonder how I, too, can become wise and observant enough to recognize God in our midst. The wise men offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh: I wonder what I may also bring him.
Unlike the wise men, who were only given the natural world to know God, we have with us the very Word of God. Like the star, God’s word is a clear sign to follow. Entering daily into the word will help us recognize God’s presence in our lives.
An Eastern European folktale of a hard-hearted shepherd demonstrates another necessary part of the path to recognize Christ in everyday life.
The shepherd, whose story is found in the beautiful picture book, “What the Shepherd Saw,” is tending his sheep deep in the night when a man comes looking for fire to warm his wife and newborn child. As the man advances, the sheep dogs try to bite him, the sheep are packed so close together as to prevent approaching the fire, and the shepherd throws his staff at him, yet no harm comes to the man.
The man is able to carry the fire with his bare hands and with no ill-effect. The shepherd, wondering at the protection the man has received, follows him to the mountain grotto where the man’s wife and child lay. He, though a cold man, is moved with compassion. He gives the family a sheep skin to warm the child. With that act of mercy, the shepherd’s eyes are opened and he sees a whole host of angels surrounding the grotto, singing.
Like the shepherd, I, too see more fully when I act out of mercy. When I look upon another, child or adult, with tenderness, I see them – the truth of their personhood – more fully. Their beauty, their uniqueness, their spark and even their loneliness or pain, is more apparent. The truth of who they are in Christ becomes clearer.
The wise men themselves demonstrate another key component to recognizing Christ’s presence in the world: silence and observation. We do not know a lot about these mysterious visitors from the East, but we do know that they spent a lot of time looking at the heavens and quietly studying. They recognized the new star because of their familiarity with what exists.
How much do I observe in silence? Our public spaces are loud, constantly filled with music and television. At home, things are usually busy, going from one chore or task to another – and it is easy to fill a dull moment with distraction, whether from my phone or a book.
Can I take the time to just look, like the wise men did? How will I recognize the signs of God’s presence if I don’t?