I don’t write poetry. But earlier today, while searching for an old document on my computer, I found something I wrote three years ago:
“The Common Room”
How does it happen?— this transformation.
Arriving from many directions,
one bearing snacks,
another the workday’s toll of tension;
one anxious for the family dinner,
one thinking still of the parent’s sickbed,
or the child’s;
one joyful from a day well spent, and one
still processing, processing
the pain of another, revealed
How do we do it?
How do we become a whole,
each listening to the other,
accepting ideas not our own,
wiser and more compassionate
than any of us alone;
creating and calling
the spirit of life,
the spirit of love.
And then leaving, returning
to the home, or the workplace;
to the family, or the empty room;
to the sick parent, or child;
or to walk quietly before sleep,
thinking, thinking of this day.
How do we come together?
How do we make this time sacred?
When the song of the angels is stilled, +++When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home, +++When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins: +++to find the lost, +++to heal the broken, +++to feed the hungry, +++to release the prisoner, +++to rebuild the nations, +++to bring peace among the brothers, +++to make music in the heart.
— Howard Thurman
“The New Colossus”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
— Emma Lazarus
In the name of heaven I ask you for shelter,
for my beloved wife can go no farther.
This is not an inn! Get on with you!
I can’t open the door; you might be some rascal.
These are the first two verses — translated into English — of a song for Las Posadas, a nine-day celebration of the Christmas story that has been part of Mexican culture for centuries. Each night, a procession travels to a home or a shop that represents the inn at Bethlehem. The people in the procession sing to the people inside the house, asking to be let in; the people inside sing back: “Go away!” This exchange is repeated several times, until finally the inn-keeper realizes that this is Joseph and Mary at the door; he lets them in, and everyone shares food.
The Christmas story is just one of the stories we tell to one another in this season, as the days get shorter and shorter before Solstice. We tell stories to keep spirits up through the darkness, stories to pass the time through the long nights, stories to help draw meaning from the growing shortness of the days, and from the returning of the light.
Every story we hear gives us a chance for reflection. When you reflect on a story, you can think of all of the characters in turn, and ask yourself: What would the story be like told from their point of view? You can ask yourself: If I were to retell this tale, what parts would I emphasize?
This idea of reflection and reframing is one reason why I like the tradition of Las Posadas. Consider the Gospel of Luke, part of the Christian Scriptures. Luke tells the story of Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s home town; Joseph is returning there because Augustus Caesar required that everyone go back to their home town to pay taxes. While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth; in the Gospel of Luke, the story goes like this:
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)
Then follows the familiar story of the shepherds and the angel — familiar even to many non-Christians, because Linus recites it in A Charlie Brown Christmas.
But here’s what I like: Of all of the points of view in this Nativity story — the point of view of Mary, of Joseph, of Jesus; the point of view of the shepherds, and of the sheep; the point of view of the angel who speaks to the shepherds, and of the host of subordinate angels who sing Gloria in excelsis Deo — of all of these points of view, which does the Posada celebration focus on? On that of the inn-keeper. It focusses on that single half-sentence in the Gospel of Luke: “because there was no room for them in the inn.”
What is the story of the Nativity like, told from the point of view of the inn-keeper?
Do not be inhuman; show some charity!
God in heaven will reward you.
Go now, I tell you, and don’t bother us anymore!
Because if you make me angry I will beat you.
Two books of the Gospel — the Books of Mark and of John — say nothing about Jesus’s birth or early life. But the Book of Matthew gives part of the story that Luke does not: the story of the wise men from the East.
The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say anything about the inn or the stable or the manger. It does tell of King Herod, who was visited by wise men of the East. (Incidentally, the Bible doesn’t say that there were three of them; in fact, in Eastern Christianity, it is said that there were twelve.) The wise men come to Jerusalem and tell Herod that they have seen a star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews. Herod asks his priests where this could possibly have happened, and the priests say that it was prophesied to happen in Bethlehem. So Herod sends the wise men off to Bethlehem, and asks them to come back and to tell him exactly where they find this King of the Jews.
But after the wise men find Jesus, and give him the famous gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, they are warned by God in a dream not to tell Herod, because Herod would kill Jesus as a threat to his rule. The wise men avoid Jerusalem and go home without seeing Herod. Joseph, also warned in a dream, takes Mary and Jesus off to Egypt to lay low, and the family does not come back until years later, when Herod is dead.
Herod, when he realizes that the wise men have betrayed him, has every child in Bethlehem under the age of two killed.
So in this version of the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph are not simply travelers in need who want a place to stay and to give birth; no, in the Matthew story they are actually refugees from government oppression.
We are worn out, we have come all the way from Nazareth.
I am a carpenter named Joseph.
Never mind your name, let me sleep!
I’ve already told you we won’t open the door.
The Nativity stories of Matthew and of Luke are stories we tell that are about other people. We also tell stories that are about ourselves — about ourselves personally, or about ourselves as a nation.
I grew up completely unchurched — my parents were humanists, although I don’t think they used that particular word to describe themselves until I was in high school. We did not go to church, and so we had no holy scripture. But I did find inspiration — from nature, from science and mathematics, … and from our nation’s ideals.
I had no holy scripture, but I did have this:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Bold and powerful statements — a prophetic vision of what government and society should be like!
Of course, our nation almost immediately failed to meet the ideals it had set for itself in the Declaration of Independence. “All men are created equal” — and yet just a few years later, our Constitution institutionalized the idea that some men were certainly not created equal. It took almost three-quarters of a century and a civil war to remove that odious idea from our Constitution, and we are still working to truly live up to the idea that all people are created equal.
But the beauty of America, and our hope for its future, comes from the fact that we keep trying. We set ideals; we fail to live up to them; but we don’t give up on the ideals; we try — again and again — to meet them.
Consider the words of Emma Lazarus from our reading, words that are engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
Emma Lazarus wrote these words in 1883. The previous year — the previous year — Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was twice renewed, and not repealed until 1943. But it’s not like immigrants were suddenly loved in 1943; just one year earlier, President Roosevelt gave the executive order that authorized the relocation and incarceration of over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans, some immigrants, most the children and grandchildren of immigrants. It wasn’t until 1988 that President Reagan signed into law the Civil Liberties Act that provided reparations to Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during the war. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush said:
No nation can fully understand itself or find its place in the world if it does not look with clear eyes at all the glories and disgraces of its past. We in the United States acknowledge such an injustice in our history. The internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry was a great injustice, and it will never be repeated.
“It will never be repeated.”
In today’s political climate, I wish I could be so certain that nothing similar will happen again.
In a positive sign, last week the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors officially declared that it will honor federal immigration policies and welcome refugees fleeing persecution in their home countries, and it expressed its support of federal efforts to help Syrians fleeing violence and oppression. But one Supervisor voted against this proposal — the Supervisor who represents the Fifth District, which includes this church.
After the service, if you are so moved, please visit the Social Justice table, where you will find a letter that you can sign and send to our Supervisor, expressing dismay over his vote.
Let me ask again: What is the story of the Nativity like, told from the point of view of the inn-keeper?
Today we are faced with millions of people fleeing from war and violence in Syria. And we are also faced with our own fear, fear magnified by the breathless reporting of the news, fear magnified by politicians who underestimate America. Our fear is real, and it is not easy to face. But the time has come for us to decide: Will we live into our fear? Or will we live into our ideals? Will we live into the ideals that we have engraved in bronze at the base of the Statue of Liberty? “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.”
Is that you, Joseph? And your wife Mary?
Enter pilgrims! I didn’t recognize you.
The Posada ritual ends with the inn-keeper opening the door, because he realizes that the people asking to be let in are important. Our Universalist heritage teaches us that everyone is important.
The inn-keeper in the Gospel of Luke does not open his door. The inn-keeper in the Posada ritual does. We have to decide which version of the story we will live in.
Let me close by asking some questions posed by the composer Ysaye Barnwell:
A blessing from Maya Angelou:
History, despite its wrenching pain
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Go in peace.
Image credit: Vittore Carpaccio (1466–1525), The Flight into Egypt, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Via Wikimedia Commons
Every now and again, I am freshly amazed by what a person can access through the internet. I’ve become blasé about some things: finding obscure mathematical papers online, for example.1 But yesterday I was struck by how much easier it has become, even in just the past few years, to find information that used to require physically traveling to distant dusty archives.
In the fall of 2004 I was traveling in England for work, and I had a day or two in London. I stopped for fun at a shop that sells antiquarian books and prints,2 and I looked through their various collections. In a section devoted to botanical prints, I found a nice old print that did not cost too much and that I thought might look nice in our home. Here it is:
All I knew about it when I purchased it was that it was drawn by Pierre-Joseph Buc’hoz, that it was from the late 18th century, and that (as one can see from the upper left corner) it was plate number 87 from some collection.
After I got home I tried to find out more about this print. Using the power of the internet in 2004 — mainly, online catalogs from libraries — I figured that it was most likely from a book by Buc’hoz entitled Collection précieuse et enluminée des fleurs les plus belles et les plus curieuses qui se cultivent tant dans les jardins de la Chine que dans ceux de l’Europe, and published in the late 1770s. But the only copies of this book in the United States seemed to be in libraries on the East Coast, not so convenient for me to go to.
Within the following year, though, I happened to be in the Washington DC area for work… so one day I went off to the Library of Congress. I got permission to go to their special collection room, and a clerk fetched the two volumes of Buc’hoz’s Collection précieuse et enluminée des fleurs for my perusal. No cameras were allowed.
I checked: and yes! The print in our study was indeed plate number 87 from volume one of this book. Case closed. And by looking at the list of plate titles at the back of volume two, I found that our print was of “La Sparmann de la Chine”, as described in Buc’hoz’s Collection des Plantes nouvellement découvertes.3
Yesterday we were visited by someone who I thought might have a professional interest in this print by Buc’hoz, so I dug out the notes I had taken at the Library of Congress. And then it occurred to me that in the decade subsequent to my visit to Washington, perhaps someone had scanned some more of these prints.
A quick Google search for the title of Buc’hoz’s book led me to the Bibliothèque nationale de France (whose online collection I am quite familiar with, because they have scans of many 18th- and 19th-century mathematics books and journals). Lo and behold: high-quality scans of Buc’hoz’s book, both volume one and volume two!
Without leaving the living room couch, I could get information that, just ten years ago, had required visiting the Library of Congress. And the passage of time was indeed necessary to make this search easier: the Bibliothèque nationale only digitized these books last year.
I’ll close this post simply by noting: They really knew how to make a title page, back in the day…
When I was editing this book I tried to find online versions of the papers cited in the bibliographies of each chapter, so that we could provide links to them in the pdf version of the book. I was particularly proud to have tracked down this online version of a paper from a defunct journal that almost no libraries have copies of; this digital copy was scanned from a physical copy owned by the New York Botanical Society. ↩