I wake up, I use the bathroom, I drink some coffee, I eat some food, I brush my teeth, I write emails, I drink more coffee, I use the bathroom again, I might go on a run, I eat more food, I go to a meeting, I write more emails, I think about what to make for dinner, I stare out the window, I make phone calls, I use the bathroom, I read a section from a Bible commentary, I make dinner, then eat it, then watch tv, then brush my teeth again, then sleep for a while, until the cat wakes us up at some ungodly hour, because he’s a social eater and wants someone to accompany him to his bowl, then more sleep, then I wake up and do it all over again.
There’s some variety from day to day, of course—a trip to the grocery store, a walk with a friend—but that’s basically my routine of the everyday. Except I forgot to mention all the snacks. I snack constantly.
There is so much to life that is about the mundane, the ordinary, the tedium of figuring out another meal. We live by routines that are necessary for life, like food, like social engagement, like housework, like paying bills. I think I feel those routines as all the present during this pandemic, the unchanging consistency of what happens from day to day, from hour to hour, and how what I do doesn’t change too much. It’s not like all of that wasn’t already there in the before times, but it’s that now I feel them all the more intimately, as if time is all the more present, almost observable, kind of like I’m my own social experiment all of a sudden, and I can track the variables, the subtle differences from one day to the next.
That’s why I love the season of Christmas—especially this year. Felt like kind of a lifesaver. The routines shifted. I got to listen to special music, holiday music just for this season, from morning until evening. For me that meant mostly those Sufjan Stevens Christmas albums—which I love, except when he gets a little too weird. My favorite song from those albums, since you asked, is the one about the “Christmas unicorn,” because of the transition at the end of the song to Joy Division’s “Love will tear us apart.” It’s just the best.
The specialness of the season also permits us to bring a tree into our homes, if that’s something you want to do—to put a tree in the living room, or wherever, and string lights around it and hang trinkets and memories from the branches. At our place we like to keep the tree as long as we can, until epiphany, this weekend, when we finally succumb to peer pressure and cultural expectations and get rid of it, which we did yesterday. And now, this week, we return to the ordinariness of household life, the mundane returns.
That’s the shift in seasons, in routines, I hear in the story from Matthew this year—this shift from ordinary to special to ordinary again.
The magi are special. They’re foreign dignitaries, deserving of honor. Their visit is very special. They’ve traveled for weeks, months, to meet this child of Mary, and they brought gold, frankincense, and myrrh—royal gifts.
There’s a glow to this story, an aura, that makes us feel like we’re watching an unusual moment take place, that we get to be onlookers as something extraordinary happens to the people in the story, to watch something astonishing unfold in the lives of Mary and Joseph. It’s almost like this whole scene, everything about this episode, sparkles in the light of that Bethlehem star.
Then the magi leave. The star fades away. And Joseph and Mary return to the ordinariness of life, of caring for this toddler Jesus—feeding him, watching out for him, nurturing his healthy growth, all while trying to survive, as a household, as a family, in the midst of an oppressive society. Year after year of work, of making a living, of paying their taxes as they fend off the intrusion of Roman soldiers, the violence of occupation. Life, for Mary and Joseph and Jesus returns to the mundane, to humdrum routines. And we’re there with them, during these weeks as Christmas and Epiphany transition to Lent.
I spent part of my growing up years in a pentecostal church, where church was all about the Holy Spirit. The Christian life was about the presence of the Spirit. And that presence, at church and in life, was evident in the spectacular, in the unusual, in the speaking in other tongues and moments uncontrollable laughter and tears. You could know the Spirit was around if there was a wildness in the air.
I still think that church and the Christian life is all about the Holy Spirit, that God’s Spirit is here, in our lives, but I’ve become more and more convinced that the Spirit is a steady presence, here, with us, in the ups and downs of life, in the spectacular and the ordinary seasons, in all the routines and patterns that keep us alive, that sustain us and the people we care for—that the Holy Spirit is a source of strength and comfort, a dependable presence, helping us grow into who God created us to be. The Holy Spirit as the steadiness of God, the constancy and patience of God, the dependable and unchanging commitment of God’s love and care for us.
In the story of Matthew, the Holy Spirit never leaves Jesus. The Spirit is there, with him, even in those decades we know nothing about—where his life was so mundane, so ordinary, that nothing was worth writing down, nothing noteworthy, no gospel accounts as he worked alongside all the other people of his village, his daily labor, and as he lived out his ordinary religious life alongside his community. He lived his life under the guidance and care of the Holy Spirit—decades of the Spirit’s invisible and uninteresting activity, a constant presence beyond our notice.
The Holy Spirit is not very showy most of the time. God’s life is not very ostentatious. We serve a humble God.
This week not only marks our transition out of the season of Christmas. This was also the first full week of the new year. I wish there was a more drastic division between last year and this new, some kind of line that would mark the past as gone, and all of us here, ready for something altogether new. But life doesn’t seem to work like that. So, here we are, still trying to find our footing as this pandemic continues to unsettle us. All the deaths, all the disruption, all the inconvenience, all that has been lost. We’re still trying to figure out where we are, wondering if the dust is ever going to settle. The pandemic keeps on bewildering our plans as we readjust to an ever-shifting reality.
I know that, for me, during these times, I’ve been grateful for this, grateful for you, for what we do here together as a church, as a community. I’m grateful for the constancy of this gathering, the dependability of worship, which is the work of the Holy Spirit, a miracle of God—the fact that we continue to gather, even if only online sometimes, when we have to, so that we can get our bearings again in the presence of God.
The story of Epiphany is a story about worship—where the magi travel from the east to bow down before Jesus in an act of worship. Here, with each other, we are like the magi. Worship is our reverence before God—a reverence we learn with each other, as we learn how to be present to one another.
Reverence is how we welcome the ordinary as something special. I know that might not make the most sense. My words feel very dumb at this point—the specialness of the mundane, the ordinariness of the special. But I think that’s the best I can do as I try to describe what a life of worship is all about: that, once a week, we’re here by some miracle, as very ordinary people, with ordinary lives full of humdrum routines, and we do this, these routines of worship–and through these activities we remind ourselves that this is what God looks like, that this is what the Holy Spirit feels like.
Vladimir Lossky, the great Eastern Orthodox theologian, once said that the Holy Spirit is made manifest in the life of the church, that the multitude of saints will be the image of the Holy Spirit.
Or, as I would put it, for all of us to see each other, at once, in a single glance, would be to glimpse the Holy Spirit. To listen to all of us, to gather up all of our voices in a single breath, would be to hear the Spirit speak.
Here, every week, by the miracle of God, we join our lives to the Holy Spirit.