To forget your lines in a dramatic production is unforgivable. But it happens…or should I say, it happened.
I was a senior in high school and had been asked to take the role of one of the Wise Men in a musical production. I only agreed because the coolest teacher at Briarwood, Phillip Hood, was going to be playing one of the other Wise Dudes….Mr. Hood was black, and he seemed to be my ticket to cool, if there was any chance in hell. I studied his moves, how he interacted, his style. We didn’t have many models for cool at my high school. So I signed on.
I had rushed to the school for the dress rehearsal, right after finishing a golf round, so my mind was still gnawing on the last putt I missed. That is where my mind was, at Canongate Golf Course, when I made it just in time to be at the procession of the Wise Men.
We were to enter from the back of the gym, process down the left side to the front where the stage was set. We had the three gifts: a Georgia clay brick, covered in gold foil; a wooden box that was to bear the fragrant frankincense; and the large suspicious green bottle of cologne that was purported to hold the precious myrrh, though I was thinking Polo.
After the long processional walk, with spotlights upon us, a prefigurement, a proleptic moment for my future, I had the first line: The star over yonder stable is.
I had practiced my lines- I was “that” guy who you could count on to get it right. Even with the missed putt pounding in my brain, I got this! No problem.
Except as I followed Mr. Hood into the gym, my mind must have wondered as I wandered. Instead of the intended line, my brain free-associated with Shakespeare and I suddenly became Romeo, not Melchior at all. This is what came out of my mouth: The star over yonder window breaks…..
Mr. Hood, a.k.a. Balthasar, turned his Afro-topped head and began to laugh, and everyone else joined in. At that point, my mama’s teaching kicked it in, as she said that when folks are laughing at you, laugh along, as if you meant to do whatever it was they were laughting at. It proved to be a good strategy on that particular night, at least in the moment. Just call me Forrest.
But I did not, mean to do it, that is. I was mortified. I was in the tender time of being an adolescent who was still negotiating the Copernican revolution that I was not the center of the universe, I was one among many. And the scariest thing that was happening intrapsychically was that it was breaking into my consciousness that all these “others” were looking at me, watching me, determining if I was “cool” or not.
The whole incident did not take but a moment, but it seared itself into my memory. I have wondered since: How is that? Why is that? Our brain, our memory is such a funny thing in terms of what gets remembered and what simply flutters to the floor of our mind.
What’s interesting to me is how each January 6th brings up that memory for me. It’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the last of the twelve days of Christman in the Western Christian calendar. If you are moving the figures of the Nativity like a chess set, the Wise Men are finally arriving at the manger to present these symbolic gifts. I can’t think of the Wise Men without remembering that fateful moment when I forgot my line. On the night of the performance, I nailed it. Gold costume on, sweating like a porcine runaway, my bronze make-up perfect, spotlight focused, I said my lines perfectly, chastened by my lapse of concentration the night before. I thought I heard Hood, snicker when I got the line right, but I was probably just my imagination, projecting, aware of my stark lack of cool, glaringly apparent.
But in spite of getting it pure perfect, why does the memory of the slip-up dominate my Jan. 6th epiphanic memory? I have thought about that, not only about the crazy way I was wired from birth by my parents, but from my church with its puritanical perfection, and the culture of my portion of the American Dream. It was the illusion that one could and should be perfect.
Every Jan. 6th, on the Feast of the Epiphany, I think about that mistake, caused by a lapse in my attention. Although, I have to admit that the events of last January 6th with the insurrection at the Capitol, now may trump my memory in the future. Those moments of violence and acts of ignoring the law may in fact rid me of my slip, even as unforgiveable as it was in my young, impressionable mind.
That scene of the Wise Men came back to my mind last Sunday as we listened to the infancy narrative read from the Church’s tradition. It prompted the priest to talk about those wise men. Picking up on the tradition, the priest reminded us of the symbolic meaning of the three gifts given to the infant Jesus. The gold denoted power, the frankincense was a reminder of the priestly presence, and the myrrh pointed to the prophetic role, but also a connection with that of death as it was used in the ancient embalming process. This trinity of gifts combined in a divine Venn diagram: the kingly power, the priestly presence, and the prophetic call, but interestingly framed in the context of death.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only Gospel account that included the Wise Men, or Magi, in the birth narrative. There’s no note as to there being “three” wise men, only extrapolated for three gifts named. In case you’ve been missing in action from the Baby Jesus birth story, it was written in the 2nd chapter of how the Wise Men had come searching for the infant that prophesy had foretold. They went first to Jerusalem asking about this promised child that would become king in the future. The current king, Herod, got nervous with the questions. Herod sent them on their way to find this special child, and charged them to return to tell him when they found him so that he, himself, could pay homage. Of course, he was fearful of losing power, like most rulers are, and he planned to squash it out. This is an old, repeated story plot, which was recently played out on our own stage of democracy,
In the story, there’s good news/bad news. The Wise Men do follow the strange star in the sky to a place in Bethlehem where they give the Baby Jesus those three gifts. But these Wise Men are hip to Herod, and rather than follow Herod’s nefarious plans, they outsmart him by going “home by another way”.
“Home by another way”. I love that phrase. It sounds subversive in my ears, as they would not fall sway to the powerful King. James Taylor wrote a moving song about this story, Home By Another Way. I commend it to you. It’s appropriately found on JT’s album, Never Die Young. Take a listen as an Epiphany gift to your own damn self.
Oh, yeah. The bad news. Herod is enraged by the subversive wise guys who did not bend to his power. He ordered the male babies killed, and the Church has remembered them as the Holy Innocents, which should remind us of how power gets used by self-possessed rulers in order to stay in office….oh, I meant to say, keep their kingdom. The innocent get the short end of the night stick throughout history. Same as it ever was.
So what are we to do with this story in 2022. I want to take a prompt by the Wise Men to be a gift-giver that honors the people we love. But I am wanting to follow their lead by going “home by another way”. Rather than gold or other gifts that we can order through Amazon, what is something that I have in my possession that is of value that I might give? What valuable treasure do you have?
For me, it is my time. I can become intentional in presenting my time to others, being present to them as a gift of my being.
An old high school friend that I know is isolated due to health, I can call and give him some time. A former parishioner has just lost his best friend to death, I can call and simply listen to him tell stories about his friend and grieve. A person is hurting from a job change, I can invite them to go for coffee.
The gift is my time, my presence, being with an “other”. The giving of that gift will demand giving up something of value, my time. Rather than hoarding time, pressing it for productivity, what if one might find the alternative, the subversive, “the other way”. I am finding it strangely fun and joy-producing in giving my time away, freely and generously. Give it a try to manifest your joy in this season of Epiphany.