Wearing Our Lives Lightly

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Growing up in and around New Orleans, I celebrated January 6 as the opening of carnival season, the several weeks of hedonism that lead up to Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, which precedes Ash Wednesday and the long, bleak penances of Lent. We went to church, and we ate a king cake, a ring of sweet brioche covered in several inches of sparkling purple, green, and gold sugar, with a plastic baby tucked somewhere inside. If you get the piece with the baby, you have to buy the next cake. You eat a lot of cake during carnival.

I knew all this was somehow tied up with Jesus, in that tangled web of sacred and profane that is Louisiana Catholicism. I knew that the baby in the cake was the baby in the manger and the king of the cake spoke to the king of creation and the three wise kings who came to his manger bearing gifts. I knew it, somehow, even if I couldn’t have told you.

Now, I know all about Epiphany and its historical significance. Excuse my pedantry, but this is one of the oldest feasts of the church, predating the celebration of the nativity. We now focus exclusively on the three wise men presenting the infant Christ with his kingly gifts, but in the historic church, we used to include his baptism and presentation and the wedding at Cana.

These feasts are all part of Christmas—which is still happening, according to the old ways, until the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2—a prolonged celebration of God made manifest.

Emmanuel, God with us.

And all the liturgical feasts and solemnities of the season speak of our amazement to find him here among us, in our flesh, in our world. The three wise men find him by the stars. Simeon recognizes Him as the Messiah and says he can finally die happy. John the Baptist watches a dove descend from heaven and hears a voice cry, “This is my beloved son.” And at Cana, some lucky wedding guests witnessed his first public miracle, when he saved the party by turning some water into the very best wine.

Awe, wonder, feasting. I’m pretty good at those Epiphany-type things.

But there’s another story of recognizing God among us, and it’s a story of fear and cowardice. I’m pretty good at those things too.

Herod didn’t see the coming of Christ as a good thing; he saw it as a threat to his comfort and security and power. This new king might take something from him he didn’t want to give. So even as he feasts and wonders—it’s Herod who sends the wise men, after all—he destroys. We celebrate that feast day too, the Feast of Holy Innocents, December 28, when we remember all the baby boys Herod murdered out of fear of losing his place in the world. By remembering them, we remember the Herods among us too. There’s definitely some Herod in me, living from fear and self-protection, not wonder and love.

“At some point we’re going to lose our lives,” my parish priest said in his Epiphany homily. He wasn’t talking about big-D Death, but the countless little-d deaths we experience in our lifetimes. Those deaths that strip away what we so desperately don’t want to lose, and yet, somehow, tend to result in the most mysterious gains.

Epiphany tells us to wear our lives lightly. To welcome or at least expect the little d-deaths with expectation and wonder at our little r-resurrections. To be like Simeon, who saw God among us and said, I can go in peace. To be like John the Baptist, who said I must decrease, and he must increase. To understand, as Jesus said, that losing my life means gaining it.

And this is the story of Mardi Gras, too. It’s often derided as a feast of debauchery now totally void of any Christian significance, but as someone whose spirituality was deeply formed by those parties on the streets of my hometown, I want to tell you that’s just not true. It’s all tangled up down there, like everything else. A beautiful mess of God and man and sanctity and sin. But above all, carnival always speaks to me of the persistent joy of epiphany, of God among us, of our days with the bridegroom before he is taken. During these weeks we celebrate a God of abundance and a God of humanity. A God who wears this same flesh, whose wounds we can touch.

But I should use the past tense. I haven’t properly celebrated Mardi Gras since I left home in Louisiana, and though my sweet friend sent me a king cake all the way to Northern Michigan, it may be all the carnival I’ll get this year. And so Carnival and epiphany, those joyous seasons, are also times of mourning for me. I bite into the Haydel’s bakery king cake the UPS man delivered in a blizzard, and close my eyes, let childhood and joy rush back to me first, then homesickness, then fear. What if I can never go back?

This is a little d-death I may never fully embrace, and my Herod heart trembles even as I stand in church and sing Emmanuel, God with us, even here, in the blowing snow and the bitter cold, a thousand miles from home.

Jessica Mesman Griffith

Jessica Mesman Griffith

Associate Editor at Mind & Spirit
Jessica Mesman Griffith is a widely published writer whose work has been noted in Best American Essays. Her memoir, Love and Salt: A Spiritual Friendship in Letters, co-authored with Amy Andrews, won the 2014 Christopher Award for "literature that affirms the highest values of the human spirit." She is the associate editor of Mind & Spirit an online magazine about the intersection of faith and psychology. She writes daily devotions for Living Faith and was a long-time contributor to the Image blog Good Letters. Her book of daily meditations on the 2016 lectionary, Grace-Filled Days, is available from Loyola Press and Amazon. She is co-founder and curator of the new blog Sick Pilgrim, a space for fellow travelers, a rest stop for people who have Catholic minds or hearts or aesthetics or attractions and need companions for the journey.
Jessica Mesman Griffith

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  • Oh this is so beautiful and speaks to me in a dozen different places. I was able to shortly live in your hometown and experience carnival and the beautiful way just as you describe it (A beautiful mess of God and man and sanctity and sin) and that was such a formative time in my life that I sometimes grieve being gone as well. I am experiencing the liturgical year for the first time this year as an evangelical that doesn’t go to a liturgical church but is hungry for the beauty and awe that is all wrapped up in the year oriented around the life of Christ. And it shows me the Herod in me, too, that holds onto my fear because that means I don’t have to completely bow down to Christ as King and fully let go. Thank God we have a God we can touch, who truly is Emmanuel!

    • Jessica

      Yes to a God we can touch! I could never love a vapor.

  • Thank you for the “pendantry,” because I really needed the background!
    I can hear the longing in your voice for things that have passed, and I’m trying to let myself be open to that longing, to sit with it, and then let it bring beauty to “now.” As Madeleine L’Engle has said, we are still every age we’ve ever been.

    • Jessica

      I LOVE that L’Engle quote—is an all-time favorite. I love that whole passage about kronos and chairos. Hugely formative for me. Thank you so much for reminding me!

  • I’ve been thinking lately about the villains of the Bible, and how they were people too–and realizing the line that divides us from them is not bright and clear but the fruit of a thousand tiny selfishnesses.
    Also: I sometimes wish for the stately pace of the old 12-days model of Christmas. I think, though, that would be the most upstream of all swimming.

    • Jessica

      oooooo….the villains of the Bible. I want a post on that.

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  • I love this so much: “It’s all tangled up down there, like everything else. A beautiful mess of God and man and sanctity and sin.” Sometimes I feel like EVERYTHING is tangled up and I can’t unravel it. Thank you for this. It’s absolutely beautiful.

    • This was my favorite part, too — well that and the ending and the UPS delivery and the fear creeping in with the “what if I can never go back?” I get that fear so very well. Thank you Jess, so glad you’re at the Mudroom.

  • ” A beautiful mess of God and man and sanctity and sin.” I think this describes perfectly our lives here on earth. So good to read your words, Jessica! Blessings to you!