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|This page last updated 15 April 2007|
Myrrh is Mine
As a Christian one of my struggles is to keep Christ relevant to my actual life. It's so easy to let Christ become words and symbols and concepts, and to lose touch with his physical self. I don't get as many chances as I would like to touch his body, to feel the wrinkles in his skin, to see his sore hangnail and the place where he stubbed his toe and the place where a mosquito bit him. He became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And, as man, he eats, sleeps, burps, scratches, smiles, frowns, and does what men do.
I went to the Epiphany service tonight. To get to church I drive down Waverley Street to East Meadow, right on East Meadow, left on Alma street, right on San Antonio, left on Foothill Expressway, right on El Monte, left on University, right on Border Road, around the bend, enter, and park. All of these are roads that did not exist a hundred years ago, in a land that scarcely existed two thousand years ago. Every bit of the way I pass signs of a secular world that Jesus did not live to see. The Volvos with automatic transmissions, the neon signs, the taco stands, an aging Sears Roebuck. As I cross over El Camino Real, the King's Road, I can look in vain up and down for some sign of what it was when the Spanish missionaries first built it. I look at a modern site, and work in my mind to strip away the telephone poles, the parking lot, the roadwork, the newly-planted trees, and try to imagine what it was like in 1750 when those missionaries came through, a mere 250 years ago. I can't. 2000 years is beyond my comprehension; it requires instead my faith.
But when I get to church I have to step away from the whirlwind of contemporary objects and focus on Christ. God sent him to a time and a place that is so far away from my pew that I cannot imagine it. Los Altos is 9 time zones, 10 thousand miles, and two thousand years away from the time and place in which Jesus walked, ate, burped, scratched, lived, and died. So I can't rely on imagining it: I have to make it real. Our modern church building is so very sterile and lifeless most of the time. Sitting in the pew, I cannot see any object that is older than I am. I have to feel it, to believe it. I can't touch it or see it.
Tonight in church we celebrated a litany of apostolic succession. It is a liturgy that is part of our parish tradition, not in any service book I have ever seen. In the dark, three wise men walked in singing of frankincense and gold and myrrh, and offered those gifts to the baby Jesus.
From past years' experience I knew that tonight would be my best chance all year of touching Jesus' hand and feeling the roughness of his skin, so before I went into church, I had rubbed myrrh oil on both of my hands. Myrrh oil, if you have never felt it, is exotic and funereal and creepy and not like any scent in everyday life. As the second magus processed by, singing
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfumeI knew intrinsically that the myrrh on my hands and the myrrh on Jesus' dead body were one and the same. The oil of myrrh leapt across time and space, directly from Jesus to me, and I really felt his skin. The scent and feel of the myrrh finds a way around all of the civilization and all of the education and goes directly into my reptilian brain. The three wise men, in harmony, sang
The lights went out, the children in the tableau took their seats, and we waited in silence and darkness for several minutes. Finally the Rector's voice began: 'In the beginning was the light'. As the Rector read, the Deacon lit a candle at the mention of the name of each apostle, finally snuffing Judas' candle and lighting another in its place. The party at the altar then carried the apostles' candles down into the congregation and used them to light ours.
We knelt in silence for a while, prayed quietly, thanked our Bishop for being the successor to those apostles whose light had just lit our candles, and sang all of the verses of Silent Night. During the singing of the last verse, a coloratura soprano from our choir broke spontaneously into a wordless descant of 'oooo'. Her voice became the holy spirit. Two hundred and fifty people sang "son of God, love's pure light" and one soprano, possessed by the Holy Spirit, matched the volume of that sound, soaring her descant around the timbers and beams and stained glass to make sure that everyone noticed that the Spirit was with us.
We walked out into the cold dark air of contemporary life, to our Volvos and homework books. Buying fuel at the Shell station on the way home, the smell of the gasoline could not overpower the smell of the myrrh, and the sounds of modern life could not drive away the Holy Spirit that had come to us in the church. Jesus rode with me all the way home before he had to go on about his business. I think it was the sudden ringing of a telephone that made him disappear from my sight.