‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
I’d signed up for a retreat at the Loyola Jesuit Center over Advent, which was postponed to January. Journey of the Magi, a day-long retreat to read and meditate on the poem of the same name by T.S. Elliot. Though I had been looking forward to the Advent retreat to prepare for Christmas, this ultimately felt better suited to the time period described in the poem itself—the dead of winter.
It’s not an easy journey for the magi, as explored in the poem. It’s the “worst time of the year,” a long trek from the East across the desert. Even their arrival is hard, finding Jesus in at night in a place that isn’t elaborate, probably not even recognizable as his home. And when they return home, they don’t recognize their own land—though it’s the same as before, they see the grit more clearly now that they’ve encountered God.
There was much discussion in our group about the double meaning: the physical and spiritual journey. It was compared to conversion, not something many in the group had experienced. But I understood. After the magi go home, they wish for death. They compare their own people to foreigners. After conversion, you ache not to physically die, but to be reborn into something new. You don’t recognize the people you’re close to, because they haven’t experienced what you experienced.
There was a clear shift from pre- to post-Confirmation life. I developed new interests. I talked about faith more, and stepped away from things that no longer lined up with that. People associated with those things stepped away, too, which is harder to accept. They’re not bad people. I’m still friendly with them, when we talk. But after spending a day contemplating this poem and its metaphors, I started to understand that we’re not friends. I hadn’t understood that. There are people who just disappear; they move away, or got married, or simply no longer share the same interests. When I joined the Church, I developed different interests, too. I was the one who started to disappear.
But after that “death” is a rebirth. The poem doesn’t talk about that part. It ends with the magi simply wishing for a separation from their own life. But after encountering Jesus, a new life begins. In a sense, I expected that to happen immediately after entering the Church. I’d be filled with the Spirit, joyful for life itself, eager to follow God’s plans. It didn’t happen. Instead, I spent a few months wayward. I had no one to talk to about my new life, because they didn’t care to talk about God, let alone the Church. I didn’t understand that rebirth has to begin with death.
What does that rebirth really look like? I don’t know, because I haven’t allowed myself to die. I didn’t know what I was supposed to die from; I didn’t think it would be something like friendships or social groups. But you can’t be reborn if you’re not willing to let go. I’ve been straddling my old and new lives, clinging to a past that I no longer agree with. Calling people friends who I no longer connect with. It’s time to let go. I’ve been called to a new life, but I haven’t been living it. I don’t know what this new life entails. I don’t know what God is asking of me, or where He’s going to send me. But I’m certainly not going to figure it out if I keep looking backward.
When I was a kid, my parents supported my book habit with the Scholastic catalog. Receiving that catalog was magical, and more so when the orders arrived at our classroom. On the bus ride home those days, everyone would compare what they received and marvel over one another’s books.
On one bus ride, I was sharing my spoils with my friend Cindy. She was particularly interested in this new kind of rub-on sticker sheet. They were classier stickers, nicer than adhesive, and could be rubbed on anywhere with the enclosed popsicle stick. “Can I have this?” Cindy asked.
I liked those stickers, too, which would be a new addition to my growing sticker collection. But she’d asked nicely, so I said, “Okay.”
Of course, Mom immediately noticed the missing item. I felt weirdly guilty about their absence, because sharing is good. But she drove me directly to Cindy’s house, explaining it’s okay to say “no” sometimes. Cindy gave back what was left of the sticker sheet, though she’d already rubbed off most of them. That hurt—I had a collection, and used my stickers sparingly. She’d wasted them on nothing.
I’d like to say my excessive generosity changed at that point, but I still mentally replay Mom’s “It’s okay to say ‘no’.”. Even if they ask nicely, you don’t have to give things away. Sometimes being generous is part of God’s mysterious plan, even if it’s something you don’t want to do at first. So how do I know the difference between Godly discomfort—the kind that provides spiritual growth—and things I really shouldn’t be doing? When do I hold onto my sticker sheet, and when do I share it?
The easy, and most obvious answer, is to pray about it. But sometimes I already have an answer in my head before He replies, justifying whatever I think He’s trying to reveal. This is especially true if it’s for someone else’s benefit. But there’s where generosity gets twisted. It’s not true, Godly generosity if I’m sacrificing the good He’s blessed me with. Over time, I started to believe that other people needed my time, money, and love more than I did. I generously gave not just part of myself, but all. That ultimately leaves little self behind. I’m pretty sure that’s the complete opposite of His plan.
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
—1 Corinthians 3:16
I’ve always considered my love for others a blessing. If I remained bound to Jesus—who is perfect and endless love himself—he will fill me with love to share with others. But… I am not God. When a human being gives and gives and gives, she will eventually run out. She’s desecrated her temple, whether intentionally or not. Even with the best intentions, this isn’t of the Spirit. God Himself says “no” when it’s against His will, but it’s really hard to hear that sometimes. And hard to say, too.
If I don’t put God first, I have nothing to give. Instead of praying about it, I’ve decided what God wants me to do. I convinced myself that if I’m being generous or helping others, it must be in His will. But sometimes it’s not. Maybe they’re supposed to get help from someone else. Maybe what they want isn’t what they need. I’ve essentially played God, which explains why I’m so tired.
I can’t un-share, just like I can’t get those stickers back. But I have to care for myself the same as I care for others. I’ll be honest—I drafted this post nearly two years ago. I was feeling pretty empty at the time, and the tank isn’t quite full yet. But I’m doing better. I’ve learned what happens when I ignore my own wellbeing, which isn’t in God’s plan at all. He loves me, and wants me to be my whole self. I can only do that by saying “no” sometimes. And that’s okay. Even if it feels weird.
I’ve been searching for a book that ties Jesus into the Hebrew scriptures, and this is the best one yet. It’s not a side-by-side list, which is the trend for such a comparison. I already have lists of Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfills, so I wasn’t looking for that. This is more like it. It treats the Bible as one cohesive Book—as it’s meant to be—and discusses the testaments concurrently, rather than back-and-forth. It explains God’s covenants with Israel through their history, which makes it easier to understand why Jesus had to come at all.
Israel was unique because God had a universal goal through them. Jesus embodied that uniqueness and achieved that universal goal.
For a book titled “knowing Jesus,” it spends a lot of time in the Hebrew scriptures. But to truly know him is to know his history. It explains the Law without watering it down. Christians talk often of the Good News: salvation from our sins through Jesus Christ. But what are our sins, and why do we need to be saved from them? For a topic so many people struggle to explain, this book makes it deceptively simple. The Good News isn’t just Jesus’s arrival, but what it means in relation to God’s covenants with Israel.
For what, after all, was the Good News? Nothing other than God’s commitment to bring blessing to all nations of humanity, as announced to Abraham.
In Sunday School we’re taught that anyone who opposed Israel is bad. But God used those nations, too. Egypt is the most obvious example: hard-hearted Pharaoh became a catalyst for the Hebrews to witness God’s mighty power. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon often did God’s will, knowingly or not. And there are many surrounding nations that were not evil, but simply not chosen like the Jews. People from these, nations, too, would eventually follow Jesus during his Earthly ministry. Even Abraham’s new name meant “father of many nations,” a promise that extends beyond Israel. From the beginning, the Gentiles were intended to be grafted into the family.
But in the end, it’s about Jesus himself. It discusses his mission and values in relation to the Law. It doesn’t just say “he fulfilled it,” but explains what that means. It discusses Jesus’s great responsibility to the Father. Though we know and acknowledge that Jesus is both God and man, we often forget the latter. Jesus’s humanity is just as important as his divinity. This book explores his understanding of the Torah, as a human being who has studied rather than a God who knows all.
[Jesus] was so steeped in his Hebrew scriptures that he would not only recognize the texts but also understand all that they meant for his own self-identity.
This is all summed up in why Jesus’s sacrifice was necessary—to save humanity. But it’s not until we understand the rest of it, and its relation to the Law and covenants, that we can can understand what that really means.