Penances and Prayers
God’s glory, now, is kindled gentler than candlelight
under the rafters of a barn:
Eternal Peace is sleeping in the hay,
And Wisdom’s born in secret in a straw-roofed stable.*
When I was younger, I wrote music to and recorded Thomas Merton’s poem, “Epiphany Carol.” If you have never read it, search it out on the internet. Merton’s words are profound and paint a picture of the awesomeness of Jesus, the newborn King of Kings, lying in a simple straw bed. The shepherds and Wise Men are drawn to pay homage to the One who has been born above all others and brings with him hope for a broken world.
As Merton correctly points out, the gifts we are called to bring to this baby and lay at his feet are our prayers and penances, next to those gifts of worldly wealth. What is it that you have to bring to the stable on this feast of the Epiphany of the Lord? Unless those prayers and penances lead to a new way of living, our gifts will be void of meaning. What we lay before him speaks to the change in us that he has given to us by his birth. Our daily stewardship is resembled in those gifts. If we are to truly echo the kingdom of God in our lives and actions, what we ultimately offer to him is no less than our entire selves. This baby will give his entire self for us, and his work must continue through our hands and feet.
While we unnumbered children of the wicked centuries
Come after with our penances and prayers,
And lay them down in the sweet-smelling hay
Beside the wise men’s golden jars.*
*Excerpts from “Epiphany Carol” by Thomas Merton
— Tracy Earl Welliver, MTS
The story of the Wise Men bringing gifts to Jesus, the newborn King, is a great one, isn’t it? They had a great big star in the sky to lead the way. I am no Boy Scout, so I am not sure how well I would do following a star like that. But the important point here is that God led them to the manger. The manger was a place that unless God specifically showed you this was where the Christ Child was born you wouldn’t have believed it. You would have passed on by.
In our lives, there are no big stars in the sky leading us where we need to go. It isn’t so easy sometimes discerning where God is leading us. We may seek to use our gifts wisely, but in what manner and to what end is not always clear.
This is where prayer can make a huge difference. If we seek to cultivate a prayer life where we are mindful of the presence of God throughout our day, then the call is easier to discern. We can help the process by intentionally offering to God in the morning the entirety of the day to come: all our actions, all our time, and all our decisions. In the evening, we can examine the past hours of the day and reflect on when we responded well to Christ’s call and when we fell short. Then we resolve to begin again tomorrow, inviting Christ to be with us every step of the way. God may not offer a star in the sky to lead us, but if we invite us on our journey each day, the path will be much clearer.