In a short story published recently and posthumously, the writer David Foster Wallace introduces to us a boy who has received a Christmas present.[i] It is a toy cement mixer: wooden except for the axles and for a yellow rope handle attached to the front bumper by which the boy could pull the cement mixer around behind him. The boy, who narrates the story, loves to play with the cement mixer, and one day his parents casually tell him that it is a magic cement mixer. The boy reports:
“The “magic” was that, unbeknown to me, as I happily pulled the cement mixer behind me, the mixer’s main cylinder or drum… rotated, went around and around on its horizontal axis, just as the drum on a real cement mixer does. It did this, my mother said, only when the mixer was being pulled by me and only, she stressed, when I wasn’t looking.”
Of course this suggestion prompts the boy to try to catch the cement mixer mixing, doing its thing, turning on its axis; to see the magic at work.
“Evidence bore out what they had told me: turning my head obviously and unsubtly around always stopped the rotation of the drum. I also tried sudden whirls. I tried having someone else pull the cement mixer. I tried incremental turns of the head while pulling (“incremental” meaning turning my head at roughly the rate of a clock’s minute hand). I tried peering through a keyhole as someone else pulled the cement mixer. Even turning my head at the rate of the hour hand. I never doubted—it didn’t occur to me. The magic was that the mixer seemed always to know. I tried mirrors—first pulling the cement mixer straight toward a mirror, then through rooms that had mirrors at the periphery of my vision, then past mirrors hidden such that there was little chance that the cement mixer could even “know” that there was a mirror in the room. My strategies became very involved…. I begged my mother to take photographs as I pulled the mixer, staring with fraudulent intensity straight ahead. I placed a piece of masking tape on the drum and reasoned that if the tape appeared in one photo and not in the other this would provide proof of the drum’s rotation. (Video cameras had not yet been invented.)”
But none of his tests are successful – or unsuccessful, as the case may be. Nothing yields the result that he catches the cement mixer in the act of turning its mixer.
Again, the boy tells us:
“I never found a way to observe the drum’s rotation without stopping that rotation. It never once occurred to me that my parents might have been putting me on. Nor did it ever bother me that the striped drum itself was glued or nailed to the orange chassis of the cement mixer and could not be rotated (or even budged) by hand…. And, in fact, the free rotation of an unpowered and securely fastened drum was not the “magic” that drove me. The magic was the way it knew to stop the instant I tried to see it. The magic was how it could not, not ever, be trapped or outsmarted. Though my obsession with the toy cement mixer had ended by the next Christmas, I have never forgotten it, or the feeling in my chest and midsection whenever yet another, even more involved attempt to trap the toy’s magic met with failure—a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence. This was the year, at five or six, that I learned the meaning of “reverence,” which, as I understand it, is the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena….”
Tonight is a night of gifts, and of magic, and of reverence. It is fashionable these days to point out that the Scriptures don’t tell us that there were actually three wise men. It is common to hear in pulpits that if any sages from the east came to visit the child Jesus it took much longer than twelve days for them to get there – maybe a matter of years. It is quite usual to be presented with the various explanations that the star was a predictable celestial phenomenon. It is normal to dismiss tonight as little more than an excuse to make a king cake and let someone find the prize in it. But I hope tonight we can resist these urges, because to give in to them is to miss the point of the gift, the magic, and the reverence.
Over there in that crèche we placed, twelve days ago, a baby Jesus who resembles, more than anything else, a toy cement mixer. He is made of wood. He has no moving parts (not even a string to drag him around). One of his hands regularly falls off and has to be re-glued every year before Christmas Eve.
To much of the world our elaborate ceremony of traipsing around the church in fancy vestments, singing “O come, all ye faithful” (twelve days ago) and “We three kings” (tonight) on our way to the manger, placing the statue in it, and blessing it with holy water and incense is nothing but foolishness – a belief in some outmoded magic that is thought to be vested not only in carved, wooden babies, but in the very likely darker-skinned baby that all the carved baby Jesuses are supposed to be modeled on. Nothing but magic.
And such is the state of the world, that we may be tempted too, after the candlelight and the singing of Christmas Eve, to drift toward the suspicion that although it is a nice tradition, in the end, it is just a wooden Jesus, with no moving parts, nothing spinning, no heart. We could drag him all over the city at the end of a yellow rope, and what good would it do?
There would appear to be much evidence to support this point of view. Poverty, injustice, and racism are still very much a part of our society. We have not yet beaten our swords into plowshares. We agonize about how to feed ourselves with healthy food, how to take care of ourselves when we are sick, and how not to send the planet spiraling gradually toward overheating.
More personally, we have not figured out how to prevent so many marriages from ending up in divorce, we have not learned the secret to preventing our children’s lives from going to pieces, our lives are so easily surrendered to drugs or alcohol, we have not found a prescription to avoid tragic illnesses, to cure cancer, and we have not learned how to staunch the grief of loss when we lose even someone of great faith to death.
No wonder that to many people these days, Jesus amounts to little more than a toy cement mixer: his Cross little more than an accessory that is quite preferred without his Body on it. No wonder there are so few epiphanies on Epiphany, since we have reduced it to a feast of toys: a magical star leading costumed kings, who carry their prop gold and frankincense and myrrh to a wooden Jesus. We might as well drag a toy cement mixer behind us in our procession!
But we could learn something valuable from the wise men. We could remember that when they reached the manger, Jesus did not do anything amazing, he may not even have woken up from his nap. But they knew!
They knew when they encountered him and his mother that God was at work here. Did they marvel at the magic that God could accomplish something great without even appearing to lift a finger? Did they wonder at the perfection of God’s work wrought so secretly that no trap of even the great king Herod could capture it? Did they gush to his mother that this child appeared to be so very like every other child? Did they think of their reverence to him as “the natural attitude to take toward magical, unverifiable phenomena…” since they had no way of verifying what was so manifestly true to them – that here was the very Son of God?
And is it possible that the faith that God has called us to is a faith something like this: that he has given us the gift of his Son as the object of our faith. He knows that this gift can sometimes seem like little more than a toy cement mixer: childish, clunky, unpowered, stuck in one position, etc. But does he call to us, at least once a year, to remember that this gift is operating in our lives all the time, when we can’t see it: spinning, turning, building, growing, blessing, forgiving, transforming?
And maybe it is the nature of this gift that we can never – or at least almost never - see it at work. So often we discover the effects of Jesus in our lives, we realize the grace that comes of faith, after the fact, when his work has already been accomplished, his blessing conferred, his transformation made.
And perhaps all our ministries are, in part, our efforts to catch a sight of the invisible and elusive God at work in the world, in our lives. When you make soup every week, as some of you do, or wake up every Saturday morning to serve that soup to the hungry and homeless; when you teach a group of children their Bible story in Sunday School; when you study the Scriptures yourself in Bible Study or on your own; when you come to serve at the altar; or when you serve coffee at coffee hour; when you sing in the choir; when you rake the leaves at Saint James the Less, or clean the church there, or the bathrooms….
…are these some of the ways we try to catch God spinning in our lives? Are these he mirrors we look in from various angles, the keyholes we peep through, the abrupt or slow turns we make to catch him unawares? Are we looking for the God who has called us but who stays so mundanely hidden, so apparently unwilling to be caught in the act of changing our lives, changing the world?
I suspect it may be so because, like that little boy, I am amazed at the magic of how God’s grace and mercy cannot ever be trapped or outsmarted, cannot be stopped, even though I realize how difficult it is to observe it directly sometimes.
And I suspect it may be so, because I have seen the evidence of the grace of God all around a world that would just as soon destroy it.
And like that boy, I have known something like the feeling in my chest and midsection whenever the attempts to ruin God’s grace meet with failure—a mix of crushing disappointment and ecstatic reverence – disappointment that like the sun or quantum physics, God’s grace, his spinning, turning, working, forgiving, transforming cannot often be observed directly; and ecstatic reverence because that grace, that spinning, turning, working, forgiving, transforming love is so manifestly true!
And if I were a wise man, I would bring my gift, whatever it was – gold, frankincense, myrrh, or whatever. But I am content to know that God has given the gift of his Son – who might be nothing more than a wooden doll, a toy…
… who is himself willing to be dragged around behind us on a yellow rope, if that is the only way we will have him in our lives…
…but who cannot be stopped from spinning, turning, working, blessing, forgiving, transforming; who often, so often, cannot be seen to be doing any of this either; whose magic mostly cannot be observed; who cannot be stopped from being born!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
The Feast of the Epiphany, 2010
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia
[i] David Foster Wallace, “All That”, published in The New Yorker, December 14, 2009