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January 4, Second Sunday after Christmas
Other Texts: Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino; Preparing for Christmas: Daily Meditations for Advent, but Richard Rohr
To listen to earlier homilies click here
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Marco Polo sits with the great Kublai Khan and tells stories of the cities he has visited.
Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe the stories, but he listens to them with interest.
In Italo Calvino’s wonderful novel, Invisible Cities, he recounts these imagined conversations between Marco Polo and the great Khan.
Polo tells of cities of memory, and of desire, thin cities, trading cities, cities of the dead, continuous cities, hidden cities.
Kublai becomes afraid that the world is moving too quickly and irrevocably toward the cities that menace in nightmares: cities known as Babylon, Yahooland, Brave New World, Panem.
“It’s all useless,” Khan says, “if the last landing place can only be the infernal city.”
It’s a common fear, that the darkness that surrounds us will eventually overcome us.
And so we throw up our hands and ask, “what’s the point?”
But Polo gives a reply that Calvino didn’t learn in his Catholic Catechism, but which has deep resonance for us today.
“The inferno of the living is not something that will be;” Polo says, “if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together.
There are two ways to escape suffering it.
The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it.
The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
Seek and learn what is not inferno, and make them endure.
The Light shines in the dark and the darkness did not—has not—overcome it.
This conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo could easily be identical to the conversation between the Magi from the east and Herod.
Herod has accepted the inferno as the only way the world can possibly be.
The wise men recognize that which in the midst of inferno, is not the inferno—the light that shines in the darkness.
Like Khan, Herod sees the world through the lens of empire, and power, and scarcity.
Through the lens of a world moving quickly and seemingly irrevocably toward the infernal city.
Here we are on the second Sunday after Christmas; the 10th day of Christmas by our counting, but Christmas is already just a dream in the hearts and minds of most.
For most in our culture Christmas has already been forgotten; we’ve blown past New Years, and we’re now focused on the next major religious holiday in the US—the Super Bowl.
Yet here we’re asked to pause and visit once again the house where Mary and the Child are.
We’re encouraged once again to seek the light that has come into the world, and still shines in the midst of all that looks like inferno.
Jeremiah, like Polo, captures this paradoxical reality.
We enter Christmas singing songs of gladness. The child is born, the king reigns, Christ has returned and…what?
The world doesn’t really look all that different.
There’s still racism, and sexism, and gross disparities income and in living standards.
At some point amid all the joyful Glorias we might become aware that the world isn’t suddenly all better.
That the joy of Jeremiah’s song is all in the future tense.
I will let them walk by brooks of water.
I will gather them…they will sing.
Salvation has come, but there is still work to do.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not over come it.
But that doesn’t mean the darkness has been done away with.
The darkness is still there, at the edges of the light.
Always has been.
Even shortly after the birth, the forces of darkness, the servants of the Empire, reassert themselves.
The family flees.
The wise men leave by another road.
The Empire will continue to try to snuff out the light, and will eventually crucify Jesus, in an attempt to extinguish the light that had come into the world.
It seems that even after salvation has come; we still have choices to make, because the darkness, the inferno doesn’t go away.
So, either become part of the inferno or learn what is not inferno and make that endure.
Either become part of the darkness, or learn what is light and begin to spread it.
“We must all hope and work to eliminate darkness,” says Richard Rohr, “especially in the great social issues of our time.”
Hunger, poverty, wasting the earth’s resources on armaments, but…
“At a certain point,” he says, “we have to surrender to the fact that the darkness has always been here, and the only real question is how to receive the light, and spread the light.
That is not surrendering to the darkness, any more than the cross was surrendering to it.
“It is real transformation into the absolutely unique program of the Risen Christ.
“Our Christian wisdom is to name the darkness as darkness, and the Light as light, and to learn how to live and work in the Light so that the darkness does not overcome us.” (Rohr, Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr.)
Kublai Khan was not paying attention to Marco Polo.
He missed it when Polo began to speak about the city toward which his journey tended.
As an emperor, Kublai could only really see an imperial city.
But, what Polo described was not an imperial city; not Babylon, or Rome, or Yahooland, or Brave New World, or Panem.
The city Polo envisions, he says, “is discontinuous in space and time”—that is to say, eternal.
It is usually caught in a brief glimpse, seen as a glint of light in the fog…
“Perhaps,” Polo whispered to the Khan, “while we speak, it is rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire.”
While we speak, the kingdom of God is rising, scattered within the confines of all the empires of the world.
Rising in the hearts of all who have seen God’s glory reflected in the face of a baby…
and in the face of the poor, the meek, the needy,
in the face of those who mourn, who hunger and thirst for justice.
in the faces, and the lives, and day to day work of all those who continue to risk much and who remain vigilant.
Who have learned to read the stars, interpret the signs, know to listen to and seek out the voices of those who are not given voice, who know how to name darkness as darkness.
Those who continue to discern how to recognize those things that are not inferno, not darkness, and how to make them endure, how to give them space.
May we also be among those who help the light endure and spread, and shine so that the darkness will never—never—overcome it.