By Lyndon Shakespeare
On a lovely winter evening last January, the small toes on both my feet throbbed from nearly a week of walking around, through, down, and up into the streets, churches, and treasures of Rome. Writer Elizabeth Bowen’s sentiment that knowledge of Rome is gained from the “thinning shoe-leather” up into the entire body was more than mere rhetoric. My feet did hurt and my knowledge of Rome had barely begun. However, there was one more walk, one more journey to be taken before the early-morning departure to the airport. It was the early evening on the Feast of the Epiphany. Standing on the side of the road, costumed kings and wise men paraded, led by a truck holding the holy family. Speakers hung from the roof of the blessed truck emanating something in Italian than I assumed was the story of Christmas and hopefully, an invitation to follow, because my wife and I did. Amidst the children with candles and the curious onlookers, we joined the parade that began and stopped, began and stopped, down Via Carlo Alberto to the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. The air was laden with candle smoke, festivity and truck fumes. Yet we followed Mary, Joseph, and the Christ child, unsure of what to expect or exactly where their travels would take us.
Eventually we reached the piazza and were met by Italian police. I think they were working crowd control; that or they were protecting Jesus and his family from the emergent mass. Hemmed in by the faithful, our encounters with the holy family, the kings and the wise men continued through a large projection screen beaming live the manger scene hidden behind a wall of humanity.
The story continued to be told. I continued to be perplexed and amazed; perplexed by a story so familiar yet now to my ears so foreign and strange; amazed that every impulse in my body, from my aching toes to my engaged senses wanted to hold on to what was unfolding before us. If only I could grasp one
image, one moment, then I would have it forever. But for the first time in the Eternal City, I was without a camera. So many sights beckoned to be captured forever in digital media Not so this night.
We had journeyed with the Magi to kneel before the well-covered Italian baby Jesus. There was little more to do than pay homage. But how does one do this through the metal bars surrounding the piazza? Simply, you give attention, pay heed, and allow the spectacle to capture you and transform that moment into an epiphany of God. Mere meters from me, the autobasileia, as the church father Origen called Jesus; “the kingdom in a person” was being revealed, bathed in light, for all the nations to see and worship.
Luckily for us, and on behalf of us, a select few had brought gifts. The chosen ones came forward to offer their gifts to the gentle Mary seated next to a rather stoic Joseph. The crowd cheered with each offering. Behind me moved a woman with a sling-pouch over one shoulder. She moved effortlessly through the common humanity. Was she removing wallets and watches from the enraptured crowd, or was she maneuvering to have a closer encounter with the child at the center of this drama?
The lively tone in the voice booming from a nearby speaker returned my attention to the manger. The kings had finally come forward and as each bowed on one knee to present treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the increasingly wiggly Jesus, the humanity around me rose to a new level of anticipation.
There was obviously one last gift. Breaking through the onlookers, a child of 6 or 7 climbed onto the manger stage and eagerly surrendered his package. The crowd cheered with the kind of song that you imagine from Italian soccer matches: long, modulated, and joyous. Around me, people exchanged greetings or some such – was there a particular thing one said to others on Epiphany?
I remained focused on the manger that was reaching wholeness in my vision as more and more of the faithful made their exit from the piazza. I noticed that Jesus had fallen asleep. It appeared his mother might have been Mary but his father looked like one of the wise men. Oh the irony! The gentleman who had been standing beside me turned and spoke what was perhaps, the mysterious Epiphany greeting.
“Ciao?” That’s all I could say in return. It seemed to work.
I do not remember the route we took back to our quaint apartment on Via Dei Capocci. We still had dinner to eat. As we meandered back, the worn stones of ancient Rome reminded my feet of their week-long lesson in acquiring understanding of this city. I thought of the Magi, how they had followed the star to Jerusalem and, there, heard and believed what the prophets had said about the new King. He was not to be born in the center of things, like in the majesty of any of the basilicas of modern Rome, but in Bethlehem, away from the expected sites, much like a piazza near the Termini train station and the morning markets. Having rejoiced in their encounter with God in the flesh, the Magi returned home by another route; perhaps a road less impressive than their initial trek.
I trust their feet hurt, too. The Magi had learned through the thin-leather method of education , that an encounter with Jesus is the beginning of a new life: life in the kingdom. Their gifts earned them very little praise or adoration, yet their endurance and faithfulness to the foreign God of Israel placed them as witnesses to how far and wide the knowledge of God stretches.
Amidst the backdrop of the threatening Herod and the powers of ancient Rome, the Magi pronounced in their journey and discovery that kings come and go, and nations come and go, but God makes himself to be eternally found. Even in our exhaustion from walking and searching, in the marrow of our weakened state, God is available; for he is always seen and known in the babe born in Bethlehem, the son of Mary who is revealed in the mystery of God as the crucified and resurrected Lord. This is the lesson and hope of the Epiphany.
And the only thing I can think to say is, Ciao.
The Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare is the rector of All Saints Memorial Church, Navesink, New Jersey.