The parish I serve is located next to National Cathedral, and my favorite place within the Cathedral is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. It’s not grand or majestic, or even particularly awe-inspiring. Instead, it is humble: a tiny space with seating for perhaps five people whose only decoration, really, is a carved image of Christ the Shepherd, carrying a lamb.
I have loved it ever since I was growing up in DC, and so I went there Monday to pray for awhile. Pretty much everyone who goes in there does the same thing: at some point in their visit, they reach up and touch the hands of the Shepherd. I don’t know what other people are thinking when they do this, but for me, it’s a way to place myself into the hands of God.
The Cathedral is no longer new, although it was still being built when I first came there, and decades of people have touched those hands. By now, enough people have done it to change the very character of the stone from which the image is carved. No longer do the hands have the frosty patina with which they began. Instead, something very like a miracle has happened. Where the hands have been touched, they have taken on the mottled softness of human flesh. It’s as if our touch is bringing Christ into greater humanity, almost as if he is becoming Real.
I think that’s how it is with the rest of us, too, those who really are flesh, not stone. As long as we are alone, we are brittle, stony, concerned with appearances, not able to respond to human need. It is the touch of other people that gives us our humanity: their kindness, their gentleness, their generosity, their forgiveness, their spirit of fun. Day by day, one conversation or work at a time, we live into and claim the humanity we were given at our birth, unwrapping the gift and making it real. Making our humanity so deep that it can touch the humanity of Christ.
Today is the Feast of the Epiphany, which is all about revelation. It’s the day that the three Wise Men come to wonder at Jesus, the first time his light breaks into an unsuspecting and troubled world. But God’s light was not a new thing for the world. Before Jesus, the light that shone from God was a disembodied light, but it was light all the same. The new light that shines from Jesus is the light of human flesh transfigured, of human beings made deeply real.
In Margery Williams’ book The Velveteen Rabbit, the stuffed rabbit asks the stuffed horse what it means to be Real. And the horse replies, “Real isn’t how you are made. It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real… It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
And so, this Epiphany, let us remember that the light shines most clearly from those who have loved themselves shabby, from those who have prayed and wept and labored and fed, from those who have touched the lives of others and who have allowed their own hearts to be touched in return. We are people who have been greatly loved by the Child. We have nothing to fear.
Becoming real happens in stages. An Epiphany could be the spark to get the “Real Fire” going.