“Unseen” by Spencer Doerr ’20 is a digital photograph of the night sky in Dilly, Texas.
It appears in the Spring 2018 issue of The Talon.
The following sermon was given by Dr. Byron Hulsey in St. Andrew’s Chapel on Monday, January 7, 2019, for the Feast of the Epiphany.
My great aunt Miriam was a hard but big-hearted woman who lived with her sister, Mary, for many years, and then alone in a primitive log cabin west of Fort Worth, Texas until a couple of months before she died at the age of 100. Mary and Miriam were dairy farmers and school teachers, and they were tough, fearless women raised in the spirit of the pioneer west. My father has a dining room table with two gashes in the middle. Legend has it that a rattlesnake fell out of the ceiling rafters during lunch one day and one of my great aunts felled it with a hoe that they kept behind the couch to deal with snakes that might make their way into the cabin. Miriam’s reddened hands were calloused and gnarled from years of manual labor on the dairy farm and in the kitchen. As a schoolteacher, she poured her best years into the education of children, even though she never had any of her own. She is one of the heroes of my life.
And she was born on January 6, the date that Christians around the world celebrate the feast of the Epiphany and the last of the twelve days of Christmas. As a boy I grew up knowing all about Epiphany, in part because it was Miriam’s birthday, but also because my father was an Episcopal priest, and he was determined to honor the sanctity of the Christian calendar. In our household, we were strictly forbidden to turn on the Christmas tree lights until late on Christmas Eve, because to do so would be to shorten and therefore cheapen the season of Advent, which precedes Christmas like Lent precedes Easter. And in my family we never, ever took down a decoration until January 6 and the twelfth day of Christmas and the celebration of the feast of the Epiphany and Miriam’s birthday.
So, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to Miriam. We’re here tonight with mixed emotions. We’re happy to see our friends, and we may be looking forward to portions of the year to come, but we’re also prone, almost programmed, to feeling a little glum and a little gloomy. This is undoubtedly the toughest time of the school year. It has been for the whole of Woodberry’s 130 years, and it is for schools across the nation. Most of us were pampered and coddled by the comforts of the Christmas holiday. We revelled in the chance to be with family and friends; you got to sleep late and play Red Dead Redemption and Fortnite for as long as you could stand it. Being back at Woodberry comes at a cost: Here we call on you to work hard, build your character, and take care of each other. And here we live in community with each other, expected to step up for the common good and advance the interests of the whole, even when it runs against the grain of what we would individually like to do.
At the start of the fall trimester here in St. Andrew’s Chapel I likened the coming school year to a journey into the unknown on a massive ship. Each of us has an important role to play on this ship, but we knew when we started that we’d make our way through twists and turns and tempests we didn’t see coming followed by stretches of fair winds and following seas. We expected moments of joy and triumph and moments of deep disappointment. We understood that we’d be tested, we just didn’t know how and when or where or to what extent. All in all, I like where we are, and I want to thank the senior class, the prefect board, teachers, coaches, and advisers for the sacrifices you’ve made for the good of our community and for the care and support of every boy in the Tiger Nation.
And while I am proud of the school year we’ve had thus far on our journey into the unknown, I am, like many members of the faculty and so many young alumni and older boys, heavy hearted at the recent loss of two Tigers, Christian Magnani from the class of 2015 and Charles Vieth from the class of 2017. I am reminded through the pain and despair of young lives cut way too short that the trappings of the world don’t prepare us for periods of grief and uncertainty or for the journeys that we all must take through the valley of the shadow of death.
For these trials and tribulations we need community, and we need the undeserved gift of God’s grace that passes all understanding. That message resonates fully for me as we celebrate tonight the feast of the Epiphany and take time to hear again the Gospel story of the wise men who came to see the baby Jesus in a filthy stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. I am reminded of the true message of Christmas, namely that God revealed Himself to us through the baby Jesus not in a palace or a temple or with fanfare or pomp or circumstance, but in a rustic stable, a place fit for animals and humble farmers, not kings, priests, or princes.
Tonight’s Gospel reading and the radical nature of Jesus’ birth grant us the undeserved gift of grace that binds us all together in equality as God’s children. But tonight’s message also creates questions that aren’t that easy to answer. First of all, we’re told that the wise men followed “the star” to the baby Jesus. I’ve often wondered, “How did they know which star?” On clear nights at Woodberry I see hundreds of stars, and I’m puzzled at how the wise men would know exactly which one to follow.
So as we bid farewell to 2018 and greet the new calendar year, which star in the sky will you follow? In the sweep of countless stars in the universe, how will you know where you’re going or what you’re doing and why you’re doing it? The world, of course, has plenty of answers: We often equate money and the trappings of wealth as indicators of success, happiness, and fulfillment. Closer to home at Woodberry, we might incline ourselves to follow the stars leading to academic success, athletic triumph, or artistic accomplishment. Acceptance to the college of your choice is often a star that Woodberry boys are motivated to pursue, a golden calf that young Americans and international students chase every year, sometimes at the expense of their true selves. If it’s not college acceptance, maybe it’s your vision of the good life, the commercials we see on TV, or the shows we watch on Netflix, or the Instagram posts from the cool guys… surely those are stars we chase as well.
But the hard truth of the matter is that the trappings of the world, even when you are a young man of good character, are rarely enough for a life of health and wholeness. I was reminded of that just after Thanksgiving when I learned that Christian had died. Many would have said that Christian had it made at Woodberry: He was a prefect, a varsity letterman, an accomplished actor, a strong student, a good friend, and blessed with an extraordinary sense of humor, a young man who was so talented and so naturally funny that even teachers attended pep rallies to see him perform.
But something invisible to most of us was missing. Not long after I got the news I saw a YouTube video of Christian bravely sharing the story of how he got addicted to drugs in college. At one point Christian describes leaving Woodberry and joining a college fraternity and says, “All of a sudden I was not the cool kid anymore, and I had to find my avenue to become cool. So I started smoking marijuana and I got in with that crew.” Looking for a star to follow, Christian put on a mask that hid the light of his true self from himself.
Charles’ struggles were materially different but worthy of our consideration as well. He battled demons that became too much to bear. I know his parents would agree that he never knew true peace in his life. His mother told me yesterday that “Charles was too tender for the world,” a heartbreaking reflection from a parent that saddens me beyond any words that I could ever convey. Charles’ mom’s comment suggests to me that Charles was the star, and that truth got lost in the blizzard of anguish and fear and pain that he endured. And in that despair and that in that pain I’m called back to one fundamental truth from tonight’s Gospel message, a truth derived from the radical, underserved gift of God’s grace through His son: Each one of us is enough; each of us, as a child of God, is enough. No matter our grades or test scores, no matter where we got into college, no matter where we are from or who are parents are, no matter if we won or lost the biggest game of the season or had the lead role in the play or never got in the game… each of us, as a child of God, is enough; each of us is worthy, and we’re all equal in the eyes of God. The conservative thinker Peter Wehner makes just this point, noting recently that “(Grace) is the unmerited favor of God, unconditional love given to the undeserving.” There is, he writes, “a radical equality at the core of grace. None of us are deserving of God’s grace, so it’s not dependent on social status, wealth, or intelligence. There is equality between kings and peasants, the prominent and unheralded, the rule followers and rule breakers.”
I urge you to be open to the possibility that the true star to follow lies enfolded in your innermost self, and I urge you to be open to the possibility that you’ll need to give it space to flourish in the midst of the distractions and the world’s many masks. And I urge you to be open to another truth from tonight’s Gospel, namely that it wasn’t one wise man who went alone to the baby Jesus; it was three. We’ve been created by God to live in community, one to another. You’ll likely find your truest self in community and through the lives of others who give you the strength and unconditional love necessary to take your mask off. The three wise men, in community, one with another, traveled from places of power, wealth, and privilege to meet the baby Jesus in a ramshackle stable, a humble dwelling place for the Son of God. I’m not sure one could have done it alone. Together they bowed down to the lowest of the lowly, a lesson for all of us as we live in community here at Woodberry Forest.
I often wonder if I’d recognize Jesus in the world today. I’m afraid I’d be looking in the wrong places. Tonight’s Gospel message makes clear that the Son of God more likely than not resides in places and in people we wouldn’t expect. For me it came through my great aunt Miriam and her unconditional love for our family in that humble log cabin in central Texas. It covers me up at Woodberry, too. It came through clearly after Thanksgiving when Mr. Larry Washington, who drives for Woodberry, showered me with wisdom and insight on a late-night ride to Reagan airport. “You put nothing into nothing,” Mr. Washington reminded me, “you get nothing.” And “Just because you’re knocked down, that doesn’t mean you’re knocked out.” Or it’s from groundsman Calvin Tucker, a man who’s worked here 35 years, who stopped me the other day and said, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, Mr. Hulsey, but how’s your wife, and how are your children?”
Be mindful; stay watchful; know that you are enough; look for the wise men in your midst and follow your own star to the baby Jesus. Amen.