This past weekend, many Christians around the world celebrated the feast of Epiphany. The day commemorates, among other things, the visit by the “wise men from the east” to the birthplace of Jesus. The celebration highlights the paradoxes at the heart of the Christian faith: those with great learning come to pay tribute to one who can not yet speak. God enters the world with his glory veiled, the light of truth shining out of the darkness of a cave. It is a remarkable turn: God himself collides with the ordinary, mundane realities of human life.
The feast, of course, happens in our culture against the backdrop of a season of reflection and recommitment. With the self-reflective posture that the turning of the calendar invites us all to, we look behind us and inquire about whether our last year was all we had wanted and, more importantly, whether we were all we had hoped to be. And as we face up to our successes and acknowledge our disappointments, we resolve ourselves to do better, somehow. Such resolve is a serious matter that none of us should denigrate.
Yet many of us are now beginning to feel the weight of our new resolutions. (Or should I perhaps say instead that we are beginning to feel the sweat and difficulty of trying to lose our new holiday weight?) Habits are notoriously difficult to overturn: inertia and the status quo often prove more difficult to escape than we imagine when we set out. As we return to the normality of our work and stress imperceptibly returns to govern our thoughts, our willingness to be kinder to our neighbor, or to be more patient while waiting in line, or to give more to those in need, no longer has the force it did amidst the post-Christmas relaxation. The reasons why we wanted to do better slowly become more distant and opaque and we allow the hurry and urgency of our tasks to justify sliding on the seemingly trivial opportunities to do good before us.
Yet such mundane moments when we choose between kindness and anger, between graciousness and envy, set our lives on courses with endings that we often cannot forsee. Just as we often gain weight without realizing it until we find ourselves before a mirror, so our character is being shaped and molded without us knowing with any finality the end to which we are hurtling. We learn to do the right thing long before we reach situations that call for heroism—or not. And such learning almost always happens well out of the public eye. For most of us, our “doing better” may remain invisible to those around us, despite our secret hopes that we would be found out.
Of course, we do tell others. We “humblebrag” on social media. We slide our successes into conversations. It’s affirmation that we’re eager for and we’ll broadcast it any way we can.
It’s partly this temptation explains why we are so moved by acts of anonymous kindness. We were reminded again by their power late last year when New York Police officer Lawrence DiPrimo was caught on film buying shoes for a homeless man—or so DiPrimo thought. While later details complicated the story, DiPrimo’s momentary act of sacrifice arrested our attention, as it was clearly done without any concern for the fame or praise that would follow. DiPrimo suggested afterward that the act was what “anybody would do,” which is touching but probably false. Many of us would have walked on by and rationalized our choice. (Let us here resolve to do better!)
Nearly none of us will have the celebrity or fame that comes from deciding to act kindly toward those we come across in need. Nor will we ever have stars over our homes or books written about us. Our lives will probably not attain the sort of glory of being immortalized in song or legend, because for most of our good deeds no one will be there to photograph them. We will not be called, as Frodo was in The Hobbit, to go on adventures and defeat dragons or save lives. The resolutions that we undertake are almost always more mundane, more normal, much less likely to make the headlines of newspapers.
The promise of anonymity, though, does not mean we should give up doing good. As George Eliot puts it at the end of Middlemarch, “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” It is precisely because of how many people obey traffic laws (or near enough!) that most of us will arrive safely at work. It is those parents who labor and sacrifice in ways that we often forget who allow us to stand on their shoulders. Friends who help us move, colleagues who give up their time to aid us in completing a project, those saints who cheerfully yield in line to those about to miss their plane—these are the forgotten, hidden acts that the news will never report but that subtly remind us that the light still shines despite the all too palpable darkness of the world.
Christians, of course, should take this one step further and embrace the temporary darkness of obscurity and allow fame come and go as it may. For as this season reminds us, our Savior enters the world through the mundane realities of childbirth. His coming is cloaked to most everyone by the secrecy of a cave. It takes a star to guide the wise men from the East, but there are not many who show up. His is a public revelation, but not one that is universal (in the sense that everyone in the world sees it straightaway). That comes later. Meanwhile, the light grows slowly, often imperceptibly, within the accumulating subtle acts of love and kindness.
Yet we too struggle to keep up with our resolutions. “Doing better” is a task that we find brings us to the end of ourselves and leaves us wondering why we bothered to begin with. And in that recognition, the Gospel of peace is held out to all and we are reminded that the light has already brought us rest from our labors. For the Christ child, who those wise men come and worship, grows up and becomes the one whose sacrificial goodness covers those who feel the lack.