I did a lot of traveling on Epiphany. One place where I stopped on my journey was at Seattle’s Church of the Apostles, more commonly known as COTA. I had heard a bit about COTA, that they were doing interesting things with liturgical community in the ELCA/ECUSA partnership. I have a few friends who are part of their diaspora, so I thought I’d check them out during my first visit to Seattle and a few hours before I flew back to New York.
COTA meets in the Fremont Abbey in Fremont, what one might consider the Christiania of Seattle. So, it’s unsurprising that a countercultural community of the Emergent Church would be appealing there. The service, based on the Episcopal liturgy, had a contemplative, meditative vibe. Perhaps, it was because I was there on Epiphany that things were kept as dark as they were. The emphasis was the star the Magi followed. A projector threw a galaxy photo on the ceiling. There was a screen at the front where the liturgy and lyrics were displayed in the context of star images.
Before things started what worried me was the music, because I don’t like 98% of contemporary worship music. And I hate praise bands. So, my expectations were exceedingly low. But this is Seattle. The service opened with the small band playing a shoegazer cover of “We Three Kings,” which I enjoyed greatly. It was refreshing to sing the song without a magisterial bravado.
The fourth stanza of the song is the sad one:
Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.
Embalming fluid. Along with birthday gold and frankincense is this party crasher. A strange, ominous gift, possibly received awkwardly by these new parents. And how would it seem to have traveled from the East with this magi, this court astrologer, who journeys hundreds of miles to bring rain? This magi was the bleak one. The act of bringing a gift of embalming fluid hundreds of miles to give to a newborn child is bleak theology at its best. It is prophetic, as well. In the story, Herod will order the slaughter of all the male babies. Mary and Joseph escape to Egypt and Jesus lives. But perhaps Mary gave the embalming fluid to some mother she knew, some mother who needed it.
And so to sing this song with a tinge of sadness and reflection, in a darkened room with candle-lit icons on a cold January night is appropriate. My grandfather was born on Epiphany. Many years ago, he died on January 2, but we buried him on Epiphany, his birthday. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. He was always one for tying up loose ends. And so Epiphany always has a tinge of sadness and death for me.
After the sermon, the peace, and the Eucharist, and few more songs, the service ended and leaving COTA, I took my luggage back to the airport for a late night flight. It was a nice way to end my visit to Seattle.
Epiphany, ἐπιφάνεια, Greek for “manifestation,” is the manifestation of God to the World. And in the midst of the joy and excitement, wonder and confusion at the beginning of life is the smell of perfumed death. And the smell of Christianity is so familiar in the Church that we get used to the smell of death. We forget the smell of ourselves, it is so natural, only to discover it anew in our worn clothes or perhaps when we smell our skin. We forget the smell of the Church, perfumed as it is for so many senses. But as we prepare for Lent next month, it is important to remember that we all are breathing a life of gathering gloom.