The Old Dispensation: China and the Church Year

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I really enjoyed reflecting on what living in China taught me about Advent (here and here), so I think I’m going to continue this series throughout the church year.  Unfortunately, I’m a little behind, because my Christmastide post is only half-written.  I’m skipping ahead to Epiphany (and you will probably see Christmastide later).  Epiphany is the season from January 6—Ash Wednesday.  It traditionally celebrates the magi finding Jesus, Jesus’ baptism, and the teachings and miracles of Jesus—all ways that Jesus manifested himself on earth. 


I am not a huge fan of T.S. Eliot (he’s sort of a love him or hate him poet), but I do love his poem “The Journey of the Magi.”  He imagines what the journey of the magi was like.  He has some vivid imagery, like “the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory / Lying down in the melting snow” and “the camel men cursing and grumbling.”  But my favorite part is the end, when then magi reflects on the journey and its effects.




All this was a long time ago, I remember,

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This: were we led all that way for

Birth or Death?  There was a Birth, certainly,

We had evidence and no doubt.  I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.


In T.S. Eliot’s account, the magi came experienced something new, a birth of sorts.  But there was also death, as the old ways died to the new.  They returned to the places that they came from, but they weren’t the same people.  They didn’t fit in anymore, “with an alien people clutching their gods.”  This was the old dispensation.

These lines have captured my imagination and heart since the first time I read them several years ago, while I was preparing to move back to the United States after teaching in China.  I knew then, and know now that I have died to parts of myself, because I have lived in a different culture.  And I’ve experienced a birth of sorts, of a person who can deal with different challenges.  I still think of the United States as “home” and long for Lake Michigan and blue skies (or even clean, cloudy skies), having dinner with my parents and breakfast with my grandpa, having lunch with a friend and strolling the aisles at Target, but I know that the next time I go to the U.S., it will be “the old dispensation.”  Even though I will love all of those things, I will not feel at ease.  Target will probably be totally overwhelming.  The night will be too dark, because I’m now accustomed to light pollution.  The day will be too quiet with the ever present honking horns, construction noise, shop loudspeakers, and everything else that makes noise.  There will be awkward moments with family and friends, because I’m not at ease in the old dispensation.

But I’m not fully at ease in the new dispensation, either.  Another China expat (who is much funnier than me!) wrote this list of 46 Signs China is Permeating Your Soul.  And while I’m fully on board with many of them—no tipping is awesome, ice in my drink makes my teeth hurt, and I’m surprised when the actual dishes look like the pictures in the menu—I am not yet sold on the variety of toothpaste flavors, the desire for fatty meat, or the blurry line between ketchup and marinara.

This in-between space can be confusing and awkward, but it can also be a “thin space” where I see Jesus in new ways.  When the familiar is pulled away (is that peppermint or green tea flavored toothpaste?), I learn to trust Jesus in new ways.  It is a learning and a growing time.  I hope that during this season of Epiphany, I, and you, will grow in my understanding of Jesus, that living between the old and new, birth and death, will lead me to new epiphanies.

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