Epiphany, Liturgical Time, and the Islamic State


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.
                                                                 – T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”


Like those three wise men, it’s possible for one to feel like he lives among “an alien people clutching their gods,” having learned to live in liturgical time.


I can remember early on, as a child of about eleven or twelve, being disappointed with Christmas.  After the gift wrap lay at our feet, after the big Christmas Day lunch at my grandparents’ house, everything felt empty.  I remember hearing about the “post-holiday blues” (though I don’t think I would have called it that or remembered that string of words) and feeling like that resonated with me: people becoming “blue” as the holidays came to an end.  I wanted to keep it going – the anticipation of the event, that is.  The consummation of the thing – the unwrapping of gifts and the feasts and family – would let me down.  And as I got older, this experience recurred every Christmas season.


A few weeks ago, The Atlantic published a piece online by Graeme Wood about an American man named John Georgelas, now known as Yahya Abu Hassan, who from all accounts, has become second in command in the Islamic State.  It’s a fascinating and disturbing story about an intelligent young man who never quite found his way and according to his father, was always a follower.  Of course, the paradox now is that he is a leader, one of the top leaders, of the death gang that has ravaged parts of Syria and Iraq and now seem to be trying to make headway in other countries.

What was of special interest to me was where Yahya, as Wood refers to him throughout the piece, grew up.  Just up the road from me is Plano, Texas, the city where my wife grew up and where the parish I attend is located.  This suburb of high achievers is where Yahya spent most of his formative years and where his parents still live. What would cause someone like him to abandon family, faith, and culture in such a drastic way?


Ethiopian Nativity icon

Earlier in this decade, my wife and I moved to Ethiopia to work with orphans and vulnerable children.  One of the things I loved about the culture there was how everything stopped for a major holiday, and the lack of commercialization of a holiday like Christmas in Ethiopia (or Gena) made it feel truly foreign, ancient, and other-worldly.  Even apart from the fact that Ethiopians use a different calendar (the Julian), there were not the usual signs that Christmas was coming – you know, the decorations and products changing hands in all the big box stores around Halloween. Refreshingly, instead of there being commercial signals that a new holiday was coming, you would instead see people walking goats through the streets that they would slaughter for the big feast or women outside crushing chilies into berbere powder – and all this just days before the actual holiday.  There was something organic about it all, something true.


In many ways, I can understand what would lead one to abandon a life in comfortable suburbia for a life roughing it with a jihadist cult.  I don’t know what led Yahya to leave his old life behind and join ISIS, of course, but I think I can imagine what it would be. I can identify with a certain ache for meaning, with the desire to find something for which I can live and die, as Kierkegaard once wrote.  After all, such restlessness is largely responsible for my moving to Ethiopia in the first place.


Without realizing it back then, the “holiday blues” I used to experience were an aching for deeper meaning.  Yes, I’m sure you can psychologize it and say I was just experiencing a let down after all the build up to, and enjoyment of, a long break away from the drudgery of routine, but the problem with this “secular” way of thinking is that it sees routine as an enemy and “vacation” as something that really matters, something that makes one feel alive.  As I’ve gotten older, what has rescued me from the meaninglessness of the North American “Holiday Season” is the church calendar, or liturgical time.  For one, the calendar is built on a kind of holy anticipation, a looking forward to the consummation of all things.  In a beautiful way, the beginning of every Advent looks forward to the end.  We begin the year contemplating last things (especially as it relates to our need for repentance), and doing so is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city.” And that let down I used to feel as a kid on Christmas Day is cut off at the knees by the realization that Christmas is actually a season, not just one morning of tearing open gift-wrapped boxes.

Learning to live in liturgical time also helps provide meaning beyond the daily grind of getting and spending.  Our society is built on an exchange economy and that economy so shapes our hearts and imaginations that we imagine if one puts in the work and the sweat equity, then he should get what he deserves.  Therefore, “free-time” is bestowed on you as a deserved reward for all the hard work: it’s *mine* and  I earned it. The church calendar, on the other hand, structures our time in such a way that we are put in a place to realize all is gift and nothing that is earned is really worth all that much in the end anyway.  What matters is belonging and the community we’re given to be members of, and the sacred time the church calendar situates us in allows us to experience that. The other calendars of our lives are mostly centered around goals, deadlines, and what needs to be achieved and earned, what *I* need to do to perform or succeed.  Liturgical time allows us to exist outside of that exchange economy (“you get what you’ve earned” thinking) and in a time and space driven only by grace and not the bottom line.

To live by this kind of sacred time is inherently subversive as it restructures our lives (our time) around givenness, something that, to our society, is not all that meaningful when often what’s most important is what *I’ve* achieved. We are given our very lives to be lived in holy community.  We are reminded every week at Eucharist that we’re all beggars and, with palms raised upward to receive the Host, we symbolize our need and position as receivers not acquirers.  And while we have to live according to more acquisitive ways of organizing our day-to-day lives to put food on the table, if we let liturgical time shape our hearts and imaginations, we will inevitably run counter to the trends and fads of our culture and desire something different too.


Today marks the end of the Christmas season as Epiphany begins and I’m still thinking about what would lead a man like John Georgelas to become a jihadist named Yahya Abu Hassan.  I don’t know the answer since the human heart is too complex and each person’s story so full of variables and nuance.  I am grateful, though, for having discovered that the church, though it may not always act like it, is its own alternative culture to the culture of death and materialism all around us.  We don’t have to go far to look for radical ways to think about money, politics, social issues, or how we think about time.  They’re there in the ancient ways of the Church and always have been. And it’s possible that, once you’ve learned to live according to them, your old life, organized as it was by other priorities and calendars, will feel alien, as part of a “dispensation” that has faded away. Just like it did for Eliot’s Magi.




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