I got the idea from the ancient Church Father, John Chrysostom, who writes of the passage:
“The star of Bethlehem was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon and invite…The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about Christ. The inn was ordinary. The mother was ordinary. The star needed to manifest and illumine the ordinary until they had reached their destination.”
– John Chrysostom
When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any right-thinking person does.
I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.
A Kenny G musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.
Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.
His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.
Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year I won’t keep my mouth shut.
On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.
Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry- seriously a Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.
He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled so strongly of man-perfume that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.
He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.
And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus.
While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2014 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.
Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?
The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.
I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.
The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about every angle and altitude of our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.
Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow.
And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother.
Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way.
Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.
And I thought to myself: Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.
I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.
He chuckled and said: Good luck.
Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes.
It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations.
And I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.
Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking a bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me.
You don’t even have to read it necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space.
Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.
Stops them every time.
That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.
Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc.
He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.
Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.
I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.
He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.
Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2014 Christmas.
I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Mockingjay pin, like the one worn by Catniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, for only $80.00.
I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Mockingjay pin when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.
I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked Save.
After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh.
And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?
I looked over at him. You talking to me? I said as the fingers of my right hand deflty felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.
You talking to me? I asked.
Yeah, he said.
Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.
Yeah, I guess so.
That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.
I let his voice of trail off.
A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the bible.
It’s the story of the magi, I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights.
The wise men, I said.
He said: Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?
Not exactly, I said. They go to Jerusalem first not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.
Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive, he laughed.
I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo or pretend I was asleep.
But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?
Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation.
They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.
He smiled a wise smile at me and said: In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts and then getting back to their normal lives.
And I smiled and said: Something like that.
Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag.
The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment.
And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.
The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.
Can I read it? he asked.
Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up, I said, but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.
No, not that book, he said.
And he held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.
He took a while with it. He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe.
When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back.
Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.
Then he held the bible out to me and he put his index finger down at the page.
What’s this? he asked me.
He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text:
And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.
That’s from Micah, I said, from the Old Testament.
Can you show me? he asked.
And I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him.
It’s short, I warned, only a few pages long.
I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words.
I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading. I wondered if it might be:
He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path.
He will judge between many peoples.
Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore.
He will gather the lame and assemble the immigrants and all those who grieve.
or I wondered if it might be
With what shall I come before the Lord?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)
What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then he handed it back to me.
A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.
The Mockingjay pin? I asked.
No, he said, the wise men. For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.
For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.
I guess I never thought about it like that, I said, even though, now that he’d said it, I could think of an ancient Church Father who’d written something very similar.
I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.
The Good News is so were the magi, I said.
We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows.
I’d closed my eyes.
I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it, he said.
That’s Luke’s Gospel, I said. Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.
I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.
None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.
You ought to be a minister, I said.
He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?
I laughed and said…pretty much.
As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him: Are you going back to DC after the holiday?
No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.