[Edited only very slightly for clarity, what follows is the reflection I gave to the full faculty of St. George’s Independent School during a chapel service preceding our in-service day today]
Are there any Seinfeld fans out there in the house? With central characters that were narcissistic, judgmental, insecure, often oblivious, and yet somehow also endearing, I grew to love the program over its decade or so run.
There is an episode of Seinfeld that turns the ritual of going to see and then viewing a new baby upside-down. Instead of admiring the new child, Jerry and Elaine, after resisting going to see the newborn child of friends for as long as possible, look shocked and nauseated upon first glimpsing her, and later Kramer, when asked by the doting parents whom the child most resembles, says, “Lyndon Johnson.”
Seinfeld at its best made us see things, familiar things, through a new lens. Take any ritual or human foible and the show satirized it—placed it in full view and dissected it with comedic conceits and surgical wit. Of course, when going to visit a new baby, our job in the non-Seinfeldian universe is simple and defined: state from the start that we have come as soon as we possibly could, be generous in describing the beauty of the infant, perhaps remark on how alert the child seems, maybe point out that we can see the best of each parent somehow in the countenance of the “bundle of joy.” There are expectations. We should meet them.
Such rituals are complex and nuanced. For example, if the baby is asleep when we arrive, we should say, “what a great sleeper!” instead of remarking on the child’s alertness. For the people who become teachers, really good teachers, we don’t have to remember such rituals, however, for when we see that new child for the first time wrapped in a blanket like a burrito in a crib or, more relevant to us as we jump back into the rhythm of school tomorrow and see all those kids come into our classroom, we do not have to remember how special, beautiful and important they are, we know it already. We know it before they arrive, and when we are at our best, we still know it even when their imperfections challenge us and frustrate us. We know it even when we are exhausted from late night grading or crowded tutorials. It is a critical part of our avocation to know it.
A Seinfeld allusion to begin my reflection this morning and our work together in a new calendar year may seem unlikely, but I think it is wonderfully, if a bit strangely, apt. This particular Seinfeld episode is to my eye a sort of photonegative of the central story of Epiphany. It brilliantly shows us the conventions of a visit to a newborn child by reversing them, by capsizing them. Jerry, Elaine, and Kramer are the anti-wise men who resist going to see the child, then reject her, and finally depart as soon as they can without imparting one bit of useful wisdom. They break every rule of the visit, they crack the guest-host relationship, and they fail to meet the expectations of meeting a new child. When the wise men of Matthew arrive to wonder at the Christ child, they honor the child and they protect it from harm by disobeying Herod.
For the significant place the Magi have in our cultural imagination regarding the nativity, the truth is they only appear in Matthew’s gospel and then only briefly. Our gospel reading this morning is all there is to it. The wise men aren’t even named in the gospel. For that cameo appearance—only twelve verses, our Wise Men are included in every Christmas Pageant where they are played by ten year olds in robes that are too long and crowns that keep slipping down over their eyes. For that cameo they are pressed in plastic and back lit in front yard nativity scenes. For that brief appearance their part of the story occupies a critical place in the Christian calendar, which begins tomorrow as our students return from break.
In the story itself they play a very practical purpose in the plot-line of Christ’s story—without them Herod wouldn’t have known the general whereabouts of the child and the tragic course of the story that leads to the slaughter of the innocents would not be set. For our purposes today, however, I think we focus culturally on wise men so much because they are able identify the eternal in the child. These men of power and position see divinity in the one they call “The King of the Jews.” Between the shepherds and the wise men, we get to see a sort of economic and intellectual diversity to the crowd seeking out this particular baby. They all see, shepherds and wise men alike, the spark of the eternal and divine in the child. In our work we are called in some way to do something similar and see that all children are the children of God with the spark of the eternal. The wise men show up for the child, and we show up for our students.
The gift great teachers bring is the devotion to showing up for all of our students. While the gifts of the wise men have powerful symbolic meaning, our commitment to our students, to their learning, to their growth is more valuable in a practical sense than the gold, frankincense, and myrrh the wise men bring. Those gifts, valuable as they are, are merely tokens of the child’s importance—the men are paying homage to the new king. Those gifts serve no specific purpose later in the story of Christ, whereas the work of a great teacher shows up in the story of a student for his or her entire life.
Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer cannot think of others first—they just can’t. I love them them as characters in a show, but I wouldn’t really want them as neighbors, and they would have made unbelievably bad teachers. They would never understand that a teacher’s job is to have faith in young people when they may not yet have it in themselves, and that a teacher’s job is to hold them accountable to a standard higher than that which they might set for themselves, but that we know they can, with our help and the help of others, reach.
Our calendar is at a transition point—the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of Epiphany. At the end of our in-service this afternoon, we will have our own kind of day early Twelfth Night celebration. While celebrating our work together, let’s also celebrate what promises to be an historic time in our school—the year that we have our first students graduate who began on the Memphis Campus in Pre-K. It is also a year when we are so fortunate to have a senior class that has within it some of the best leaders I have seen in my career. This faculty from Pre-K to 12th has clearly left its mark on this outstanding group who will walk across the stage in May. Epiphany is an appropriate season to begin again our work together for these amazing kids.
We have so much exciting work ahead of us! Thank you for all that you do and will do in the days and months ahead. Thank you for showing up for these kids.