Epiphanytide, and a proposal concerning your day job

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Once upon a time, many long years ago and in a land far, far away, a group of astrologers observed a stellar anomaly.

“Look,” said one. “That star. It doesn’t usually appear there, right?”

The others nodded and murmured general agreement.

What happened next is a matter for speculation only. Maybe the astrologers had a group epiphany about the significance of the star’s odd location in the night sky. Maybe they held a council to debate its significance. Maybe they ran a series of tests, or deferred to the judgment of the eldest or wisest man of their cadre. Whatever their procedure, we do have from St. Matthew a surviving scrap of testimony about their conclusion: A boy had been born King of the Jews. The astrologers gathered some suitable gifts and set out westward toward the land of Judea; and, after consulting with King Herod and the priests and legal scholars in Jerusalem, found the Man Born to be King in a house in Bethlehem.

That was over two thousand years ago. And to this day, much of the Western Church keeps an annual feast—Epiphany—where we re-tell the story of the first revelation of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles, a story foretold by Isaiah the prophet: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”[1] Among other things, the story is notable for the vocation of its Gentiles: astrology, a vocation mocked for its futility by everyone from that same Isaiah the prophet[2] to the Onion. Indeed those Gentiles would never have got going, but for their vocation.

Hold that thought for a moment.

A century ago, in an Oxford library, a young man (who should have been studying for exams) found C.N.E. Eliot’s A Finnish Grammar. He likened the discovery to “discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before.”[3] Only a rather odd bird would have regarded A Finnish Grammar with the lust of a drunkard or wine snob, but this young man was just that kind of odd bird. He was a budding philologist who’d started developing his “‘own language’—or series of invented languages.” After his “wine-cellar” discovery those languages would forever bear the Finnish bouquet. And then, when he discovered the Finnish Kalevala, that “set the rocket off in story”—the story that would give a background for the languages.[4]

The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala.[5]

The young man may have been shirking his exam preparation that day, but he was very much “on the job” as a philologist. As a result, we have Middle-earth, and the Rabbit Room, and a chorus of toasts “To the Professor!” every January 3.

* * *

It may well be that you regard your day job as a “sideline,” a bit of drudgery you perform only to support your family or art habit. If so, then reflect on this: the seed for the creation of Middle-earth was A Finnish Grammar. Are the arcane or mundane details of your day job so arcane or mundane as that? Is there nothing among the details of your job which, if given real attention, might be seed for a world? Or perhaps you regard your day job as disreputable—as much so as, say, astrology or philology[6]. You found this website because a philologist saw a “complete wine-cellar” in a Finnish grammar. Jesus Christ’s first revelation to the Gentiles happened as it did because of astrologers, being astrologers.

The creator of the heavens and the earth scatters his seeds wisely, and quite prodigally. Work accordingly, friends.

 

* * *

[1] Isaiah 60:3 (AV).

[2] Isaiah 47:10-15.

[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 214 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).

[4] Id.

[5] Tolkien, Letters at 345.

[6] C. S. Lewis, for example, was warned at his “first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist.” C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 216 (1955).

Profile photo of David Mitchel

David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.


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  1. Elisabeth

    I’d never considered in this way, how so much beauty grows out of what might seem dusty. Come to think of it, one of my rare forays into fiction-writing did grow out of two Greek words I met in my university studies.

    Thanks for this meditation!

  2. Profile photo of

    David Mitchel

    @

    Thank you all, and you’re welcome.

    One other point: I had never read Richard West’s essay “Setting the Rocket off in Story” in Jane Chance, ed., Tolkien and the Invention of Myth (2004), until I was fact-checking a point in the essay. But for anyone who’s interested, West does an outstanding job of setting out Tolkien’s discovery of Finnish, and its effects.

  3. Joseph Barbier

    Thank you, David! The last two paragraphs nail it. Even man, a little lower than the angels, was indeed formed from the dust of the earth.

  4. Profile photo of

    David Mitchel

    @

    Laura: You mention “reminder.” I wrote this last week, and desperately needed to read it today for perspective. How quickly we forget!

    Andrew: Thank you for being one of the other indispensable links in the chain of people that led to the formation of this Rabbit Room. I actually had some of your recent interview with Nick Flora — the stuff about the work of songwriting — buzzing in my head when I sat down to write this. (That didn’t come out in any particular way, but it was the air in the atmosphere.)

    Jaclyn: I hope it proves nutritious in the digestion, DV.

    Elisabeth: Okay, you’ve aroused my curiosity. Which Greek words, and how did they set the rocket off in your story?

    Joseph: I love, love Psalm 8. Thanks for the comment, and for connecting this brief essay about work with the practice of dominical stewardship.

  5. Elisabeth

    David, the Greek words were kataluma (“upper room” or “guest room”), which appears in the nativity account, and pundakeion (“inn”), which does not.

    I experienced the happy chaos of extended-family gatherings under one roof as a child, so the idea of family-based hospitality in a village like Bethlehem easily became alive in my imagination.

    Add a quiet Christmas afternoon listening to the entire “Messiah,” and the desire to create some sort of gift from my experiences in Israel, and almost accidentally, I had “Tonight in Bethlehem.”

    Thanks for the essay suggestion: I’m off to check it out.

    And you know, I thought I had limited fiction in me… but I’m freshly inspired to court a few more story-rockets.

  6. Chinwe

    Thanks for this reminder, especially for those of us who spend some of the time during our “9-to-5” thinking about what we could be doing otherwise. The seed metaphor is so helpful to me. A seed is so unassuming, small and ordinary, but holds such mysterious LIFE. May we be attentive to the seeds scattered around us!

  7. Hannah Long

    Even…homework?

    I do love being reminded (again, and again – I am so quick to forget!) how important ordinary tasks are. It’s a big part of why I love the movie, Chariots of Fire: it sanctified sports, and pointed to a higher purpose in things considered secular: “You can glorify God by peeling a potato if you peel it to perfection.”

  8. Sir Jonathan C. Andrews

    Well said. Have you ever read anything about the magi being connected to Daniel? He became head of the magi in Babylon. It is very possible they would have interpreted the signs as such because he had told earlier magi what to look for. Not the point of your post but i thought it was an interesting theory. I hope God chooses to use me at my simple job to influence someone into greatness with great purpose.

  9. Profile photo of

    David Mitchel

    @

    Thanks to all who have expressed thanks.

    Elisabeth: Ah, those two words. The sharp edges that define words — what they mean, what they do not mean — can make significant difference to the course of any story, the story of the Nativity of our Lord being a fine example.

    Chinwe: That’s pretty much why I wrote the post. It’s tempting for artists with day jobs to set aside those eight hours a day for daydreaming. As one songwriter said, though: “There is nothing so profound as this moment here, right now.”

    Jonathan: I had heard of that theory about the Magi in passing, but never really chased it down. That would not be an unreasonable reconstruction of the pertinent events at all. And the idea that Daniel’s example and teaching, especially with the imprimatur of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan. 4:34ff.), would have exerted a continuing wholesome influence among the Magi for centuries, is totally awesome. Not unlike the influence that Joseph had among the Pharaohs for centuries — after Joseph’s death it took a long time before a Pharaoh that “did not know Joseph” arose. Which makes me wonder: are we hypersensitive about seeds of corruption, our ears too attuned to narratives of decline, to really keep an eye out for seeds of life, grains of salt, and stories of perseverence and hope?

  10. Scott

    I teach music to elementary kids. While I have considered what seeds I may be planting in them, this is a poignant reminder for me. The kindergartener banging rhythm sticks together may be the next Ringo Starr. The 5th grader writing his own recorder melody may be the next Debussy. Finding significance in our seemingly mundane lives is a great call. Thank you for helping me to remember.

  11. Profile photo of

    David Mitchel

    @

    You’re welcome, Scott. Keep up the good work.

    One of my favorite stories of a music teacher turning out a brilliant pupil: Linda Anderson with baritone Jubilant Sykes. The story goes:

    As a boy, [Sykes] began singing soprano in his native Los Angeles. . . . When his voice began to change, he lost interest — until a teacher showed him that he could indeed make beautiful music with his deepening teenage voice.

    That teacher, Sykes says, was Linda Anderson. “She turned me on to classical music . . . I thought Bach was like Stevie Wonder!”

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