T.S. Eliot shows us the ripple effect of reckoning with the birth of Jesus in his poem Journey of the Magi, when the delegation that seeks him, finds him. As Eliot tells it, after seeing him they long to go back to their heedless days of pampered life. They are satisfied in their search and now they must dwell in the discomfort of its implications.
These implications become clearer when he begins to speak out some thirty years later. He introduces us to the idea of the kingdom of heaven and through clues tells us what it is like. One sunny day he’s in a boat out on the water because there are so many people wanting to hear what he has to say, it’s the only way he can be heard by all of them as they line the hillside before him. In a one-sentence description he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Book of Matthew 13:33).
Yeast does its work silently. We can’t see how it happens that what was once motionless is now alive and growing. This seemingly inert substance mixed into another inert substance changes not only that substance but its very nature.
In fact, leaven has quite an interesting lineage. It contains some 12 million chemical subunits in its nuclear DNA and when scientists were figuring that out, they had to put each subunit in the correct order. According to them, leaven is an amazing organism. It shares many similarities with humans in its cellular anatomy. And because of leaven’s similarity to humans, the 6,000 genes it contains, arranged on 16 chromosomes, is helping biologists determine the function of the individual human genes involved in cancer, neurological disorders and skeletal disorders. Jesus’ seemingly simple comparison of the kingdom of heaven to an everyday substance suddenly takes on much deeper connotations.
When a little leaven comes into our lives, we’re in for a change as much as the east wind brings Mary Poppins and turns the Banks family upside down. Leaven changes something inedible into something we want to eat and smell and experience. Put flour and water before us without the benefit of leaven and it is a gloppy mess.
Jerry Maguire, the 1996 movie starring Tom Cruise, is a good place to start if you want to understand this parable. Jerry is at the top of his game as an agent to pro athletes. He knows how to get the best deal, the biggest commission, and he’s got the corner office, beautiful girlfriend and fast-paced life to go with it. Jerry has no reason to question the way he is living his life until one of his clients gets a serious head injury in a game. At the hospital the athlete’s young son Jessie, says to him, “This is his fourth concussion. Shouldn’t somebody get him to stop?” Jerry, not really paying attention as he checks his pager, says, “It would take a tank to get him to stop. It would take five super Trooper VR warriors to stop your dad. Right? Right?” Jesse looks at him as though he’s lost his mind and walks away, giving him a significant finger and the words to match in reply.
Jerry suddenly sees himself for what he has become, sees himself through the eyes of a child, and he is ashamed. Soon after, he remembers why he got into the business in the first place, the ideals he started with, and he is inspired to write a mission statement—leaven is roiling and boiling around in his head. He’s got seeds planted in him by his mentor. They’ve been there all along but silently waiting. He’s so excited by what he’s written about dealing ethically with athletes that he goes to an all-night copy store and prints up his mission statement and has a copy put in each of his coworkers’ mailbox the next day.
And then he wakes up from his leavening and says, “What have I done?” He tries to get the booklets back, fails, experiences major regret and rightfully so. In no time at all he is fired, loses the big corner office, the client list, the girlfriend and the paycheque. He finds himself with one less than inspiring client, an accountant, and no income. He pays a high price for following where the leaven leads, and his life is mixed up, infiltrated to the core. We see by the end of the movie that he has been on a journey and the new life he builds is different—it has integrity. The movie Jerry Maguire is a modern-day parable.
The question for us, as for the wise people who sought Jesus after his birth, as for Jane and Michael Banks’ parents, as for Jerry Maguire, is what does this mean for our lives as a result? Are we open to the roller coaster, roiling, boiling, and blossoming, it promises to bring?
We hold each other’s hands, skin against the crumbs of toast on the wooden table. We don’t do anything, just look at each other. It’s only been a few months, but both of us are changed. I have my heart back, and a brain on regular speed.
I appreciate you, I whisper to almost anything these days—the aloe plant, the cat, Roxy, Maria, and especially Josh.
He smiles and blinks at me. “Please promise me I’m not going to come home and find you watching evangelical TV shows, baby.”
“I promise, no money to God.”
Zoe Whittall, Holding Still for as Long as Possible
Off the Beaten Path:
To learn about The Friendship Bread Project where this photo is from see: https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2017/12/31/562868016/the-friendship-bread-project-can-baking-promote-unity-in-a-divided-world. To watch a time-lapse video on the power of yeast see: https://youtu.be/U-UNdgMSalE
T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi poem, in text with notes, as well as recitations: https://www.poetryinvoice.com/poems/journey-magi
The wonders of yeast in UBC researcher studies yeast to protect astronauts from space radiation: https://news.ubc.ca/2019/12/16/ubc-researcher-studies-yeast-to-protect-astronauts-from-space-radiation/
Mary Poppins arrives on the east wind: https://youtu.be/yiKI9Za8r78
Another gloppy mess transformed in the 2010 movie How Do You Know, the Play Doh scene between George Madison and Lisa Jorgenson: https://youtu.be/59l0BTUDPq8
The scene from the 1996 movie Jerry Maguire when Jesse awakens an awareness: https://youtu.be/XqJkxtb8OUA
Zoe Whittall’s novel Holding Still for as Long as Possible is a reflection on profound change.