Epiphany

Why does the church celebrate the festival of Epiphany, and what does it mean? Here's Chris Oldfield with some brilliant thoughts to help us reflect on the real meaning of this ancient tradition.

In his 1968 book, Faith and Violence, a contemplative Thomas Merton included ‘a letter to a southern churchman’, warning against an unhealthy preoccupation with simulacra: what he called ‘pseudo-events’. It’s worth reading in an age of fake news.

‘When the life expectancy of the average secular ide­ology today is about five years, it seems rather irresponsible to identify the Gospel with one or the other of them.’ [1]

Christian churches, caught between the stories of Creation and Christmas, Exodus and Easter, have long had a distinctive approach to time; their own way of marking the days, months, seasons, years. In church calendars, what we today call ‘January 6th’ marks the first day in a season of Epiphany.[2] After a month of Advent, and the twelve days of Christmas, we recall the Journey of the Magi.[3]

‘A cold coming we had of it
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey’. [4]

The story is half-familiar from hazy memories of school assemblies and Christmas time.

It’s a story of mangers and kings, caesars and imperial forces. (Welcome back to the strange new world of the bible).

It’s a world in which a virgin conceives and angels sing; where stars lead magi to turn their backs on lands of the rising sun, because they’d seen a new light, shining in the darkness.

It’s a world in which a regular Jo, about to abandon his (pregnant) first love, is persuaded not only to stick with her, but to flee his home country – twice – through dreams, and terrors of the night.

How do you respond to a story like that? I think the difficulty for many of us – if we’re honest – is that we have an imaginative disconnect, and so we switch off, because this world is not that world.

We don’t live in a world of mangers and kings, caesars and imperial forces. We live in a world of pret a mangers, burger kings, caesar salads and market forces. Like T.S. Eliot, we find ourselves

‘with voices singing in our ears
that this was all folly’. [5]

Honestly, if this happened today, I imagine we’d bank the gold, smoke the frankincense, and free-cycle the myrrh. We might even close our borders entirely to any foreign visitors wanting to make a contribution. If we paid enough attention to even notice the stars, I doubt we’d be moved by what we saw. Post-Copernicus, we still prefer to think that the stars should revolve around us, not we around the stars.[6] Let’s be honest. This could never happen today (that’s the thing about history…) and so, with a flourish of chronological snobbery,[7] we conclude that couldn’t have happened then.

Let’s step back a moment, lest we forget that Matthew was an evangelist, writing as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus: the god of Abraham had raised his suffering servant from the grave. [8] Since that event, Matthew (like the rest of us) had found himself living in a whole new world. Like the witnesses to the resurrection at the end of Matthew’s gospel (or was it the beginning? It’s hard to tell now, as `some doubted’ at the time) – the magi return to find their old worlds, in a new light.

‘We returned to our places, these Kingdoms
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people, clutching their gods.’ [9]

I once heard someone ask Rowan Williams: “if the resurrection of Jesus had happened today, would we believe it?”. Now, there’s much that could be said here, but what Rowan said has stuck with me.

“I’ve no idea how one could translate a first-century story simply into our own age, partly because so much of the framework of our own age is shaped by what happened in the first century. So I just don’t know, I can’t speculate. Had history gone on without the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Lord, where would we be now? We wouldn’t just be here as we are. […] We can’t imagine the Incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus happening now because the now we’re in is already formed by the history we have.” [10]

Like it or not, the rumour of resurrection has so profoundly shaped the world we’re in, that we cannot simply wind back the clock.[11] Where would we be today, if it weren’t for the resurrection of Jesus? For all I know, we might still be living in a world where Newton never dreamed of mathematical physics, and magi read the stars.

[1] Merton, Thomas. 1968, ‘Events and Pseudo-Events: a Letter to a Southern Churchman’, pp.145-164 in Faith and Violence. 1 (University of Notre Dame Press), p.148.

[2] Also known as Theophany in some quarters, to mark the shining or appearing (phaneia) of a god (theos). The Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ appears several times in New Testament letters, to speak of `the appearing of our god and saviour’ or `the brightness of his coming’.https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/

[3] Three things must ye know about ‘the three wise men’, our beloved three kings of orientarr (wherever that is): there’s no mention of their being three, or wise, or men. Also, orientalism aside, the word translated ‘east’ can also be translated ‘rising’ (e.g. Isaiah 60)

[4] Eliot, T.S. 1927. Journey of the Magi https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/

[5] Eliot, T.S. 1927. Journey of the Magi https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/

[6] I recall an article on the wall of the Bristol physics department, with several explanations, which may be astronomically interesting, yet miss the point entirely.

[7] a term coined by Owen Barfield https://www.owenbarfield.org/chronological-snobbery/

[8] The driving question then was not whether it happened but what it meant. See Pinchas Lapide’s 2002 book, The Resurrection of Jesus: a Jewish Perspective, or N.T. Wright’s 2003 book, The Resurrection of the Son of God, or his 1998 article, `Grave Matters’ (https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/april6/8t4051.html).

[9] Eliot, T.S. 1927. Journey of the Magi https://poetryarchive.org/poem/journey-magi/

[10] Williams, Rowan. 2008. ‘Faith and History’ http://rowanwilliams.archbishopofcanterbury.org/articles.php/1359/archbishops-holy-week-lecture-faith-history.html#Q&A

[11] By contrast, the ‘secular ideology’ of many enlightenment philosophes that human history can be wound up like clockwork would be relatively parochial, even if it were true.

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