Excerpt and reflection from Bill Wylie-Kellermann’s Seasons of Faith and Conscience: Explorations in Liturgical Direct Action
Among the liturgical ironies of Epiphany is that the date of this ancient feast should be rooted in a heresy and then subjected to the interests of Roman imperial manipulation.
There were many gnostic approaches to Jesus, all tending to assault the integrity of his person. He wasn’t human,he only ‘appeared’ to be. He floated through life, his feet barely touching ground. Or,as some had it, the divine spirit swooped down on him at a certain point, occupying his body and slipping away just before the agony of the crucifixion. In short, he never died. Nor was he ever born. Against such the creeds,indeed the scriptures themselves, avail.
In the second century, the Alexandrian followers of one such gnostic, Basilides by name, settled on the baptism of Jesus as the decisive moment of his appearance ( ‘epiphaneia‘) and borrowed an Egyptian solstice festival (January 6) to celebrate the moment of divine manifestation. The night before, according to local tradition, the waters of the Nile were reputed to have miraculous qualities. Over against this and the festival of light, they proposed to set the illuminating moment in the Jordan.
The heresy failed. The date and the name stuck.
Before long the orthodox had gotten into the act bringing the birth narratives along as a lectionary corrective. By early in the fourth century a Christian festival fully regaled both the baptism and the birth of Jesus on January 6.
Yet this was just the beginning of a struggle. About that same time another Christological controversy arose, a famous one, pitting Arius’ view that Christ was but a creature, albeit a lofty one, versus Athansius’ which maintained that Christ was eternally begotten, of one substance with God.
Now this was the fourth century , and who should be aghast at the dispute, but the newly victorious emperor of Rome. Constantine the Great had just then ‘converted’ casting his lot with Christianity as the religion of choice by which to unify an empire coming apart at the seams. Suddenly, to his dismay, the Christians were at one another’s throats, choosing up sides and ousting opponents. His religious project was coming unravelled, and he acted to save it.
He ordered all the leaders of the church, all the disputing parties, into a room and told them to work it all out. Hence the Council of Nicea in 326. The story is long and tangled with reverses aplenty, but in the end Athanasias prevailed and the doctrine of the Trinity full-blown was agreed upon.
The upshot of all that was some urgency in liturgical celebration not to co-mingle the birth with the baptism. Let the incarnation be the incarnation. Find it a feast of it’s own.
Who, moreover, should be found waiting in the wings with an influential preference for a date, but Constantine the Great. The chief festival of the Roman sun cult was December 25 , also a solstice festival as dated in a re-aligned calendar. Constantine was a perennial fan of sun worship. Dating before his conversion (so-called) he had dedicated himself under the tutelage of Apollos, or Helios. Now he pursued a calculated policy of uniting sun worship with homage to Christ, and that furthered the already deep logic of celebrating the birth of Christ, long hailed as the ‘Sun of Righteousness,’on the solstice.
Add this: the emperor continued to employ the image of the sun on his coinage. The imperial cult was, of course, ended and officially Constantine renounced his erstwhile divinity, but he nonetheless permitted statues to be made representing him as the sun god, complete with shining rays, and such inscriptions as: “To Constantine, who brings light like the sun.” When he called himself ‘God’s man,’ he indulged an ambiguity which served his imperial purposes.
Granted, there were those in the church who saw the Christmas solstice as a counter-festival to the Roman pagan doings, and there is a certain compelling logic to that. Still one wonders whether the massive assault mounted today on Christmas by the commercial powers (i.e. the inflation, distortion, and humiliation it suffers) isn’t in some sense the revenge of sol invictus, the sun god.
In any event the date was accepted, though not without resistance and holdingsout from the Eastern orthodox. As something of a compromise the feast of the incarnation with attendant readings from Luke and John settled on the 25th and the star of the Magi came to rest over January 6 completing Christmastide. The baptism of Jesus is remembered the first Sunday thereafter.
The irony is that both the struggle to discern the truth and the ambiguous or ingenuous homage of the emperor (so typical of the powers) is itself, as we shall see, a suitable parable of the Epiphany feast.
Here’s another, an icon of sorts: one December a few years ago I saw in the newspaper a wirephoto of a downtown, life-size creche where among the cardboard magi bringing homage and gifts to the Christchild stood the figure of Uncle Sam. He had come to worship. Was it blasphemy? Was it confusion? Did it sponsor self-righteousness or foster delusions of Christian America? Did it pre-empt or culturally distort the very image of Christ it pretended to honor? Or might it portray beyond knowing or intention the true vocation of every political power and thereby reveal ironically the meaning of Epiphany? With the icon before us, and the questions in the back of our minds, let us consider the lections of Epiphany.
For this reason I, Paul, a prisoner for Christ Jesus on behalf of you Gentiles – assuming that you have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly. When you read this you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the children of humanity in others generations as it has now been revealed to God’s holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; that is, how the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of grace which was given to me by the working of Gods power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unspeakable riches of Christ, and to make all see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in high places. This was according to the eternal purposes which God has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confidence of access through our faith in him. (Ephesians 3:1-12)
Epiphany is about revelation, the kind of sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. And what, says Ephesians, is the hidden truth that comes suddenly to light? That the Gentiles are included in the community of faith. Epiphany is a feast of racial reconciliation.
That,of course, was the scandal, rooted in the ministry of Jesus, which remained controversial in the early church and was the topic of that first ‘council’ in Jerusalem (Acts 15). At concrete issue was table fellowship. When Paul calls the Gentiles ‘partakers’ in the promise, he uses a word for sharing at table. Should the ‘dividing wall of hostility’ run down the middle of the table like a legalized apartheid among them? Good news: no.
Clarence Jordan’s cotton-patch translation of the New Testament, now some twenty years old, spells it out with bald concreteness: “It is for this reason – my own Christian convictions on race – that I, Paul am now in jail…The secret is that the Negroes are fellow partners and equal members, co-sharers in the privileges of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Moreover, this mystery is the key, as Walter Wink has noted to the otherwise enigmatic assertion, equally central to Epiphany, that “through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in heavenly places.” To the powers? Shouldn’t it be to the gentiles? Why the switcheroo and what does it all betoken?
Wink concludes, in a connection momentous for the New Testament interpretation of the powers, that the reference is to the ‘angels of the nations.’ The gist of it is that to address the ethne (the nations, the gentiles) one must first recognize and address the collective spirits which hold them, the angelic guardians who labor to maintain hostile walls.
There is Hebrew background to this strange idea. As traced by the scholars it come down to this: When Israel came out from under Egypt and found themselves face to face with an array of powerful nations, they were forced to comprehend them in relation to Yahweh. The approach which has become preeminently biblical was to see these other nations and their gods as subordinates under the supreme authority of the Lord.
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgement…
I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless you shall die like human beings,
and fall like any prince.’
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for to you belong all the nations!
Hence the title, “Lord of Hosts,” in part features the image of this same heavenly council. And the term ‘host of heaven,’ while normally naming the sun and moon and stars, may by a studied ambiguity, also mean this heavenly court of angelic guardians. Notice the humor, though. The gods are real, but they are grouped around Yahweh as lackeys, gofers, advisors, and heavenly cheerleaders.
Recall the ancient text found in Deuteronomy: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the children of humanity, God fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. For the Lord’s portion is God’s people, Jacob is God’s allotted heritage.” (32:8-9)
Here’s the deal: they were to be granted reality but not worship. Herein a further clue to comprehending the principalities. As the Lord commands elsewhere in Deuteronomy, “Beware, lest you lift you eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole host of heaven, you are drawn away to worship and serve them which Yahweh your God has allotted to all the nations under heaven.” (5:19)
The temptation is perennial. It recurs incessantly. When Israel was exiled to Babylon in the sixth century B.C.E. the people were once again faced with an overwhelming reality: the success of massive and imperial power. Wasn’t this a manifest validation of Marduk and his kin, the Babylonian pantheon? At such time a resource commended itself. The Genesis 1 account of the creation story came into circulation, one might say as an underground political tract. Here is a text which may properly be read, its beauty notwithstanding, as a parody of the Babylonian creation liturgy. By the power of the Word, gods of chaos and their subduers, dualistic gods of light and darkness, sun gods, moon gods, the multitude of star deities, indeed the whole ‘host of heaven’ are all named as creatures which owe their being to the one true God and serve Yahweh with their praise.
The nations, meanwhile, remain largely ignorant of the truth, about their own vocation to service and praise, about the divine will which they obstruct, about the manifold wisdom of God now revealed in the life of the witnessing community. That life breaks news in the heavenly places, which is to say (arriving back to the Ephesians text) that Epiphany is the most evangelical of all the liturgical seasons. But ponder: its evangel is addressed explicitly to the principalities of this world.
Will it be a surprise to discover that these same issues, indeed similar images, inhabit the gospel story of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) which is also read on this day.
Among the host of heaven a light to the nations has appeared. The star is an apocalyptic sign and, as with the nations themselves, an emblem in the heavens of authority upon the earth. On the later day when Jesus says, “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven…” we are now well alerted that the fate of nations and powers is the topic.
Who then are the Magi who,”have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.”? Their portrayal in popular legend and music as kings is not accurate to the text, but neither is it entirely fanciful and far afield. They are at bare minimum ‘foreigners’, gentiles, representatives of the nations. Drawn to the truth of Christ, they anticipate and pre-figure at once both the racially reconciled community with gathers about Christ at table, and, as we shall now see, the submission of all political authority to God in Christ.
If these mysterious magi were of a priestly class who, originating among the sixth century Medes, survived the transition of power to the Persian empire or if they were of the sort mentioned so often in the book of Daniel as attending the king’s court in order to function as seers, magicians, interpreters of dreams and the like, then such as these were accustomed to the courtly scene. They would be fully at home in the company of kings. A leisure class having time to study the sky, perhaps at the behest and benefaction of a king. Little wonder they make for Herod’s palace. And when Herod consults his coterie of priests and scribes, they meet up with their opposite numbers.
With such a natural collusion of class, Herod may rightly expect them to return as he requests. His rage and its consequences are another story told on another feast, but those dark doings hover on the edge, or just below the surface, of the events narrated here. They signify not only the difference between truth and the lie, faith and idolatry, but the manifest consequences of the latter in this world.
By the deepest longings of their hearts, and without the benefit, until now, of the Hebrew scriptures, the Magi have come. Their humility is wondrous, nearly naive. They are foil to Herod, who by the most blatant deception and calculated manipulation, expresses the desire to come and worship. His guile is stunning, nearly blasphemous. But ironies abound. Just as the title, “king of the Jews,” will be nailed to the cross, mocking but true, so Herod’s pretense is also his long lost deepest yearning, his true vocation.
And what of Constantine or of Uncle Sam, the angelic guardian of America borders? Their vocations are precisely the same (as all the powers of this world): to praise God and serve human life under the judgement of Christ. One might even say, to do justice and walk humbly. Yet how great their deceptions and pretensions! (And how dark their crimes hovering out of sight.) Such is the crying need of Uncle Sam for the evangel of Epiphany, the need of light to the powers.
Epiphany is marching orders for the community of faith. It sends. As much as any other season it sets before us a public agenda . We ought to be both be sobered and encouraged, for by it our authority to preach to the nations, to speak truth to power, is spelled out. Not, however, an abstract truth, but an incarnational one, a truth rooted in Christ which manifestly must first take form in our own life. Let the light be in us. Let’s go tell it on the mountain and even, irony upon irony, in the heavenly places.