By Ched Myers
Caspar, Melchior, Balthasar, behütet uns auch für dieses Jahr, vor Feuer und vor Wassergefahr. (“…protect us again this year from the dangers of fire and water.”)
— prayer uttered during the traditional German feast of the Three Kings
The origins of the Feast of the Epiphany are historically complicated and ecclesially disputed. We might think of it as a kind of peace offering from the Western to the Eastern Church, given the latter’s (surely older) January 6th date for the Feast of the Nativity. The Twelve Days of Christmas, in turn, represent a bridge between the two traditions, straddling exactly our celebration of the New Year.
Epiphany has a rich cultural history in the west, from “Plough Monday” in early England (a drinking day for the peasantry) to La Fiesta de los Reyes Magos, still celebrated among Latinos. What caught my attention in researching such traditions, however, was an old German practice of ritually purifying the household on the Twelfth Day, the “eve of Epiphany.” Herbs were burned and C + M + B (representing the legendary names of the Magi) inscribed above the entry to the house and barn, followed by a prayer asking for protection in the coming year “from the ravages of fire and water.”
This seems such a compelling petition for our world, which, like the Magi and Holy Family of old, dwells uneasily under the shadow of Empire. Indeed, under Trump the U.S. will intensify its rehabilitation of the old Pax Romana policy of “permanent war.” How many contested landscapes suffer the “fire” of depleted uranium munitions and “smart-bombs”? And as for deadly “water,” climate change authored sea rise is literally erasing some small island countries from the map, inhabited by marginalized people of color. (Black Lives Matter in Kiribati, too.) Meantime, our First World senses are constantly flooded with market- and media-driven delusions, distractions and commodity fetishism.
But how are ancient, mythical Magi supposed to protect us from such epidemic dehumanization? Their story is the focus of Epiphany, alluded to at the end of the Feast’s Old Testament reading:
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn… A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord. (Isaiah 60:1-2, 6)
While the theological theme of “the in-breaking of the Light” tends to dominate our contemporary liturgical celebrations, we should not overlook the Magi. But that’s not easy in imperial America, with its White House crèches and relentless commercial huckstering. We have long candy-coated and Disneyfied the Christmas story beyond biblical recognition, and no characters have been more domesticated than the “Wise Men from the East.”
Matthew’s Nativity account narrates the archetypal conflict between a King (Herod) and a Kid (Jesus), to which the visit of the Magi (Mt 2:1-12) is central. Biblical scholar Richard Horsley, in The Liberation of Christmas: The Infancy Narratives in Social Context (Crossroad, 1989), writes: “Quite apart from any particular incident that may underlie it, the story portrays a network of historical relationships that prevailed in the general circumstance of the birth of the messiah” (40). He details how Herod, the powerful, half-Jewish despot serving Rome’s interests in colonial Palestine, oppressed his own people with taxes to fund his grandiose building projects. Herod “instituted what today would be called a police-state, complete with loyalty oaths, surveillance, informers, secret police, imprisonment, torture and brutal retaliation against any serious dissenter.” (46f) Horsley concludes: “Matthew 2 comes to life vividly against the background of Herodian exploitation and tyranny.” (49)
In addition to its “historical verisimilitude,” Matthew’s caricature of Herod is also inspired by two stories from the Hebrew Bible. The first is found in Numbers 22-23, where the Canaanite king Balak summons Balaam “from the east” to curse Israel, only to be betrayed when the prophet instead pronounces blessing. In Mt 2:1-12, Herod is double-crossed by Magi “from the east,” whom he had employed as agents to find the Jesus so he could ostensibly “bless” him.
The Magi seek a star—a cosmic symbol in antiquity signifying the birth of a great leader. Herod is understandably disturbed that these foreign diplomats have named the child “King of the Jews”—for that is his own title! He clearly understands this as a challenge to his political legitimacy—which indeed was continually contested by Judean nationalists of the time. But in a fashion typical of the powerful (then and now), Herod cloaks his real intentions in pious pretense (2:8). The Magi, however, are not fooled. Finding Jesus, they offer him gifts befitting true authority, thereby rendering him their allegiance, then turn heel and slip out of the country.
Horsley provides further fascinating historical context. The magoi were “originally a caste of highest ranking politico-religious advisers or officers of the Median emperor, then in the Persian imperial court” (53). It seems these sages and seers wielded legendary political influence, which explains why in earliest Christian tradition they were portrayed both as “wise men” and “kings.” More importantly, magoi may well have been instrumental in opposing the Hellenistic imperial forces that conquered them and other ancient Near Easter peoples… Throughout the first century C.E., there was a continuing confrontation if not outright war between the Romans and the Parthian empire to the East. It is not difficult to imagine that the Magi would have been associated with the eastern empire in opposition to Rome. (55f)
Their actions in Matthew are, therefore, both conscientious (saving innocent life) and politically subversive (since Herod was clearly aligned with Rome).
Their “civil disobedience” to imperial authority calls to mind a second story from the Hebrew Bible. Exodus 1-2 narrates the birth of Moses, whose life is also threatened by a paranoid potentate, and who is similarly saved by non-cooperating “double agents.” The challenge of an infant brings both Herod and Pharaoh to unleash policies of infanticide—justified by “national security.” But the best-laid royal plans fail because their “accomplices” (the Hebrew midwives, the magoi) instead deceive their superiors in order to choose life. We never hear again of these mysterious heroes in the biblical story—yet upon their “bit parts” of costly conscience hangs the entire drama. Dare we assume that our own choices in a time of imperial violence, minor players though we be, are of any less consequence?
In both the Moses and Jesus stories, the Empire strikes back, and the slaughter of innocents ensues—commemorated in the church’s usually-ignored Feast of the Holy Innocents. “Rachel weeps” (Mt 2:17f = Jer 31:14) over such an absurd mismatch: emperors vs. infants! The Bible is so much clearer than we are about the cynical realities of Statecraft! Yet as imperial minds plot genocide, God’s messengers enter the world at risk: floating down the Nile in a reed basket (Ex 2:3), spirited out of the country on back roads (Mt 2:14). So does the Savior of the world begin life as a political refugee. Against the crushing presence of Power is pitted the liberating power of Presence.
Typically in our North American churches, Epiphany brings triumphal paeans to ‘the miraculous and glorious Light of divine revelation.’ But the problem is, this Light fails to inhabit real political geography. The entire journey of Christmastide, from the Nativity to Epiphany, confirms the New Testament conviction that Messiah will forever sneak into our history like a “thief in the night” (I Thess 5:2). La Fiesta de los Reyes Magos reminds us of ambiguity, violence, displacement and danger—which is to say, of real life as it is for the poor in the shadow of empire. For our world, too, teems with refugees, wailing mothers, and murderous foreign policies.
Epiphany invites us to remember old stories of resistance from the entrails of Leviathan that were spun and preserved by people of conscience with no certainty of the consequences. May they give us courage and hope in our own time of imperial discontent.
The Bible has seen our historical moment before, and assures us that “God is with us,” alongside the victims of “fire and water,” and those who stand with them. It is into this darkness that the Light still sneaks. The question is whether we will recognize the Presence, and like the magoi, act accordingly.