The Nature of Epiphany

Last year on January 6 we had an epiphany.  Many of us thought, I suspect, that since the angry mob wanted to kill Republicans and Democrats both that their actions would be condemned unilaterally.  Instead we learned that the Republican Party said, “Boys will be boys.”  And of course boys like to kill things.  A year later the GOP has stalwartly refused to condemn the attempt of a violent takeover of the government by a legitimately defeated candidate.  If the other party tried this they’d be calling “treason.”  We had an epiphany of a double-standard masquerading as evangelical Christianity.  Now, instead of thinking of today as the Christian epiphany, well, wait a minute.  Maybe that’s the epiphany we had—understanding what Christianity can become.

One of the tenets of democracy includes the freedom of religion.  Studying ancient religion can be quite revealing.  For one thing, we get a better idea of what religion was.  Few ancient authorities were concerned about what individuals actually believed.  Religion was largely what the powerful and influential did to placate gods who were easily bribed by sacrifice and praise.  The role of the average person was to be taxed to support this, and the monarchy.  I’ve been watching how, since the 1970s, the United States has been going that route.  We’ve always been a religious nation (“Christian” is much more debatable), but Richard Nixon’s ploy to swing evangelicals to the Republican Party worked.  Those not blinded by ideology will know that evangelicals tended to be staunchly Democrat.  Through the ensuing decades we watched Republican presidents giving our tax money to religious organizations they supported.  Why not throw another lamb on the altar while you’re at it?

The sacrificial system, you see, supported the temple staff.  Somebody had to eat all that meat!  Even in the Bible it was recognized that God didn’t exactly consume it the way a human being would.  Then last year on Epiphany, the party that’s supported just this kind of thing tried to throw all but Trump—yes, even Pence—onto their sacrificial pyre.  A year later we see those very senators saying, “well, it might be useful to have such people in reserve, just in case.”  Early Christians believed that you could tell another believer by their actions.  In that they weren’t wrong.  And those who are able and eager to kill in order to get their way have revealed, by their actions, their true beliefs.  It was, and still is, an epiphany indeed.

It Happened on Epiphany

Photo credit: Martin Falbisoner, via Wikimedia Commons

Can you spell treason?  It does begin with the letters “T-R-.”  The events of yesterday made it difficult to sleep securely in “the land of the free” as thugs took over the capitol building in Washington, and even after that Republicans still contested the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, preferring a treasonous president to a democratically elected Joe Biden.  As all of this was playing out, Georgia gave control of the senate to the Democratic Party.  Like many Americans born in a democracy, I stared at the news aghast yesterday as Republicans, fully in the public eye, tried to dismantle the very system by which they themselves were elected and even went so far as to claim they were patriots for doing so.  They draw the evil courage to do this from their “Christian” faith.

Yesterday was Epiphany, a Christian holiday.  To see Republicans—claiming the name Christian—attempting to overturn democracy on that very day was sickening.  To my mind it will live on like 9/11 as one of the most dangerous days in US history.  When asked to get the crowds that he personally incited to disperse, Trump released a video on Twitter telling his followers that the election was stolen and fraudulent but they should go home.  Pouring gasoline on a fire he himself lit, sending both houses of congress into hiding, his snakes-in-the-grass continued to support the myth that Trump hadn’t been defeated.  When the smoke clears this American thinks it’s time to dust off laws about treason and start applying them again.

Congressional leaders, and the president, swear to uphold the Constitution—hand on the Bible.  In the most closely watched election in history, with no evidence of fraud, when the loser wouldn’t concede his party backed him.  The Republican party has been infected with evil, I fear.  Even after seeing the turmoil that their posturing caused, they tried to discount the votes from my state just to keep a very dangerous man in power.  Our democracy didn’t die yesterday.  It died four years ago.  Claiming the name “Christian” without ever reading the Bible or attending church or caring about their fellow human beings, the Republican party has gone down in infamy on the feast of Epiphany.  The electoral vote count by congress is a mere formality, and I, a native and resident of Pennsylvania, am outraged that anyone claiming the power of a democratically elected office—disputing the very process that gave them any influence at all—questions my right to vote.  Why hasn’t treason been invoked?  Four years under the influence of the Evil One has shown its effects, and it happened on Epiphany.

Manifest Duty

As slaves to Mammon our celebrations are frequently curtailed.  In agricultural culture, winter was a time when fields couldn’t be cultivated (at least in northern climes) and thus the twelve days of Christmas could be relaxed without much consequence.  The history of this holiday complex is fascinating, and while many of us have been back to work for a few days already, today, Epiphany, is the “official” end of the season.  Twelfth Night, in some traditions yesterday and in others today, was a day of celebration, the twelfth day of Christmas.  Ancient pre-Christmas holidays such as Saturnalia lasted several days.  Today’s business world frequently gives a Scrooge-like single day off and many of us spend our hard-earned vacation days to fill out the week that is inevitably slow at work otherwise.

In Christianity, until recent times, Epiphany was a bigger holiday than Christmas.  Of the two it was the original day for gift-giving,  That makes sense in the commemoration of the visit of the magi that Epiphany represents.  They were the first givers of Christmas gifts.  Since Jesus was Jewish the idea of a manifestation, or epiphany, to the gentiles became an important marker.  Magi are styled as Zoroastrians from Persia.  The story occurs only in the gospel of Matthew and clearly wasn’t intended to coincide with the arrival of shepherds and angels.  As the Epiphany story grew to include Christmas it also encompassed many of the shadowy events of Jesus’ early years.  His questioning of the teachers in the temple was a kind of epiphany, as was his baptism.  All these things came together during a fallow time and were sufficient reason to take it easy for twelve days between the end of December and the beginning of January.

Some of our employers have expressed surprise that things continue to run fairly smoothly with workers reporting remotely.  These same people also seem surprised that people come back from several days off refreshed.  I suspect that they are also astonished at how well their computers work after being rebooted.  Time off is sacred time.  Whether we dress it up with elaborate stories of kings, wise men, sages, or magicians traveling great distances to see a baby in a foreign nation or whether we make it the day when one cousin baptized another, Epiphany grew into a major feast in medieval times.  Today it’s just another work day.  And with it the end of another holiday season will need to last us until near the end of yet another year.

Non-sacred Time

It’s difficult to say goodbye to the holiday season (although, according to its origins it’s not over yet!).  While the church still recognizes a couple more days until Epiphany—which until recent times was more important than Christmas—the secular “work world” is back to usual after New Year’s Day.  2021 started with a bonus, giving us a long weekend as well.  In any case, getting back to normal time is always a difficult transition.  For those of us who spent many years in academia, the holidays began about mid-December, and in my case, stretched fairly well into January.  Now, using a combination of vacation days and floating holidays, I’m able to set up a mini semester break of a couple of weeks.  Although I have trouble sleeping in, I was still able to spend the days with family and not worrying about business.

There is a difference in the quality of time off.  Some, I suspect, are eager to get back to work.  For me this first Monday back is difficult to face.  Some would argue that the difference in time quality is merely a subjective projection.  There is nothing scientifically changed from the last two weeks to the reality of the first Monday back.  This is one of those places where religion steps in as the more understanding boss (such instances are rare, so appreciate them while you can!).  Sacred time is taken very seriously by any number of religious traditions.  Even our beloved weekends have a basis in religious observance.  Holidays, even in a secular setting, are opportunities to recharge.  For me the spring semester was something I never dreaded.  We’ve allowed capitalism to take precedence over sacred time.

The problem with ordinary time is its mundanity.  Looking back, I’d been anticipating the holiday season with its time off for well over a month.  A full twelfth of the year.  To help with the transition, with my family I spent some weekend time cobbling together a personalized Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge.  Knowing I have good books in the future helps immensely, although I have much less time to read when work takes up much of my waking time.  Even that new start can’t be scientifically measured.  It’s something unique to human minds.  January begins with endings.  No matter how difficult 2020 may have been, at least it ended with a relaxing couple of weeks with family and no pressures to sit in front of a computer screen for over nine hours a day.  There will be more holidays ahead, and each one of them will be sacred time.

Continental Drift

So this is the way epiphany works. (I know it’s Lent, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry.) I sat down to check my personal email after a horrid day at work, and since I have a Verizon account, I can’t help but see the news headline that’s on the page when I open it. When the headline said something about a new continent discovered by scientists under the ocean, I’ll have to admit that Atlantis sounded better than anything I’d heard in the office. So it was worth a click.


Turns out that this isn’t Atlantis at all—I have this habit of making naive assumptions—but a continent just north of Madagascar that sunk some nine million years ago. No happy lemurs or Homo sapiens around then. So when this Atlantis sank, there was nobody around to see it. At least not Plato.

The story was broadcast by Newsy and it made mention of Science World Report. Here’s where the epiphany piphed. I’d never heard of Science World Report. When I went to their site, the wonders of the universe spread out before me. “Dying Stars Reveal the Clue to Extraterrestrial Life: Earth-like Planets Unmasked” read one headline. “How Dinosaurs Evolved the World’s Longest Necks While Giraffes Fell Short.” These are the things I need to brighten me after a rotten day. A world with wonder in it. A world where money is not the sole, or even the highest good. A world where an intellect need not go to waste.

“Human Language May Have Evolved from Birdsong: New Meaning for Communication.” This website is like my eternal monologue in headline format. I’m not naive enough to suppose this website will be the nepenthe for all my workaday woes. But it does serve to remind me that science and religion are not always foes. A religion only becomes belligerent when it takes its truisms too seriously. We evolved in a world of wonder, but we’ve taken great care to remove the wonder from it. As if joy and delight were puerile phantasms with no place in the serious adult world of finance and industry.

I became an educator because I’ve always been in love with ideas. I lost my job in education because I was an idealist. Yes, continents do indeed sink. And while it may not be Atlantis down there, a simple click led me to a world of wonder. And that is, if anything can be, cause for hope.

Holiday Cheer

Christmas carols are, it seems, intended to fill holiday shoppers with good cheer. Good cheer opens wallets and purses and everybody is happy until January’s bills make their epiphany. Until then, sing songs of gladness. Princeton University, one of the few financially stable institutions of higher education, each year gives a gift to the community. Some Sunday in Advent a free university Chapel Choir concert is given in a campus chapel the size of a modest medieval European cathedral. The music varies from year-to-year, but seldom is the church not full with locals taking time out from holiday shopping or grading papers. One of the carols yesterday, was the 1914 French piece, “Christmas Carol for Homeless Children.”

Princeton, like most schools, does have a heart buried beneath its deep, cold, jobless front. Chapel choirs like to shake up the status quo by throwing in an occasional piece that requires somber thoughts and social consciousness amid the joy. The French carol dates from that fearsome first year of World War One, a time when France was especially under the gun. The wish for the world at the time was peace – material gain had not yet become the measure of God’s grace. The hymn is sober and wrenching:

We have no more house nor home!
Enemies took all we had;
all gone, all gone,
even our own little bed!
The school they burnt;
they burnt our teacher, too.
They burnt the church and also the Lord Jesus Christ,
the poor old beggar too who could not get away!

Singing it in French may take away the vinegar of the words, but wartime is not the only circumstance that finds people without sufficient means. Even unchecked capitalism will lead to the same results. Only, instead of the Lord Jesus Christ being burnt, he is sold in the markets to make a tidy profit.

Baby Jesus says, "Bring on the gold!"

Where Whoever Walked

No adequate explanation has ever been proffered for the human desire to be where more prominent individuals have been. In its religious guise this is generally called pilgrimage, and the faithful seek out locations where a besainted member of their faith tradition once trod, ate, slept, or died. Going to the place of the famous is a major motivation for the travel industry. We are driven to see what s/he saw, taste what s/he tasted, experience what s/he lived. Just to be there, and contemplate. No one person, however, is universally known by every individual world-wide, so who it is we follow varies widely. This sense hit me once again last night as my family undertook the rare treat of a live show at the Paper Mill Theater in Millburn. Although Hairspray is not the most profound of shows, it was exceptionally well done, and the images on the walls of the foyer reminded us of who had been here before.

The Paper Mill Playhouse, a place of transformation

The shotgun blast of emotions this experience created verges on the religious. There was a time when I too donned the greasepaint (hard to believe for those who’ve only known me with this two-decades worth of old-growth forest on my face), and I know it to be a transcendental experience. The clean-shaven face is a boundless canvas. My own experience was local and small-scale, and certainly not done for fame, but the transformation was palpable. I am sure that actors everywhere share this experience – the apotheosis of becoming someone else. This week in mythology class we discussed Dionysus, the god of such transformations (and theater). A god who travels, a god associated with place, it is easy to understand how Dionysus became so popular, with or without the wine.

An epiphany of Dionysus

Dionysus was the recipient of a mystery cult in antiquity, one that rivaled Christian inroads in the Roman Empire. You see, many people recognized the similarities of Dionysus and Jesus. Both were begotten in unusual ways by their father (the high god), and both were gods of epiphany. Both were gods who understood the human condition – having mortal mothers, who came to people where they were, and who transformed the ordinary into extraordinary. Both were associated with wine – Jesus’ first miracle at Cana showed his theological pedigree – and both had reputations for associating with the less desirable members of society. And yes, both offered resurrection, a means of overcoming the limitations of life itself. Perhaps that is why the rare pilgrimage to the theater is so transcendental. It is pilgrimage and apotheosis all in one. And that is more than most of us might ever hope to achieve, short of encountering Jesus, or Dionysus, himself along the way of our pilgrimages.

Father Freeze

Photo credit: Dmitry Lovetsky, Associated Press

This picture appeared in the newspaper this morning. At a monastery in Valdai, some 250 miles to the northeast of Moscow, Russian Orthodox believers were celebrating Epiphany by leaping into a cross-shaped hole in the ice on a nearby lake. The temperature, as noted in the caption, was 18 degrees below zero (Fahrenheit). What the caption did not explain is that Epiphany, at least in this context, translates as Russian for “severely clenched scrotum.” Hypothermia, the Lord is frozen! Blessed is he who comes to freeze. The ice-man cometh in the name of the Lord.

Many years ago, well into the decades mark, I was talking to a friend about the liturgical churches, as opposed to the strictly Protestant ones. She had grown up staunchly Protestant and was put off by the ceremony of the sacramentally-identified churches. In our discussion she paused and mentioned a televangelist (I can’t recall which one; they all look alike after a while) who had agreed to ride down a water-slide at an amusement park, in a full three-piece suit, if his audience would raise a certain payload of cash. Although the details escape me, it seems entirely plausible ⎯ there is little a televangelist won’t do for money! Then she said, “I can’t see the Pope doing that. I guess there is some dignity to that.” I was pleased; I had made the point that some Christian groups do not need to be in the spotlight of artificial flamboyance in order to proclaim the seriousness of their message. Shortly after that I began to work at Nashotah House.

To speculate from the photo above, there was not a large gathering of the faithful on the Siberian ice. Just a few believers in an extreme masculine Christianity dressed in liturgical underwear. Nevertheless, such displays of faith have been part of religions from the very beginning. Ancient believers used to carry their statues of gods around Babylon for a day out to remind the secular that the eyes in the sky are still watching you. When a sartorially perfect prefect steps out in all his finery, what other option is there but to drop one’s hands and stare? A favored photograph at Nashotah House when I was there featured the “Fond du Lac circus,” a gathering of such high rollers in the Anglo-Catholic corner of the Episcopal Church that even a future Russian saint deigned to show up. The event was the consecration of Bishop Weller, coadjutor of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, in 1900. As I look at the Orthodox man poised over his cross-shaped hole, I wonder if my friend had it right after all. The Fond du Lac circus haunts me to this day. What is religion without the show?

The Fond du Lac Circus