Faith Matters

Epiphany after a hard year

Lately I find myself returning to the writing of Brian Doyle.

Epiphany: The church’s feast marking Jesus’ manifestation to the Gentiles and the culmination of the 12 Days of Christmas. Epiphany: a sudden insight or realization often brought on by an experience of the ordinary or commonplace. Epiphanies: a weekly column penned by Brian Doyle for the American Scholar from early 2013 until his death from brain cancer in 2017.

For Roman Catholics, Epiphany is a solemnity, a liturgical celebration of the highest rank, though not a holy day of obligation. While the Orthodox commemorate Jesus’ baptism on Epiphany, also known in the Eastern churches as Theophany, Catholics and many Protestants center the celebration on the Magi who brought gifts to the infant Jesus. Legends about these figures are beloved in Europe, where they have names like Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar. Toddlers with tinfoil crowns are their popular avatars in American Christmas pageants.

As with the whole of the nativity story, it is difficult to retrieve the political dimensions of the single, brief allusion to “wise men from the East” found only in Matthew’s Gospel. We are aware that they double-crossed Herod; we know of the slaughter of innocents that resulted from that despot’s rage and paranoia. But we often miss their role in what biblical scholar Richard Horsley describes as Herod’s reign of tyranny and exploitation—“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.”