Perhaps no part of the Christian story has been “Disney-fied” more than the Twelve Days of Christmas, ending in Epiphany. (January 6th) Epiphany is a Christian feast day which commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Christ child.* As a little girl living near New Orleans, all I knew of Epiphany was that it came with cake. King Cake!
New Orleans is famous for Mardi Gras, a carnival season with elaborate floats, music, and parties. Mardi Gras means ‘Fat Tuesday’, which refers to the last day of eating rich food before the fasting season of Lent. At my school, the week before Mardi Gras meant the launch of a sugar-fest! The teacher brought in the first King Cake. We each munched our sugary piece with care until one child declared, “I found it!” A tiny, plastic baby Jesus was hoisted in the air for all to see. That lucky child brought in the next cake…the next day! This went on all week! Looking back, I don’t remember how my teacher managed a class full of Southern children on a week-long sugar-rush. Perhaps we were told the cake symbolized the wiseman’s search for baby Jesus; I cannot recall. But I can promise you, there was no mention of the next part of the story… where Joseph flees in the night with his young family after the angel warns of King Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. There was no mention that Jesus became a political refugee in Egypt for five (estimated) years. There most certainly is no mention of the slaughter of innocent babies in Bethlehem that followed. It would have ruined our appetite for cake.
“Epiphany shows us that Jesus has always been someone controversial, longed for, unagreed upon, feared, argued about, sought out and sought after.” – Fr. Rohr
The nativity scene in my mother’s house adds to the warm, sentimental glow of Christmas. It’s something she sets out each year with the tree and tinsel. But in historical context, that manger was set upon a geopolitical fault line about to erupt and tear apart the lives of the Holy Family. Howard Thurman, a civil rights leader, scholar, and man of faith wrote: “It is necessary to examine the religion of Jesus against the background of his own age and people, and to inquire into the context of his teaching with reference to the disinherited and the underprivileged.” For me, the Mardi Gras floats and festivals eclipsed Epiphany so thoroughly, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered the depth of challenge and hope it carries when we appreciate its full context.
It’s a story of wonder and resistance.
It’s a story of infanticide and innocence.
It’s a story of an evil empire being turned on its head by the obedience of the humble in the geopolitical world and spiritual one.
It’s a story big enough to contain the mystery of suffering and hope.
Epiphany speaks to the raw underbelly of life whose impartial brutality can take our very breath away and alter our reality overnight. If this God Story is big enough to contain the exploding drama of Jesus’ life, it’s also big enough to contain ours. Epiphany shows us there is a way through the absurd, seemingly meaningless suffering of life and to somehow know that God will weave even our greatest darkness into His eternal agenda. It also calls us to play a part in the drama of the world around us.
Epiphany has made its mark in the Church calendar to remind the faithful that our faith is meant to have bite. Christianity, lived Jesus fashion, is far from a sentimental feeling. While the Christmas story is one that indeed brings Good News to a world in need of a savior, Epiphany reminds us that Christmas is also supposed to be an upsetting story: one that upsets empires and structures that keep the poor and the marginalized at the edge of the story. Up until the Magi entered the picture, not one person of power or wealth played even a minor role in the appearance of God upon our earth. It is estimated it took two years of star-seeking before they entered upon the scene. This is significant because classical literature of antiquity focused exclusively upon the powerful and famous.
To the Magi, the star was a cosmic symbol pointing to the birth of a great leader. It is no wonder Herod, a half-Jewish despot who was a vehicle for keeping Israel under Rome’s thumb, would feel threatened by a child born with his own, begrudged, title: King of the Jews! When the Magi realized that Herod’s pious intentions were murderous, they did not return to report the location of Jesus but left by a circular route. (Thus, King Cakes are circular.) Because Herod represented Rome, we could call the Magi’s action “civil disobedience,” echoing a similar story in Exodus: the birth and near-death of Moses, and another slaughtering of innocents.
Epiphany prompts the believer to maintain the wonder of finding the presence of God in the most unlikely of vessels, as well as the way of God’s Kingdom, which puts the vulnerable at the centre of His story.
We are to say yes to wonder and no to Herod-like power.
(To understand how God’s people are and are not to wield power, start with the Sermon on the Mount.)
There is a danger in sentimentalizing Bible stories to a point they can become children’s décor for a nursery (Noah’s Ark)! When we mainly focus on the rainbow that wraps up horror with a happy ending, our faith does not mature into one that can hold the mystery of suffering… which is the mystery of the cross (1 Corinthians 2). In the 5th century, the Latin church instituted the feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28), as a sobering interlude to the 12 Days of Christmas. Their goal was to preserve the underside of the Nativity story and offer a grim reminder that there was, and still is, a political cost to the Incarnation. To invite us to remember stories of resistance. To keep our faith from growing so innocuous it is no longer able to contain suffering or spur us on to actively resist injustice.
When my son was 11, he became so excited about our family celebration of Epiphany (complete with King Cake), that he decided to create his own church calendar event. He called it “The Egyptian”, and it was to commemorate the Holy Family’s time in Egypt as political refugees. He wrote place cards in hieroglyphics. We drank hibiscus tea, ate Egyptian food, read a folk story about Jesus’s childhood there and danced like an Egyptian to the Bangles classic hit. The point being, as he grew older, we made sure his version of the nativity story did not end in a sentimental stable scene because this life contains both poles: life and death; injustice and mercy; wonder and despair; love and hate. We want our children to know that this God Story we are part of is big enough to contain all the suffering, complexity, and injustice of this world… and their own lives. God has something to say. God breaks into darkness. God provides a way through pain. God says we have a part to play in this world.
An epiphany is precisely what it takes for our faith to mature to a point where it can hold the darkness without crumbling. It is a grace, and not something we can force. It normally comes with the humility of loss and failure. It requires us to wrestle with the dark side of life and ourselves. Often, it is preceded by a faith shattering. Yet, there is something deeply attractive about the believer who has embraced Epiphany. We can all sense when we are with one who sees in a larger way than we can. They seem to encompass a patient grace for human weakness, a wonder at finding God in all things, and calm hope despite the paradox and pain in their own lives. They often ask more questions and speak less certitudes. We know them because we want what they have: a lived experience of Epiphany. This is a way of seeing that is bigger than ourselves and which can only come from deep communion with a God of mystery, a God bigger than history, a God who has intertwined his identity with our own. The goal of maturing faith is to practice this communion until we see everyone, everything, and especially ourselves, through epiphany eyes and act accordingly.
“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does” (John 5: 19, 20).
*In Western Christianity the Epiphany feast commemorates principally (but not solely) the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. Eastern Christians, on the other hand, commemorate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, often calling it Theophany. For the purposes of this blog, I chose to focus on one tradition, but there is equally rich context and content to explore in the Eastern tradition.
Epiphany Traditional Scriptures: Isa 60: 1-2, 6; Matt. 2:1-12
King Cake Recipes
Our favorite recipe: https://www.onegreenplanet.org/vegan-food/king-cake-for-mardi-gras/
A simpler version: https://www.momlovesbaking.com/easy-king-cake/