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. As the U.S. continues 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 when it comes to deadly “water,” as if the Katrina debacle was not grim enough, our markets, our media and our senses are saturated from being flooded with the delusions and distractions of commodity fetishism.
While the theological theme of “the in-breaking of the Light” tends to dominate our contemporary liturgical celebrations of Epiphany, the story of the Magi should be our proper focus. It is alluded to at the end of the Feast’s Hebrew Bible 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)
As my Advent blogs have pointed out, we in imperial America 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.” 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.
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. Let us pray during this season for the growing numbers of soldiers who are conscientiously non-cooperating with the Iraq/Afghan war, and for agents of creative nonviolence in conflict zones around the world, from Palestine to Sri Lanka. And may we remember our own recent American martyrs of justice and peace, such as Christian Peacemaker Team member Tom Fox, the Quaker from Virginia abducted and executed in 2006, and Dorothy Stang, the 73 year old nun from Ohio assassinated in Brazil in 2005 for her prophetic resistance to corporate interests pillaging the rain forests.
The 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). This extraordinary trope seeks to remind us that “God is with us” uniquely in the person of all those who stand with the world’s victims of “fire and water,” like the Magi of old.