Epiphany Under Empire

America, Jan 1 2007, pp 16ff. 3 pp, pix

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 date (surely older) of Jan. 6 for the feast of the Nativity. The 12 Days of Christmas, in turn, bridge 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 Hispanics. What caught my attention
in researching such traditions, however, was an old German practice of ritually purifying the household on the 12th day, the eve of Epiphany. Herbs were burned and the letters 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 a compelling petition for our world, which like the Magi and Holy Family of old, dwells uneasily under the shadow of empire. Indeed, despite the recent electoral turn, the reigning United States administration 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 were not grim enough—our markets, our media and our senses are saturated after being flooded with the delusions and distractions of commodity fetishism.

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