As Christmastide draws to an end, George Pitcher reminds us of the latent hope celebrated in the Christian festival of Epiphany, and challenges us all to bring something to the party
Today is Epiphany, which marks the end of the 12-day feast of Christmas. It remembers the visit of the Magi to Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 2:1-12.
This weird story about wiseacres and astrologers travelling from some eastern territory, tracking a star to pay homage to the Christ child and bearing luxurious but useless gifts for a baby. What’s that all about?
We can safely assume that there’s something slightly, or entirely, metaphorical going on here, as there so often is in ancient Hebrew storytelling.
The start of everything
The mysterious potentates of the Epiphany are there to remind us of the gift of the Christ, from the very beginning, to the Gentiles as well as the Jewish people. They counterpoint the arrival of the poor shepherds, whom the Christ has come to liberate; even kings are brought to their knees at the crib. They show how little their wisdom is worth, because all learning starts here, in this revelation.
But the allegory that I like best is that they bear their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh – for priest, king and prophet – so that the reader is asked implicitly: What do you bring him?
It’s the demand of servant ministry at the heart of Christina Rossetti’s poem, better known as famous Christmas carol ‘In the bleak midwinter’: “What can I give Him / Poor as I am? / If I were a Shepherd / I would bring a lamb / If I were a Wise Man / I would do my part / Yet what I can I give Him / Give my heart.”
These are lines that put Epiphany firmly in its place. You can keep your gold, your fancy perfumes and your ointments for the noble dead. By contrast, in a pre-echo of the story of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41–44, Luke 21:1–4), we’re invited to give what we can – which, in a wonderful inversion of worldly wealth, turns out to be everything we are.
Now just take a half-step back into last night, which was Twelfth Night, when the Christmas tree and all the decorations were meant to come down and be packed away for next year. As we cleared away, perhaps we found the remnants of a cracker or an empty bottle that had rolled away under a sofa.
It’s all a little sad, but in the darkness of Twelfth Night it’s precisely the promise of Epiphany, underscored in TS Eliot’s Little Gidding, that in our ends are our beginnings. What dies in Twelfth Night is born and raised in Epiphany.
It may also have something to do with why Shakespeare wrote his great rom-com Twelfth Night. It’s there to celebrate the end of the great feast of life, rather than to mourn it. It’s full of great gags, lots of cross-dressing and people being mistaken for who they shouldn’t be. And in the finest traditions of Elizabethan comedy, everyone dives into corners at the end and comes out married.
The Bard was simply reflecting the massive booze-up that was the Twelfth Night of his times. It was a topsy-turvy Catholic holiday in those days, with servants dressed up as their masters and a Lord of Misrule – just one chaotic party.
Giving our all
Wild parties presided over by a Lord of Misrule is too obvious a contemporary political analogy in the UK to be dwelt upon. Nevertheless, we’re entitled to note that out of that worldly chaos emerges a truth, the revelation of Epiphany, that even the wisest of Magi recognise.
The play Twelfth Night contains these famous words: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Few of us, other than a Lord of Misrule, may acknowledge our greatness, but we can acknowledge that all should be born with something. We should have the freedoms to achieve something and we should all receive something to set us on our way.
What dies in Twelfth Night is born and raised in Epiphany
The chaos of the world at the start of 2023 – the grim hangover of Covid-19, war in Europe, the crashing of economies, the miseries of migration, the deepening of climate crisis – raise questions of us and our governance and, rightly, we have questions of our rulers (and misrulers) and demand answers of them.
What the scriptural story of the Epiphany asks – and what resonates down the centuries through our literature – is one simple question: “What do you bring to the party?”
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