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On Faith: Epiphany: Exercising Conscience

By Ched Meyers
January 2013

The Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6 culminates the Twelve Days of Christmas. Epiphany has a rich cultural history. Researching various traditions, I stumbled across an old German practice of ritually purifying the household with herbs on the twelfth day, and inscribing C + M + B (Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, the legendary names of the Magi) above the entry to the house. That is followed by a prayer asking for protection in the coming year "from the ravages of fire and water."

What a compelling petition for the poor of our world, who suffer from both natural and social disasters. The fires of war continue to displace people around the globe, while the deadly waters of Hurricane Sandy remind us how climate change is creating refugees everywhere.

The story of the ancient Magi is indeed the focus of Epiphany. Matthew's account narrates the conflict between a king and a kid (Matthew 2:1-12), and is based on several Hebrew scriptural legacies. One is Isaiah's promise that a light will shine into Israel’s darkness, accompanied by gifts of gold and frankincense brought by camels (Isaiah 60:1-6). A second inspiration comes from Numbers 22-23, in which the Canaanite king Balak summons Balaam "from the east" to curse Israel, only to be foiled when the prophet instead pronounces blessing—just as the Magi do.

But the third narrative informing Matthew is the most important: Exodus 1 and 2, in which Moses' life is similarly threatened by a paranoid potentate. The challenge of a prophetic infant brings Pharaoh, like Herod after him, to unleash a policy of infanticide, justified by national security. But their plans fail because of a few people of conscience. God’s messengers enter a risky world: floating down the Nile in a basket (Exodus 2:3), spirited out of the country on back roads (Matthew 2:14). We never hear again in the Bible of the mysterious heroes, midwife and magi, who help save the chosen infants—yet upon their actions hangs the entire salvation drama. Dare we assume that our own choices, minor players though we are, are of any less consequence?

In both the Moses and Jesus stories, the empire strikes back, and the slaughter of innocents ensues. "Rachel weeps," a lament that echoes down through history whenever children go to bed hungry. This difficult part of the story is commemorated on the Feast of the Holy Innocents (Dec. 28) — a sobering interlude to the Twelve Days of Christmas. It was instituted by the fifth century church to preserve the underside of the Nativity — somehow anticipating that the Christmas season would become innocuous and sentimentalized in a comfortable Christendom.

Epiphany can thus be a season for conscience for us, because kids continue to be collateral damage, from Afghanistan to Darfur to Colombia. Epiphany reminds us of the real life of the poor in our world: displacement and danger, wailing mothers and violent foreign policies. It invites us to remember old stories 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 discontent. For the Bible has seen this all before, and assures us that "God is with us" — especially alongside those "ravaged by fire and water." It is into this darkness that the Light still comes; the question is whether we will recognize the presence, and like the Magi, act accordingly.

Read more articles by Ched Myers at www.ChedMyers.org.

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