John Bennison Words and Ways | 2012 | January

The Trouble with Epiphany, or, The “Tebow” Factor

Gift Giving as Genuflection, or, the “Tebow” Factor

The trouble with an epiphany is that it often leads to enlightenment!  And enlightenment can alter the way one sees the world and one’s relationship to it.  As such, anyone who would bend the knee in praise and adoration might do well to consider the potential ramifications.  It can be a radically subversive act of obeisance and allegiance. [You can  print a pdf version of this Commentary here.]

 

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   Adoration of the Magi, Giorgione, 1477-1511, National Gallery (Great Britain)

“They set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”  [Matthew 2:9b-11]

Prelude

A few nights before Christmas this last year in the little town of Bethlehem, on the occupied West Bank, the only light in the town hall came from the mayor’s office; where Elias Freij sat hunkered over the latest numbers of what was turning out to be another weak economic report on the hamlet’s tourist trade.

“The war, the whole operation in Lebanon,” Freij lamented, “means nobody wants to come to our city for Christmas.” 2011 would turn out to be the most disastrous tourist season since Israel seized the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war.

“It’s the worst Christmas since the occupation began,” complained Nasri Hazboun, proprietor of a small 11-room hotel overlooking Manger Square.  In an ironic twist to the old tale that has kept the little town on the map as a tourist destination, there’s room in the inn, but there’s no one knocking at the door.

The local merchants fared no better.  They’d have been content to peddle their inexpensive souvenirs and trinkets to any takers; never mind any costlier keepsakes such as gold, frankincense or myrrh.

What do you do in a time and place when and where a holy day with a spiritual pilgrimage for some has devolved to a holiday that has subsequently become too dear a luxury and unaffordable observance?  If pockets are empty and the only other light besides the Mayor’s office shining in Bethlehem is a hotel proprietor’s vacancy sign, what do we do with the old story of a gift exchange called the Epiphany?

Who will come and bend the knee before the newborn king?  In contemporary terms, what does it mean to “Tebow” all over the world?

 

The “Tebow” Factor  

[Credit: illustration by Joe Magee for TIME, Jan. 16, 2012]

By now, anyone with the faintest pulse on the American pop/sports culture knows how to “Tebow.”  The Denver Broncos evangelical Christian quarterback, Tim Tebow, has made a head-bowed genuflection gesture his trademark symbol of last-minute come-from-behind victories on the gridiron.

Whatever your personal persuasion may be about it all, fans and critics alike have instigated once again the age-old debate whether or not you believe there is a causal connection between a personal relationship with a divine savior and the scoreboard of whatever game in life you’ve undertaken.

Whether it’s a prayer of praise or a plea for divine intervention, there are plenty of people who are suspicious to downright critical of anyone crossing the fine line between having a divine companion in ones life, and a professed belief in both divine intervention that seems arbitrary and capricious; as well as who gets the credit or the blame for one’s personal success or failure.

But there’s a back story to this year’s sports hero phenom that adds another dimension to all this “Tebowing,” that suggests there is another and possibly more discernible question to be asked and answered; namely, the gesture of genuflection, and the implications of such an act of subordinating oneself before someone or something.  To whom or what are you prepared to bend the knee in humble praise and adoration, allegiance and obedience?

Whether or not you agree with Tim Tebow’s beliefs about what his personal savior does or doesn’t do, is not as noteworthy as what Tim himself does as a result of his literal faith stance.  In this respect, there is nothing original or novel about “Tebowing.”  Just take another look at the imaginary “visitation of the Magi” story. The craze is two thousand years old.

I was reminded of this when recalling the story image of the three magi in Matthew’s tale; where, upon finding the place to which a star in the heavens pointed, “they were overwhelmed with joy … knelt down and paid him homage … and offered him gifts.”  (Mt.2:10) And, once relieved of their gifts, they rise again, and take a different road, presumably with lingering joy.

When viewed with stark objectivity, the revelatory event is characterized by three pagan foreigners who religiously believe a star in the night sky which they’d never noticed before holds the key to life’s mysteries; and, in dogged pursuit of such an answer, end up encountering the new Jewish messiah, depicted as a newborn infant in a cow stall in Bethlehem. Strange as all that may seem, they genuflect before him in an act of obeisance and subordination, and offer him the best earthly trinkets and treasures imaginable.

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When Gaspar Went Missing: A Commentary for Twelfth Night

A COMMENTARY FOR TWELFTH NIGHT, THE EPIPHANY

[A pdf version to read and/or print may be found here.]

 

It has long been a family tradition to mark the days of Advent and Christmastide seasons with the wood-carved characters appearing in our little crèche one by one, week after week, like unfolding scenes in a two-act drama.

First the cattle and sheep are placed nearby to simply mill about the empty manger.  Then a few shepherds and other curiosity seekers show up.  Finally, at sundown on Christmas Eve, Mary, Joseph and the babe take their proper places, with an angel hovering overhead. And somewhere else in the house the three wise men begin their 12-day trek to the stable.

Twelfth Night, otherwise known as the Feast of the Epiphany, is typically observed by rereading the familiar story from Matthew’s gospel about those three magi arriving at the manger on bended knee to offer their extravagant gifts; thus concluding the twelve days of Christmastide (Mt. 2:1-12).  Then everything is packed up and stashed in the attic, until the entire ritual is repeated all over again the following year.

But the year one of the three wise men was nowhere to be found when it came for him to enter stage left not only got me wondering about his whereabouts, but what he could have possibly been up to.  Such speculation, I would suggest, may be no less credible than Matthew’s fanciful, retrospective tale.

After all, we know the tradition that contributed to Matthew’s drama was written decades after Jesus’ death. By then the cast of characters in this story had come to represent more than just specific names, or dates or even historical places.  Bethlehem as a birthplace was Matthew’s own contrivance; just as Luke’s nativity story was spun to construct an emerging Christology, not biography. These stories had come to represent what early Jewish-Christian communities had come to believe more broadly about the fulfillment of messianic prophecies; and how they’d subsequently come to view the world in which they lived differently, as a result of that understanding.

For instance, whenever a name like King Herod was mentioned in the telling of such a story as the one from Matthew, I bet it was met with murmurs of disapproval, perhaps even a little booing and hissing. And those persons who were deemed to be wise, and consequently listened to their own dreams and found a new way “home,” were not reserved for merely strangers on camelback.

Exactly how the earliest Christians may have heard and inculcated this tale was not so much a matter of how they might have sorted fact from fiction; but how those sundry characters themselves became enlightened with the radiant epi-phanos of deeper truths to be found in the telling and re-telling of such a tale

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
 
 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
 
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage. 
 
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.” (Matthew 2:1-12)

 

When I was a boy we always sang the old familiar Epiphany carol “We three kings of Orient are.”  One by one, Melchior, Balthazar and Gaspar — the three names legend once ascribed to the three kings — each sang their verse, as they offered their gifts.

There was gold, the international monetary standard. There was frankincense, which kept things smelling nice while you were alive. And there was myrrh, that kept you from smelling bad when you were dead – at lest for a while. All perfectly nice gifts, fit for a king.

But they weren’t the kind of gifts you’d expect anyone to give to a Jewish infant, born to peasant parents in a backwater town of the Empire during what would become – as a result of this particular birth — the first century of the Common Era. Which, of course, is partially the whole point of the story, I suppose.

In those days, such gifts were normally reserved for the fortunate few, the power elite, for royalty or important government officials. Nowadays we might identify such gratuitous gift-givers as Washington lobbyists trying to curry favors in exchange for token trinkets and treasures. But in this story the magi are not only portrayed as men of means, but also “wise” strangers, able to interpret events of astronomical importance. They’re not merely cunning conspirators to the treacherous Herod.

Why are they portrayed as “wise”? Well, we all know the learned seek illumination. Veritas et lux and all that. And this story tells us these wise and learned men find just such truth and enlightenment at the end of the rainbow; or, in this case, presumably directly under the brightest new star in the heavens. The appearance of a star – that is to say a light never before observed — was taken as something of cosmic significance; at least for those who took notice of it.

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