Epiphany, Carnival and the State of Thought and Theology
by Frank Wynerth Summers III on Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 5:16pm ·
This is the Feast of the Epiphany. In this note which I hope to reproduce on my blog I will discuss it at length while quoting a Facebook friend twice without permission and plagiarizing myself repeatedly at great length. I will provide a good summary of the basics of this Feast in my first quotation from the Epiphany sermon of Father Jason Vidrine published on Facebook:
The Lord gathers us together in His holy presence as we continue to celebrate His birth during this Christmastide. Today we celebrate one of those events involved in the mystery of Christ’s birth: the Epiphany of the Lord. The word Epiphany comes from the Greek, which means “to manifest”…“to make known”…or “to appear”. This is a feast of the revelation of Christ as the newborn King of the nations; the three strange men come from far away to lay their gifts before Him. It took them a while to travel, so the Epiphany is traditionally celebrated the day after the 12th day of Christmas – January 6th – which happens to be the date of this Sunday.
For me there is a great deal about the Epiphany that is important and a great deal to remember about it which I would likel to remind my own readers of as best I can in this brief and likely tardy note. This feast commemorates the visit to the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph by the three Magi who had come from the East. These Magi brought gold, frankincense and myrrh to honor the newborn king who by then would almost certainly have been out of the manger but who was born there. Because Christmas is celbrated every year and because of that the Epiphany is kept near Christmas. The feast does not indicate anyone who scheduled it believing that the three kings of the East arrived only a dozen or so days after the Birth of Jesus. The Holy Family already had several reasons to want to re-establish their ties to their ancestral House of David and its ancient site so that they might have stayed there even as long as a year. The star if it appeared at his birth and was researched by the Magi may have become more meaningful as news arrived of various royal births and perhaps among the goodly number some rumors of an already growing Jesus story. Then they visited the royal palace of Herod in Jerusalem. His scribes agreed that the Messiah should be born in the City of David. They made their report to the King who met with his guests who then journeyed from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Their coming would help provide means and incentive for the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt while they themselves returned home by a different route.
I have many Epiphany memories, a few are centered around more festive than temperate Twelfth night parties. Some momories are very religious and some are more mixed like the memories of four years ago this week. For the wedding of Sarah and Kevin which occurred during the Christmas season we had three visitors from the East here in Big Woods which is West of Israel. Two Spanish priests and a seminarian came to us, the Priests concelebrated with the wedding mass and they have stayed and celebrated the Epiphany as well. One of them had been baptized on the feast of the Epiphany many years ago. All were young, mindfully zealous and from a country which really celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany. It has been special to have them here at this time.
Today I participated in the celebration of my Epiphany mass in my local Saint James Chapel where Fahter Manny presided. He spoke of his native Philippines a place where the full Christmas season is very much observed. I remember the Philippines well and I enjoyed the mass before returning to the party for my Dad’s 70th birthday which actually occurs later this week. But I also read Father Jason’s sermon which appeared hear on Facebook. He is on myh friend’s list and I quote it again.
The most important thing in the world is seeking the truth; you don’t find it without seeking it. There’s a (true) story told about the modern philosopher Bertrand Russell (an atheist) who was on his deathbed. A preacher came to him and said, Betrand, you know, you just might be wrong; there might be a God after all…you’re gonna die in a couple of days, don’t you think you need to ask the question,what if you’re wrong? What would you say to Him? Russell said fair enough…I think I would ask God a question: why didn’t you give us more evidence? (a very rationalistic question, but a fair one.) And the answer the Church gives – which we see especially on this feast of the Epiphany – is: if God gave us too much evidence, He would compel us against our will. If God gave us too little light, even those who sought Him, wouldn’t find Him. If He gave us too much light, then even those who didn’t seek Him would find Him. So He gives us just enough light (just enough signs/clues) so that those who truly love Him and seek Him will find Him…and those who don’t, won’t. So what determines our eternal destiny is not our IQ but our love.
Father Manny spoke also of the journey of the Magi and how their long journey was one of the best parts of the whole event. We must seek God and his Christ they would tell us… Journeys are a big part of Epiphany and journeys have been a big part of my own life.
The journeys on my mind on any Epiphany Feast are numerous. One way in which journeys enter into this season for me is through the journeys of Marco Polo. Because I have traveled a great deal and because for much of my life I wanted to go to China and then did go and now remember going to China — Marco Polo has interested me. In his of tale of his journeys he tells of meeting worshiping communities, monuments and sites of ancillary wonders that were related to the Magi who visited the Christ child and which still survived autonomously into his own day. Marco Polo’s book has never been very respectable. Each generation has found something about it incredible and dismissed most of it. Usually those points of contention have been shown to be reliably and fairly accurately reported from Marco Polo’s point of view. Journeying always can bring people face to face with one thing or another that is almost incomprehensible to those who stayed behind. Probably the real magi who really did visit the real Jesus left behind a legacy which he observed transformed by retelling and ritual into a lovely heritage of magic and belief. Anyone who reads me knows that my respect for the modern kind of cynical skeptic has benn almost destroyed entirely by a 1000 experiences of their ridculous ignorance and fanaticism.
These wise kings are also some how a reminder that a kingis both royal and a monarch but the tow qualities are separate. Not all monarchs are royal and not all royals are monarchs. This is part of what Christians should understand because of the importance of Jesus’s identity as king. So it is perhaps a final Christmas reflection from me in these notes.
When one thinks of the message to the shepherds recalled on Christmas one thinks of Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill. Christianity is largely an anti-magical religion that celebrates the three Wizard Kings and their goodwill to their central figure. Though, Marco Polo found the remnants of the Magi’s tradition often at war with Islam it was not a coherent tradition in the way Catholicism is. Quite possibly these Magi left some seeds to germinate in Arabia which when fused with Judaism and Christianity and the traditions of his particular tribe helped to create both the historic Mohammed and the historic early Islam. Later more official sort of people might have de-emphasized their influence since they are not entirely reputable from and Islamic point of view. Possibly even the genes of some of these kings and their ilk have meandered around into the blood of such men as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia whether known to them or not. This journey of mystery and subterfuge might be both historical and historically significant in many ways that we will not ever know now. The long struggle of Christians and Moslems in the most important regions has probably erased any trails that could be profitably followed. I would mostly blame Islamic forces but think that Moslems might see things differently.
So we come to this holiday observance of the Epiphany and the Twelfth Night and the occasion between seasons. It is a bit of a contrast with much of what is discussed as a spiritual journey these days. I mentioned earlier that this has a unique role in the calendar. In the official calendar of the Catholic Church there are two large blocks of Ordinary Time. One stretches from the end of Christmas (depending on the century and country either January 6 or the Feast of the Epiphany or both simultaneously) and ending on the day before ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The second block is from the very end of all things Easter after Pentecost and going to the start of Advent on the First Sunday of Advent. That Ordinary Time season ends with a bang as we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King on the Sunday before Advent. However the season is truly traditionally ordinary. Whereas the season we are currently in from Epiphany to the day before Ash Wednesday which is Mardis Gras “Fat Tuesday” in French is really an unofficial season which has been celebrated in many Catholic countries. That season is Carnival Season. The meaning of “carnival” is agreed upon by most people to be a late popular transformation or bastardization of two Latin words meaning “Farewell to Meat” in English. To do a sloppy etymology that all can remember: the first part of the word shares a root with “carnivore” and the second part shares a root with “valedictorian”. The season of Lent was a season in which meat was not eaten in all the Middle Ages in Southern Europe and most of the rest of Christendom. A few Germanic countries gave up milk products and some others gave up eggs. But in most of the Christian history of Lent meat was abstained from by most people. Carnival was the season for saying good by to eating meat — that was its full apparent meaning.
However, Mardi Gras and Carnival are among the most complicated of all celebrations. They have a completeness and complexity born of the fullness of what they represent in the development of an enitre mega-social complex of Christendom. Within the Carnival tradition there is a great deal of diversity and variety. There is enormous organization, planning and structure in an event which is largely a celebration of freedom, chaos and spontaneity. Krewes, Mardi Gras Indians, Courirs, Brazilian Dance Clubs, Ridelles, Courts of Misrule and Mardi Gras Associations are all different phenomena but they all resmble eachother in strange and wonderful ways when one pays close enough attention. These publicly known but esoteric and slightly mysterious institutions with deep local roots and ties from the backbone and fabric of Carnival and Mardi Gras experience around the world. Within that context and under the umbrella of various authorities which tolerate or foster the celebration there is a who worldwilde complex of tourists, travel agents, vendors, folklorists, historians, journalists, police, healthcare workers, restauranteurs and others who are deeply committed to the process of Mardi Gras and carnival. These people also make up a huge part of the total event that we all experience as Mardi Gras.
However, there is even more to Mardi Gras and Carnival than all of that vastly complicated stuff that we could never fully explain or examine, experience or drink our way through. Carnival is one of the socio-cultural sites (indeed the principal one) where mostly pagan but also Jewish and Muslim rites, associations and traditions could remind people subtly of their continued existence within Christendom. Further, it is a place in time and space where the unresolved tensions and energies of society can be expressed in a variety of ways. The tie to paganism came a few different roots. One was a sort of positive tradition and the other was not so positive. The positive roots in essence simply show that there is an imperfection in Christianity as it is actually lived. That an all good and perfect God is different than the forms in which he is served by imperfect people on Earth. There is some real good in old pagan practices which people need and while there is no way to safely integrate some of these into ordinary Christian life there are time when with masks and crowds and the excuse of alcohol we can turn our heads and not notice all that is done in adherence to other than approved traditions. Jesus was a very devout Jew –that is a fact which both Jews and Christians have at times chosen to reject or de-emphasize for various reasons. But he was also a Jewish Rabbi who reminded his disciples that Naman the general healed, Rahab an ancestor of the House of David, the widow fed by the prophet during a grat famine and numerous others favored by God in the Old Testament were both gentiles and pagans. He honored gentile Godfearers like the Centurion whose servant he healed.He did all these things without ever ceasing to emphasize various kinds of primacy for Israel, for his House of David and the importance of both synagogue and temple. That is the foundation for an open tolerance in Christianity beyond that of other Abrahamic traditions within Islam and Judaism. In practice, Christianity has not always been aware of the world beyond its own system. However, Catholicism with its tolerance of Carnival and Mardi Gras has left a door open to moderating influences. Comus, Endymion, Bacchus and non Hellenic entities like Titania and Oberon remind us in Louisiana of religious traditions we no longer adhere to which our ancestors observed. It is not a false catechism but an awareness. That awareness of other spiritual arts and sciences is enough to prevent the growth of a great many evils oftentimes.
Part of the idea of Carnival and Mardi Gras is to do some things one would not choose to describe in cold clear light and sobriety at a keyboard to people all over the world. I just might have a few stories in that category but there is a story I can tell which is not so confidential but still illustrates my point well enough. Along life’s journey there was a particular love affair in my life which was not ever without quite a bit of decency, friendship and even rule abiding but nonetheless was lived out off and on between relationships and in secret and private places. This went on for a long time and was a relationship where we never really achieved an open couple status that was indisputable. One day at Mardi Gras in a parade setting with lots of people we knew and I knew whom she did not know in a crowd of thousands I lifted her up as high above my head as my arms would stretch and held her there by the waste for a while. It did not lead to wedded bliss but it did not make things worse and it was a way of being honest within the bounds of world and social framework we were living in at the time. There are fistfights that prevent gunfights, flirtations that keep homes from breaking up and times of excessive drinking that help keep people from becoming sots. Mardi Gras, followed by the severity of Lent is a place where such things can happen.
Then there is another part of Mardis Gras which is perhaps not functoning so much in recent decades. There were real evils that were embedded in the pagan institutions of the past and they have always taken advantage of the chaos of Mardi Gras and carnival for occasions of acts ranging from robbery, to torture to murder to human sacrifice. Why would any decent society allow there to be an occasion when revelers and ordinary criminals might lend cover to the very people they most wished to oppose? If they were doing this when not yet corrupt, why did they do it?
There is a fact about good cops and good tough guys that we don’t often want to admit. They tend to restrain themselves of the love of a productive and orderly way of life. However, when they do happen to come across the most horrific human threats at carnival they tend to be less restrained. As long as society is producing enough of them then they will tend to assure that the damages of the carnival or fewer than there might be if there were no carnival.
There is a lot more to carnival than all of this. There is a redistribution of weatlh in the form of beads, toys, plastic coins and coconuts. There is the whole host of ways that the communal gumbo of the courir is a form of Acadian taxation in a world where Acadians have no state that is ethnic. There are roles reversed and genders bent and classes mocked within a structure that provides a safety net. Jesus left his encounter with the Magi kings and went to the pagan land of Egypt where from the relative safety of the Jewish community he observed pagan and gentile culture with his family at their full and developed extremes. and with the King Cakes along the way cultures influenced by him make a journey into paganism before repenting and believing the gospel in a new way. What percent of modern revelers will get ashes Wednesday? I don’t know buit Lent and Christmas are the intended frames of Carnival season.
Lent is a long way from today. Is it right to think of parties and even moral imperfections as part of a spiritual journey? Is it right to remeber Chrsitmas and Lent as we sample a different season starting?
Whatever carnival may be for you all I hope it is part of a meaningful life journey. There is a seeking which is part of what it means to be human. There is a journeying that encompasses the journey of the Magi, the Holy Family’s Journey to Egypt and our own troubled journeys. Christianity is not about the free-spirited seeking typical of Hippy culture in the sixties. It is about seeking, about gifts, mystery and courage. We must all find our way and Carnival can be part of the finding if we don’t take it to seriously but take it seriously enough…