What’s in Epiphany?

There is a strangeness to the power of a calendar. It has not the strength of a pagan deity. It does not circle the earth, give light or heat, nor energize the solar system. Yet it holds over the Western mind a need to observe, to chart, to catalogue. By it we can memorialize the past, anticipate the future, and understand our place in the present. It keeps our appointments, and it—we think—confirms our destiny.

St. Paul provides a new vision of time in Christ, a time that acknowledges days and seasons but is not bound by them (Rom. 14:5-6; Gal. 4:10). He liberates us from the constraints of chronology and spatial distance, allowing us to move—like the Spirit—in and out of human history, as from the microscope to the airplane and back again. And though we have the freedom to inhabit a cyclical view of time in which all days are identical, we often choose to return to a linear view of time that checks off each day as progressively toward some unknown end, helps us grasp our temporal moorings and experience life in a measured, predictive way.

It is difficult to say with any precision how “most” Christians mark time, as they vary by individual, family, and culture. Some choose not to celebrate days and seasons at all, and do so unto the Lord, and they have my respect. I find myself among those who celebrate enthusiastically, aware of each commemoration day in the liturgical calendar throughout the year. Others take a mixed approach, observing the high feasts only—and that in a low fashion. Some of them, for instance, vehemently protest Halloween’s presumably pagan origins, but they accept Christmas with its commercial customs; both holidays share some pagan roots, though not nearly as much as Christians and pagans popularly believe. Yet for the many American Protestants who celebrate Christmas, some of them religiously and some more secularly than the most ardent Modernist, most are unfamiliar with the earliest Christian holidays, of which Epiphany (January 6) was one of the first.

We should note that all Christians, regardless of their position on holy days, nevertheless celebrate and commemorate—through the weekly observance of the Eucharist, if nothing else. Early Christian practice shifted worship from Sabbath to Sunday (Acts 20:7), and the sheer number of Gentile believers by the mid-second century over their Jewish counterparts made such a shift nearly a foregone conclusion. The process of universalizing a Jewish sect for all peoples meant that Hellenistic culture would have an outmoded influence over its Hebraic roots. Similarly, Easter (or “Pascha”), like the Jewish Passover, was calculated then, as now, using the “computus,” which counts down days from the vernal equinox (the first full moon after the beginning of spring) and corresponds to Mosaic instructions (Ex. 12:2-3). Second-century Christians celebrating the resurrection used a more roundabout, though similar computation to celebrate Christ’s birth as well. This approach created some conflict for Christians even into the seventh century (see Bede’s Ecclesiastical History), a reminder of how pervasive the calendar’s influence even then.

The Gnostics, some of whom did not believe in a physical birth, believed instead in Christ’s manifestation through the Spirit (or “epiphany”), which occurred at his baptism. Clement of Alexandria (160-220) tells us of an Egyptian sect of Gnostics (Basilideans) who celebrated Christ’s baptism as a festival on the 11th day of Tubi in the Egyptian calendar (which is January 6, modern day Epiphany). A pagan holiday already existed on January 6—a festival of the virgin goddess Kore and her daughter Aion. Egyptian Christians may have been eager to skip out on pagan festivities and celebrate Christ instead.

They found support for this practice in their beliefs about time. Joseph F. Kelly in The Origins of Christmas (2014) articulates the complete years theory, a Jewish tradition that claimed biblical peoples lived for whole years—meaning they died on the day of their birth. So when scripture says Moses died at 120 years old (Deut. 34:7), he was exactly 120 years old when he died. The ancient mind’s capacity for symmetry in symbolism matches the modern mind’s only in its need for symmetry in science. Thus, the Basilideans may have believed Jesus was baptized on the day of his birth. The Western church fathers found this subject of significant interest as well. The Julian calendar places the vernal equinox at March 25. Hippolytus (170-235) places March 25, therefore, as the anniversary of creation and of Christ’s crucifixion; Tertullian (155-220) concurs with this calculation, and the complete years theory would support this claim. Sextus Julius Africanus (160-240) also agreed, but argued that Jesus was incarnated not at his birth but at his conception. Nine months before March 25 is December 25. This day, as all know, will eventually become the day Christians will choose for Christmas; and the Feast of the Annunciation becomes March 25. Epiphany was still very popular in the East in association with the Nativity, so Western Christians also came to practice it, though associating it specifically with the appearance of the Magi. Which, of course, is from whom we have inherited our tradition of gift-giving.

Epiphany, then, is the final chapter of the Christmas story each year and the movement into Christ’s ministry. On the twelfth night of Christmastide, Christians conclude celebrating the birth of Christ, looking forward to other elements of the Gospel story: Candlemas, Lent, Easter. The liturgical calendar reminds us of each milestone of the birth, life, death, and resurrection.

For those who overlook this holiday, those who turn off the Christmas tunes and take down their trees and decorations on December 26, Epiphany seems one more named feast day, along with the Feast of St John, St. Steven the Martyr, and Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents. All must do what they have resolved to do in their hearts. It is surely true that the Gospel does not stand in need commemoration in days and seasons. Yet to stand against commemoration entirely as some vague spiritual principle runs against all human proclivities to the contrary. We eagerly mark days off of the calendar in anticipation of marriage, birth, and retirement. We eagerly celebrate our own birthdays, days of political independence, and federally approved vacations. Shall we not all the more so make our days of commemoration holy?

The Fellowship: A Review

Readers of these pages will not at all be surprised to find a whole post devoted to the Inklings, the Oxford School of writers and thinkers joined by their mutual love of the mythopoeic and their mutual love of Christ. Indeed, it may be that virtually the whole foundation of the modern Christian literary experience is founded entirely on these trailblazers. But I am told that this was no school as such, highlighted by C.S. Lewis’ own words toward the end of his life. It was, rather, merely an informal group of friends joining together in a real and mystical fellowship, encouraging each other in their efforts to live out faith through art. Philip and Carol Zaleski explore the four pillars of this remarkable gathering—C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield—in their book The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).

Nearly all of our contemporaries are familiar with Lewis and Tolkien. The average reader may not know of Lewis’ apologetic works, but they have at least heard of how to get to a secret world through a wardrobe. The non-reader may have never picked up The Lord of the Rings at Barnes & Noble, but they have certainly seen Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth. Fifty years and more after their deaths, Lewis and Tolkien have achieved the rare “cross-over” status—like Taylor Swift but with far more depth and artistry. Yet fewer readers are familiar with the contributions of Charles Williams and Owen Barfield. For those needing an introduction to these authors, I might recommend Williams’ fiction, Descent into Hell and War in Heaven, and Barfield’s linguistic criticism, Poetic Diction. (Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice and Barfield’s What Coleridge Knew are occupying restless space in my queue.) In their time, each of these authors contributed a prolific body of work to imaginative fiction, literary criticism, and the cultivation of a Christian mythos. The Zaleskis capture with incredible historical clarity and fine storytelling the biography of each of the four Inklings, and not a few details of several of the secondary figures.

Time does not permit to discuss the various biographical elements of each Inkling here. So I’ll state that the most exciting aspect of this book for me was its ability to capture the zeitgeist of early twentieth century Oxford. There remains, in my mind at least, a romanticized picture of the British Academy in the 1920s and ‘30s. With their descriptions of social functions, tutoring and lecturing, and even an occasional committee assignment, the Zaleskis have only increased my idealism for this period as I imagine what it must have been like to work alongside these giants. Yet the authors also remind us of what is often forgotten in reading The Abolition of Man or Farmer Giles of Ham—namely, that these men were fighting against the worst excesses of Modernism. They were not writing bestsellers, at least initially, because they seemed like antiquaries, relics of a forgotten age, shelves in a library which no one visits except as a curiosity. History seems a foregone conclusion only for subsequent generations.

Time soon proved the Inklings right, as readers then and now hunger for the vitality of the past and the music of mythopoetry, but detractors—and there were many, including I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, and T.S. Eliot—are often unremembered, and few beloved. The Modernist lust for novelty and disgust of tradition had so pervasively infiltrated culture that its innovations instantly became assumptions. Most Westerners today even are so narrowly focused—ironically, while claiming a global view—and guilty of chronological snobbery—ironically, while claiming to understand the injustices of history—that they cannot articulate their own Modernist worldview. Lewis especially was able to identify the various supports to the Modernist foundation and carefully demolish them through reason and argument. Tolkien, for his part, offered an alternative vision that gave readers the freedom to appreciate traditionalism, history, and a more comprehensive view of nature and the supernatural. Williams deepened the role of the spirit in the visible world, often uncomfortably so for many Christians, and Barfield cast a vision of Western literature returning Christ to Christendom.

This book is more than just a paean, however, and many readers will be disappointed to learn that their idols were, after all, men. Lewis’ bizarre relationship with an older woman, Tolkien’s petty insecurity and cantankerousness, Williams’ unhealthy fascination with the occult, and Barfield’s new age anthroposophy, all run counter to their mythic status as great men of faith. Yet when we study intimately the heroic lives of the past, we must be prepared to accept what we uncover, which may be a disrobing of imagined glory and a painful recognition of their profligacy. This is a good rather than an ill, I believe, for it reminds us that the truest saints are the worst of sinners. Indeed, because they are all too human we can admire them even more. We, too, can achieve what they did because we share a common wretchedness—and a common grace.

But at its heart, this is a story of friendship, of how great men encouraged other men in their greatness, of the sacred bonds of those who share vision and talent. Friendship, as Lewis tells us in The Four Loves, is the least needful of all affections. Yet it can be the most powerful because it, like agape, is willed, and like eros, unwilled. We all need friends like these—to encourage us, to rebuke us, to believe in us. Good things grow in a spirit of peace and amity.

So if you find yourself wondering about the story behind The Problem of Pain or guessing why Tolkien never completed The Silmarillion, or—more importantly—if want to know the bonds of brotherhood that depict full living at its finest, then I heartily recommend The Fellowship.

Voices of Iona

One of the immediate collisions my students suffer when encountering Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales for the first time is the inevitable why. Why risk life and fortune just to see a shrine? Many understand the desire to see Europe or to visit Washington or to take the family to Disney World. But few grasp what would compel people to a holy place when God is everywhere, as close as a conversation, as easy as turning on the television, as individual as listening to a podcast or playlist. They perceive input and feasting as the best avenues to spirituality, not knowing the blessings that come with quiet and fasting.

Pilgrimage is an experience far removed from the Modernist understanding. Many Christians and pagans alike find it a curious archaism at best, a fundamentalist madness at worst. The iconoclast, as cynical as he is unimaginative, casts it as a glorified vacation, while the symbolist, untethered in his philosophy, sees it strictly a metaphor. And, surely, there is a practiced homelessness in pilgrimage that appears to the outsider as a kind of madness. When we skeptically raise our eyebrows at the one who does not live in the world, does not strive after success or riches, we must recall that the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. The teachings of Jesus, however paradoxical, are too little practiced today in their literal form. Yet for the Christians of the Middle Ages, who sometimes sacrificed the figurative understanding for the literal obscurity, walking in the footsteps of the Christ or of the saints was a meaningful and life-changing journey. Indeed, it is in the sacramental character of pilgrimage that metaphor and reality meet.

In Britannia, off the west coast of what was then called Dál Riata, on the edge of the former empire, still rests a lonely isle. In the crosswaters of Scotland, Ireland, and England, it is central enough to be reached by merchants and raiders but far enough away from the concerns of the mainland—from a world just as busy, just as harried, just as confused and uncertain of its future as our own. Iona was founded as a monastery by St. Columba over a hundred years after Augustine’s picture of the everyman’s journey toward the City of God, and it became a sacred locus for pilgrims to find themselves and to commune with the Spirit. The modern traveler can see that it is an unideal location to start a church, but it is a perfect place to raise a shrine. Pilgrimage should bring about reflection, meditation, contemplation, illumination; Iona would offer all this and more—a place, as Chaucer’s Parson’s Tale reminds us, for transformation. A great cloud of witnesses, all those who came before, from St. Columba to George Macleod, would gather here to spur the pilgrim on to charity and to good works. Heaven and earth would meet on this humble island, and the invisible Kingdom perhaps never felt more tangible than in Iona’s magnificent rocks, its beige sands, and its paradisal, clear blue waters that stretch into an azure horizon.

In this collection of poems, I take as my central theme the experience of pilgrimage, realized in the island of Iona, the British Isles, and beyond. All of literature can be distilled to two stories: either a stranger comes to town, or a hero goes on a journey. Or so my English teacher once told me. If true, then all stories are about the transformation that occurs in the liminal spaces of the pilgrimage. With that in mind, I have tried to craft each experience as something unique to each pilgrim: some of them real and some mystical (though perhaps not less real); some are true and some fictional (though, too, perhaps not less true); and all of them are shared by someone who passed that way before. If the saying is accurate that we take something of a place with us when we leave, and we also leave part of ourselves behind in that place, then historical memory must be a fathomless well indeed.

I hope you will join me on pilgrimage.