Epiphany’s Choice

Hang on, you there, packing up the Christmas lights, dismantling the tree, boxing up the crèche with its cast of characters and that long-tailed star. Christmas is not over. Sure, come December 26th, it may have been all over for the “Little Drummer Boy,” Bing Crosby, and the Nutcracker; but not quite for Christmas. The wise men are just now arriving. And those magi from the East, with their three auspicious gifts, are not simply late to the party. They inaugurate a whole new thing: public acknowledgment by the world’s powers, of a radically new kind of rule. They’re not the only ones who notice (cue the soundtrack for the dastardly villain). What gets me now, thinking as I have been about environmental issues in Jesus-ish terms, is how relevant the contrast between the wise men and Herod still is today.

The Christmas story, as relayed in the Bible, takes two distinct forms. Luke’s telling includes the birth with shepherds and angels; Matthew gives us the wise men… and Herod. Though the Christian calendar varies across denominations, for most, Christmas ends only with Epiphany (“manifestation”), twelve days (yes, pear-tree-partridges and all) afterward, January 6. But this is not about church traditions. It’s about a striking contrast between two ways that the rich and powerful recognize something greater than themselves, something radically free with its own incorruptible rules and startlingly sublime.

First, there’s a qualitative difference between the cast of characters; between humility and arrogance, the expansive and the narrow, courage and fear. Ancient magi were defined by their great learning. They were “wise men,” whose quest for understanding, then as now, was the ceaseless, diligent work of a humbling sort that not only expands one’s interests beyond one’s immediate surroundings, but also enriches beyond the material. There’s nothing of this in Herod, the local king, only a narrow desperation to hang on to his power.

Herod was full of bluster and deeply afraid. In his power and riches, he feared that this newborn demand for justice, peace, respect, and love would compromise his might and threaten his bottom line. Herod sees the newborn not as an occasion for adoration and joy, but as a terrible danger, to be killed as quickly as possible. While Herod was ruled by fear and sought to take, through arrogant and selfish greed, life itself, the magi, moved by adoration and joy, gave. These foreigners were people of wealth and privilege, powerful in their own right. Out of those qualities, they recognized something in the newborn one worthy of respect. They gave.

In my recent experiment of the imagination, God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity, I asked what happens if the Jesus of Christian theology–of reconciliation, fierce demands, love, and life itself–were not limited to the guy of 2,000 years ago? What if Jesus could also be realized–made real, incarnate–in the nonhuman natural world around us? I called this Jesus “God of earth,” and tracked that question through the church year, since those are moments that theologically define Jesus. Stumbling into this Epiphany season, I couldn’t help but notice: The three wise men and Herod model two very different ways to confront the beauty and demands of our nonhuman natural world, inextricably bound up as they are with justice and peace.

Recognizing the God of earth means nothing less than an end to the world’s business as usual. There is great promise –prosperity, peace, even joy–in such recognition, but the unwise powerful cannot see this and would rather kill all semblance of the sublime than risk their bottom line. The significance of the God of earth, with her demand for environmental wisdom and justice, complicates in inconvenient ways the business of some of the rich and powerful. “Some,” because remember the magi did come, and out of the dignity of their station, recognized with deference and adoration what was holy among them.

During the season of Epiphany, our nation will undergo a marked change in leadership. In a democracy, a system in which each of us, whether or not we individually possess great wealth or power, can affect the course of our communities and country, we do well to consider these two ways; and then to tirelessly choose the better one, and urge our leaders to do the same. So, you can pack up that Christmas stuff now. It’s time to attend to the public implications of an invitation to be for justice and peace.

Kristin Swenson, Ph.D., is associate professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville, where she writes full-time. An award-winning author, her books include God of Earth: Discovering a Radically Ecological Christianity, Bible Babel: Making Sense of the Most Talked about Book of All Time and Living through Pain: Psalms and the Search for Wholeness. Her writing has also appeared in The Christian Century, Publishers Weekly and The Huffington Post, among other publications.