Twelfth Night – reflections of meanings lost and found
I have found myself here at the end of this Christmas season much sooner than I expected…
….It is, perhaps sadly, one of Time’s neatest tricks that as we age time speeds by us faster and faster carrying us towards our end in dust while it travels onward to its own Infinity….
Christmas is almost all that is left of the commonplace of our Christian consciousness. Since Dickens romanticised conspicuous consumption in A Christmas Carol the small wonder of the events we commemorate in these twelve days has been struck senseless by worthless wonder at gaudy gifts.
Tomorrow Roman Catholics in England will observe Epiphany a day before its usual occurrence on 6th January. It is a further sign of religion’s compromise with demands of Mamon. It seems these days asking the faithful to attend mass beyond Sunday is more than a good soul might reasonably be asked to bear. Epiphany marks the feast of the three kings, or magi or wise men arriving at the stable in Bethlehem with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Epiphany is a Greek word – meaning manifestation. This is a manifestation alike that of a king on a Royal Progress making himself known to his people. This was the dynastic habit of the Persians rather than the Greeks but the word traveled from one culture to another. This notion of travelling – like the kings from Persian lands afar – to a destination which will change our world is at the heart of the Christmas experience. In the Orthodox traditions this is why Epiphany remains the great feast – at then end of the Christmas season – the feast towards which we are being drawn in our annual remembrance of the Nativity of the Lord and its profound meaning.
The stories we all know from childhood and perhaps still love – the birth of Jesus in the manger because there was no room at the Inn – the shepherds in the fields being chosen to hear the news of great joy – and the three wise men following the star – all signify an event so special – and so deeply in our cultural heritage that even Santa Claus has not obliterated sight of it with his gift-shower.
Yet of all the events in the so called synoptic Gospels the birth stories are like the king’s themselves late arrivals. We have three roughly chronological accounts of Christ’s life – those of Mark, Matthew and Luke.
Mark’s account begins with the Baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist in the Jordan. Mark tells us nothing of the nativity. Luke provides us with as it were the Virgin Mary’s viewpoint – for its in Luke we have the annunciation; the visitation to her cousin Elizabeth – which provided the famous line – Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee as well as Mary’s song – My soul does Magnify the Lord and my spirit does rejoice in God who is my Saviour. Matthew by contrast give us Joseph’s view – the angel appearing to him in a dream to assure him of Mary’s virtue and commanding him to marry her according to Jewish custom; the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; the arrival of the three kings to see Herod; their onward visit to the manger; the massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem and the flight into Egypt of Mary, Joseph and the child. In Matthew we have the account such as we have of the infancy of Christ before the angel appears in a second dream to tell Joseph it is safe to return to Nazareth. These stories or part of the gospel narrative are all thought to date from later point than the remainder of the synoptic Gospels – perhaps belonging to the the middle of the second century. Versions of nativity stories circulate from early on in Christian history but they are not a part of the initial written ‘cult’. St Paul makes no mention of these events.
Yet it is not these familiar accounts of the birth of Christ and the circumstances about it which have really shaped Christianity, it is rather that extraordinary opening passage from the fourth gospel – the one attributed to John the Evangelist that makes the real statement that changed the world. The attribution to St John may not stand current scholarly analysis but it hardly matters on one level because it is that opening passage of John’s gospel which almost more than anything transformed early Christianity from a cult into a world religion – and one which conquered the hostile Roman Empire in three centuries – transforming the parochial events in the backwater of some obscure town in Palestine into the set for a great theatrical moment in human history.
I set these words out below in the King James version – not as an act of faith – nor to convert the faithless – though they are capable of being both – but rather to draw attention to two extraordinary facets of this passage – which may originally have been appended to the end and not the beginning of this gospel.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.
It’s two remarkable qualities are quite different. First, this is an epic use of poetic description – where there is an almost unparalleled dynamic use of image with poetic rhythm that sweeps the ideas along.There is nothing outside a few passages of the Iliad, Isaiah and perhaps later Virgil that touch this passage as a piece of perfectly crafted writing. It is always significant that it should be use of words which strikes out from the page since this passage – be it imaginative or philosophical or both – (or simply true) – as it is about The Word – or Logos as Greek classical philosophy knew it.
This is the second profound point about this description of the Incarnation – it unites Jewish prophetic religion with Greek philosophy. Christian theology harnesses in this single passage the most sophisticated philosophical concept of classical Greek thought and marries it Jewish traditions of a Chosen People and Israel ( literally, the nation who waits) to their religious notion of a Messiah. Whoever wrote these words in St John – and there are any number of possibilities – these words changed history – changed the history of religion and thereby for good or ill – the history of the world. The marriage of Greek Philosophy to religious thought shaped how men thought for two millennia. In time it has inspired other conceptual thinkers and given us the most complete philosophical vision of the Universe – before the modern age and the scientific revolution, Darwin and Einstein – and these can still be found in the works and words of Thomas of Aquinas – possibly the finest mind of the millennium after Christ.
So, whilst there may be agnostics and atheists who believe this Christmas malarkey is all no more than a continuation of pagan rites and rituals – they are simply wrong. The events we remember in Palestine may not be historical facts as they’re simply presented in the Synoptic Gospels. But the event we mark in John’s gospel’s first fourteen verses is even on a secular scale of events one of the most profound moments in human history. For it is a moment when two different cultural imaginations are made into one – The Word made flesh…full of grace and truth.
This was an idea that changed how women and men thought of themselves and it is well to remember that is these words that have always been given prime position in this Christmas Season. The first fourteen verses of John’s gospel are the gospel of every Christmas day for the very profound reason that it is in those Words that we are offered an understanding of who we are; from where we come; and for what we are destined. Not bad for fourteen relatively short verses. I wish I could write something so powerful as succinctly as the author of the fourth gospel.
With that I wish you all the most peaceful of year. May it be full of grace and truth; full of blessings, happiness and joy. May you be wise enough to regret your mistakes and learn from them but hopeful enough never to be defined by them. May you never look back in anger; never look back to judge; never look back to predict what may come; may you rather look back to better understand yourself from your many mistakes and from that understanding shape a better future.
That’s what History is really all about – knowing ourselves….but also knowing how to reach out beyond our self…and there those fourteen verses above offer as good a guide as any….