The turn of each calendar year is often filled with an influx of charitable giving, much of which intends to assist those far beyond the borders of the United States. As rigorous debates surround the ethics and oversight of such foreign assistance endeavors, one of the more innovative contributions to this important conversation was produced by South Africa's renowned theologian, the late Steve de Gruchy. In consideration of the Magi and their Epiphany visit with Joseph, Mary, and the newly born Jesus in Matthew 2:1-12, de Gruchy offers a striking interpretation of the biblical text and considers its direct relationship with international relief efforts. As private giving directed to foreign aid continues to grow ( from $8.4 billion in 2000 to $19.1 billion in 2012 ), de Gruchy shows how benevolent intent can lead to oppressive impact, and Epiphany provides important wisdom to navigate the complexities of our policies and practices.
Growing up in Texas, fairly close to New Orleans, I knew all about Mardi Gras. It was a big deal in the South, replete with combinations of debaucherous consumption and self-exposure. What I didn’t understand, being the good evangelical Protestant that I was at the time, was that it actually was the celebration preceding the liturgical period of Lent.
It was only once I framed the excesses of Mardi Gras with the self-discipline and austerity of Lent that it began to make much sense. Not that the gratuitous self-abuse was then justified, but at least it made more sense, given the things everyone was supposed to give up during the weeks to come.
This got me thinking about how we approach New Year’s Eve, and framing it, too, by what we expect and anticipate from New Year’s Day. Yes, the celebrations of New Year’s Eve are, in some ways, just an excuse to indulge ourselves in excessive partying, but they also stand in contrast against the hopes we hold for the following day.
Activist theologian Bill Wylie-Kellermann wrote that the Epiphany season "begins and ends in light. From the heavenly star to the radiant robes of transfiguration, Epiphany is about revelation, the kind of sudden brightness that lights up the landscape of a mind or a community or a whole social order. The light reveals, but not passively; it summons and sends."
In popular understanding, of course, Epiphany is about the visit of the Magi, "wise men" from the East bearing gifts for the newborn Christ child. Since these Gentile visitors come from foreign lands, their search for Jesus and their homage to him have stood as sign and symbol that Christ's salvation knows no boundaries. (The parallels with our age, with the potential of digital media to transcend all boundaries, begin to suggest themselves.)
The story of the Magi has a dark side as well, mostly ignored in Christendom's celebration of Epiphany. On their way to find the babe, the travelers pay a visit first to Herod's court, where they're told to report back to him the location of the newborn. Fortunately, the wise men practice direct civil disobedience to the royal command, and thus they and the holy family escape Herod's wrath. But the children of Bethlehem, the "holy innocents," suffer the tragic consequences of Herod's duplicity. The lessons about relating to authority (i.e., the need to be "wise as serpents") are loud and clear.