Epiphany Now

Edward Burne Jones, The Adoration of the Magi

Today, I woke up to an apartment defrocked of its Christmas decor. The bareness always shocks me at first. Is not my mantel meant for stockings and holiday trinkets? Hasn’t twinkling greenery always bedecked my bookshelves? It seems colder somehow, without all those soft textures and warm lights, yet here we are, in the bleak midwinter, and my mantel is just a mantel, my bookshelves merely bookshelves. Christmas is over.

This post-Christmas let-down is complicated somewhat by this past Sunday’s celebration. For those who follow the Western church calendar, we have just observed Epiphany — the revelation of Jesus as Divine. Also known as Three Kings’ Day because many celebrate Epiphany as the day the Magi found Jesus, Epiphany often features King’s cake and other goodies, sometimes more presents, and sometimes parades and parties. Because many traditions associate Epiphany with Christ’s baptism, some cultures include winter swimming as part of their Epiphany practice.  And that frightful feeling — a bucket of icy water on a winter’s day — comes closer to my post-Christmas, post-Epiphany experience. The party is over. Real life beckons. Warm Christmas carbohydrates will be replaced with healthy, but cold, salads. New Year’s resolutions will be tested, and I will be found wanting. And not very far from now, feast will turn to fast indeed on Ash Wednesday, though we’ll probably still find a few errant pine needles, hiding in corners.

That bleak, post-Christmas feeling is one that W.H. Auden expresses beautifully in the penultimate section of his 1942 long poem, “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.” I stumbled across this poem for the first time during a search for Christmas-themed poetry, and you can read it here.

In the poem, the oratorio’s narrator describes that familiar post-Christmas scene: “Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes…” In that ordinary, post-Christmas space, or what Auden calls “the time being,” everything seems a little bleaker and less miraculous:

…Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.

There it is: that icy Epiphany bath.  After the wise men see Christ’s star and come to worship him, Herod pursues; the innocents are slaughtered; Mary and Joseph pack their bags and flee to Egypt; neighbors gossip over the child’s paternity; there are diapers to change and bills to pay. Christmas is nice, but we must live in the daily world.

It’s in this daily world, however, that Auden glimpses an incredible opportunity “to redeem [the Time Being] from insignificance.” And just how do we do that? Peter Steinfels, writing about the poem for the New York Times in 1990, explains, “the challenge now is to recognize the miracle of God’s entry into all that is routine and mundane.” We meet God even in the midst of Auden’s litany of ordinariness: “bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, Irregular verbs to learn.”

That miraculous mundanity is, if we remember the Christmas story well, at the heart of Christmas all along. The light of the world shone from a stable. The God of Creation became a helpless baby in the womb of an ordinary young woman. Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, their trip to Bethlehem prompted by the most annoying of ordinary bureaucratic tasks — a census for the purposes of taxation. And the angels appeared to lowly shepherds. So it’s there, there on Auden’s shrunken kitchen table, in the narrow streets and the depressing office, where the light will shine, a host of angels will sing, and God will reveal Himself in a thousand everyday epiphanies.

So today, I want to leave you, not with that oft-quoted penultimate piece of Auden’s poem, but with the closing section — almost a benediction — to guide us into the New Year with hope that even this bleak Monday morning can be redeemed:

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

All poetry selections are excerpted from Auden’s long poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” (1942), which can be read in full in W.H. Auden: Collected Poems.