Stories behind the 12th day of Christmas
Today, Jan. 6, is The Feast of the Epiphany, the traditional day when Christians celebrate the coming of the three wise men to bestow their gifts on the baby Jesus. It is also, if you’ve been counting, the 12th day of Christmas when, according to the old carol, you would have received an exponential result that would have you scrambling to make room for hundreds of calling birds, French hens, milking maids, drumming drummers and an assortment of others including, of course, 40 golden rings and 12 partridges either crammed onto the limbs of one overburdened pear tree, or creating a modest but nevertheless impressive orchard in your backyard. If you are a participant in the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christianity, as millions of folk are, you would spend today celebrating Christmas. This quirk in the Christian calendar is theologically complicated and difficult to explain, but it was of enormous benefit to my boyhood friend, Andy Patinopolis. Andy’s family had emigrated from Greece not too many generations back and walked the sometimes fine-line between assimilating into American culture and observing ancient customs. So Andy got to celebrate Christmas twice every year, once with the rest of us and then again 12 days later.
Usually by the time most of our Christmas toys had either been broken or lost, Andy was delving into a whole new supply. I believe my envy of this beneficial anomaly began a – sometimes less than altruistic – keen interest in other cultures.Actually, allow me to digress just a little further. Are you aware that, according to the Bible, there weren’t necessarily three wise kings? Indeed, we can’t say for certain that they were wise, royal or, some would claim, even men. All the Bible states is that Magi came from the East to Bethlehem. Number, rank and name came later, much later. Such knowledge, I hope, will not prevent those congregations claiming the unimpeachable accuracy of scripture from continuing to produce their Christmas pageants complete with three boys in bathrobes wearing cardboard crowns.Where was I? Oh yes. There is an element to this story that is, I believe, relevant to believers and non-believers alike. It comes just as the maybe three, maybe wise, maybe men, having deposited their gifts with Jesus, head back to the East. The gospel writer Matthew reports that they departed “by another way”. I’ve always found that revelation most intriguing. It suggests, at least to me, a change not just of geographical direction, but of mind and heart. Whoever they were, these visitors from the East had an encounter with another perspective, another understanding of reality, another way of looking at things. This encounter had a profound effect on these participants. It altered their view, changed their direction.
I sometimes think the Epiphany story, whether it is fact or fable, has a much broader scope than how it is generally employed today. This ancient reminder of perspectives being changed could serve us all quite well. What, one wonders, would our political process be like if our leaders were more willing to understand other points of view than their own? Surely, the current tragic results of our attempt to coerce a culture into accepting our political assumptions and philosophical ideals would have been greatly diminished had our leaders taken the time to consider alternative perspectives.Over the last decade, Americans have watched as our politicians have paired off in a dramatic demonstration of what can happen when we refuse to consider assumptions beyond our own. The passionate refusal of our leaders to even contemplate other possible strategies than their own has left our nation with an internationally damaged reputation and a profoundly dispirited populace.
Once, politics was seen as the art of compromise but lately, as this last do-nothing congress so disappointingly displayed, politics has become nothing more than an exercise in entrenchment. This past week’s victorious demonstrations by the conquering Democrats has me worried that we may be in for more of the same.Bill O’Reilly and others have been loudly bemoaning the excising of Christmas from our national culture. Far more disturbing, be ye believer or not, is our loss of one of the meanings of Epiphany. Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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