St Columba Altarpiece. Triptych showing Annunciation, Adoration and Presentation.
(Central Panel Enlarged)
Epiphany is an eye-opener. God incarnate welcomed by the humble is visited by Magi, the scientists and economists, the advisers and private secretaries of the powerful. And they bring gifts, which Christian imaginations have interpreted as gold for wealth and splendour, myrrh for sorrow and suffering and frankincense for its cosmetic and aromatic value. All three were luxury items, gifts fit for only the most powerful. The adoration of the Magi is Matthew's invitation to costly discipleship, worship of Jesus, recognition of the Saviour. So this devotional take on Matthew's story goes.
But Epiphany isn't a devotional reverie, nor a mere enlightening moment of touching reverence. Here the great are humbled, the mighty kneel, earthly wealth and worldly wisdom bow in acknowledgement of a greater wisdom and a different wealth. In this nativity which is the epitome of poverty and powerlessness, Epiphany is the revelation that something of unprecedented upset is taking place. And in the background, power growls. Herod perfectly portrays the paranoia of power. Cunning, suspicious, unprincipled apart from the prime directive of tyrants to eliminate opposition and second guess providence.
The coming of the Magi spooks Herod, and from the that moment infant lives are forfeit, and human anguish guaranteed. The murder of the innocents is a direct consequence of these Magi coming to pay homage. Their astrological know-how, their technical and technological skills in the art of knowing, give their words an authoritative imprimatur. If they say a king has been born, and with a star as celestial confirmation, then this is a political crisis, and emergency event, an invasion by another claimant, a nascent threat to Herod's power. He does what any good tyrant would do. Identify, locate and destroy.
Well we know that the Magi gave him the slip. Robbed of that indispensable tool of the oppressor, reliable intelligence, he moves to plan B. Seeing the birth of a child as a cancer, he marks the parameters and performs surgery on his population "all the boys two years old and under, in Bethlehem and surrounding districts...". The slaughter of the innocents was a poltical prophylactic, preventative medicine to keep his power base healthy. This too is an Epiphany. The Magi kneeled and adored; Herod seeks and destroys. The Magi bring gifts recognising the royal status of the child; Herod's recognition goes even deeper. He sees the implications of a royal birth for his own future, and does what totalitarian governments do, suppress dissent, execute those who challenge the hegemony of the state, perform radical surgery not on the body politic but on the people.
The painting is by Rogier Vad Der Weyden. This painting is from the Columba Altar Triptych. In contrast to much previous art, Van der Weyden sets the nativity not in a heavenly scene with Mary the Queen, but in an exposed outhouse. The focus of the painting is not the splendour of the gifts but the adoration of the givers. On the central pillar a crucifix, linking Bethlehem with Calvary, Incarnation with Atonement, and human celebration with human suffering. The star, "symbol of divine glory" is largely obscured by the roof of the outhouse, and those looking on are dressed and presented as ordinary folk of Van der Weyden's time.
Reflection on this part of the Christmas story isn't an exercise in warm mystery and sentimental hopes, but in cold reality and political pragmatism. The coming of the Magi exposed the terror unleashed by threatened power, even when that threat is powerless. And yet. The Magi come as the Gentiles to a Jewish baby. Herod is eclipsed by Isaiah. Isaiah 60.1-7 is a vision of community transformed and enlarged, of wellbeing and welfare, of enmity forgotten and friendships created across barriers, cultures and races. As a Christian, I read these old texts of the Prophet Isaiah, and ponder the Gospels and the mission of Jesus, and I look around for whatever it is I could bring. Not gold, myrrh and frankincense, but in a masterpiece of rhetorical anit-climax, perhaps what Christina Rossetti suggested at the end of In the bleak mid-winter', my heart. By which I mean including but not limited to, my faith, my yes, my imagination, my energy,