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Epiphany: A light to the world

January 10, 2012
By Jim Rice

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.

All this brings to mind the events of the Arab Spring, which began a year ago with the ouster of Tunisia’s autocratic ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. As in the Epiphany story, people in the Middle East and North Africa seemed to be inspired by a revelation—transmitted not by a star but by Facebook and Twitter—which indeed brought a brightness that upended a whole social order.

As in the Epiphany story, borders were transcended and boundaries crossed as nation after nation was swept up in the transforming power. Some of that inspiration even came from the East, like the Magi—activists in Egypt gave credit to the nonviolent strategies developed by Mohandas Gandhi in India’s freedom movement a century earlier as a key foundation and inspiration to the Egyptians’ “18 days of revolt.” The technology may have changed, but the principles remained consistent.

Even Herod’s murder of the innocents echoes across the years—in the Egyptian military that continues to act more like the old regime than like a bridge to a democratic future, in Syria’s despotic rulers meeting peaceful protesters with tanks and bullets, and in so many other places where the message of the babe in the manger is ignored and trampled. In all those cases, truth is the first casualty; the first response of the authorities to every such uprising has been to seek to cut off the social media and close the electronic communication channels of the protesters.

But like the light that drew the Magi to Bethlehem, history has proven that the “light” of social media—people united in a web of interconnectivity—cannot be easily squelched. Perhaps it is the same power that drew the visitors from the East to Jesus that fuels the social revolutions of our current “year of the protester.” The root of that power, rest assured, is much deeper than its technological manifestations. To paraphrase the Bard, earthly power most resembles God’s when its fruit is mercy and justice.

Jim Rice, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is editor of Sojourners magazine in Washington, D.C.

The New Media Project at Union Theological Seminary is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmedia@uts.columbia.edu.


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