Thoughts on Epiphany and Evelyn Waugh

Written by Adam DeVille

I prefer Theophany over Christmas. At one level, that is perhaps a reflection of my inner contrarian. The masses stampede towards Christmas in an orgy of spending garlandedwith tinsel and treacle so I must stand far from this madding crowd.

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At another level, and playing the academic snob—a role I am not at all averse to (Flannery O’Connor once said that snobbery is the besetting sin of Catholics)—I could say that I prefer Theophany (or Epiphany, as it is known in the West) over Christmas because the former is older as a feast than the latter, and still today retains a certain pride of place in Eastern Christian liturgical celebrations, especially among the Armenians, who celebrate both Christmas and Theophany on January 6th. In this light, Christmas is a puerile parvenu pushing in on a venerable celebration.

 Or perhaps it is the inner Scot in me: my Glaswegian grandmother told me that in Scotland until after World War II, Christmas was not a holiday but a regular work day. The fear of making it a holiday was that it was really just a “papist” festival, and dour Scottish Presbyterians would have none of that. (Oddly, however, Presbyterians had no cavil with all the superstitious practices surrounding New Year’s Day, which was, and is, a very big holiday in Scotland reeking of paganism.)

There are, as with all good feasts, many ways to celebrate. But in both East and West there is a common spirit of, well, Theo-phany, that is, God-revealing. In the West the tiny baby Jesus is revealed as God; in the East it is the man Jesus being baptized in the Jordan; but in both cases He is clearly God. The feast is thus strongly Christological—and, in the East, strongly Trinitarian also with the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descending to speak the Father’s word: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

In the West, Epiphany usually marks that time when the magi brought gifts and paid homage to the baby Jesus, and it is this aspect that is captured by the great English novelist Evelyn Waugh. Waugh, who died on Easter Sunday in 1966, is best known for his Brideshead Revisited, which was turned into a wonderful television series in Britain in the early 1980s featuring a young Jeremy Irons, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Lawrence Olivier, and others—a real tour de force. (One passes over in near-silence on that abominable film bearing the same title that Hollywood meretriciously manufactured in 2008 for transparently tendentious reasons.)  But though Brideshead won fame for Waugh, and made him a wealthy man, it was not his favourite novel. Rather, his later work, from the 1950s, was a short novel called Helena, which Waugh regarded as his magnum opus.

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It is an historical novel centred on the life of St. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine (whom the East calls “co-equal to the apostles”) and dowager empress of the Roman Empire. Waugh used the novel to put forward a new understanding of sanctity, saying in one of his letters that “I liked Helena’s sanctity because it is in contrast to all that moderns think of as sanctity. She wasn’t thrown to the lions, she wasn’t a contemplative, she wasn’t poor and hungry, and she didn’t look like an El Greco. She just discovered what it was God had chosen for her to do and did it.”

I like to re-read Helena in late December or early January each year, not least for this magnificent passage about Epiphany, a passage which, academic snob that I am, offers even me the hope of salvation:

     “Like me,” she said to [the Magi], “you were late in coming… . Yet you…were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too….

     “You are my especial patrons,” said Helena, “and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents”….

     “For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.”

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