Monday, 15 January 2018

Epiphany 2018

We have just finished Christmas and with that we settled the question of how many Masses to attend that would fulfil both the 4th Sunday of Advent and the Christmas duty. Are we not relieved and grateful that 6th Jan is not a day of obligation, for otherwise we would have to attend Mass yesterday and today? Canon 1246§1 lists Epiphany one of 10 holy days of obligation but, thankfully, in a nod to convenience, the Apostolic See has allowed quite a few to be transferred to a Sunday which is what we have done—killing two birds with one stone.[1]

Epiphany is a solemnity of revelation. What we call an epiphany, the Eastern Churches would term as a theophany. The difference between them is that the Epiphany is generic as it denotes a revelation from above whereas the Theophany is more specific as it focuses on the revelation from God. The 6th of January was the “Christmas” of the early Christians especially of the Church in the East because the date commemorates for them, the Nativity of the Lord, the Visitation of the Magi, the Baptism of Christ[2] and the Wedding at Cana. Only at the Council of Tours did Christmas get separated from Epiphany and much later, the rest—Baptism and Wedding at Cana got their own celebrations leaving the 6th of January primarily centred on the Visitation of the Magi.

The Gentiles have come searching for the new-born Child. What do they hope to accomplish and what can we learn from them? One observation is that the Epiphany is not a celebration of diversity even though the appearance of the multi-hued Magi seems to suggest that diversity has indeed arrived. 

What is it then, if it is not a “feast of diversity”?

To better appreciate the Epiphany, it might be profitable to survey the myths surrounding diversity. In campuses of some “enlightened” societies, political correctness, gender wars and nihilism have taken roots in the name of diversity. Coupled with this notion, a trigger word we ought to embrace is tolerance.

In a context of multi-culturalism and multi-religiosity, is that not an important concept to embrace? In our country, we definitely know what it means when people are intolerant. If diversity, which expresses the richness of God’s creation, is a given, how do we live in harmony? How do we behave in a manner which is human, in other words, how can we be moral beings?

Firstly, in the quest for social cohesion, which is a moral endeavour, there is a prevailing mistaken belief that man is inherently good. And through reason, he can be persuaded to be good. As such, there is a temptation to banish religions understood to be the cause of many a strife. The notion of progress appears to exclude religion in its march and many developed countries have somewhat banished it, have they not? The result is pretty simple. Religion is, at best considered as superstition, and at worst believed to be emotional intolerance, is therefore incapable of leading us to reasoned truth. If religious truth is banished, because religion is defective, then the rise of relativism and indifferentism is inevitable as we shall see later.

Secondly, the idea of “toleration” actually came about through the experiences of the “confessional” states. England and France are two such examples with England being Anglican and France being Catholic. As these societies progressed, the civil authorities began to tolerate the minorities who do not profess the state’s creed. Taking the confessional states’ experiences, what does tolerate amount to? It means that we put up with those who do not really conform to what we accept to be true. Therefore, when we “tolerate”, we are primarily stating that we hold on to what we accept to be true, but we can also live with those who are in error. This sense of “tolerance” still bears with it a recognition that there is objective truth.

However, you can detect the fledgling bud of indifferentism and relativism once tolerance is no longer anchored to the truth. If you dwell on this, is that not why diversity and acceptance can flourish? However, indiscriminate diversity, tolerance and acceptance do not hold water because somewhere along the way, one has to draw a line between what conduct is acceptable and what might is considered insanity or a crime. If we were to hold on to the principle of tolerance and stretch it to its logical conclusion, parading Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein before you, would have totally disabuse you of the notion that tolerance is a virtue we should embrace. Once again, you can already discern the outline of truth here.

The despotism of uncritical tolerance means we must give in to the reigning fads. It has been used as a bullying tool against those who do not subscribe to the majority’s view. How? Even if you have not watched “The Greatest Showman”, you will understand what I am trying to say. In the musical based on the life of PT Barnum, there is a bearded woman and she sings an ode to the current fad: “This is me”. Into the mix, there is a message which stands against bullying but in totality, it is a declaration that the world ought to accept her as she is. We should stand against bullying but again, when this notion of acceptance is pushed to its logical conclusion, it becomes a problematic. If a man declares himself a murderer and that is who he thinks he is, should the world not accept him as he is?

To accept what is different gives an impression of noble tolerance. And, in this world of tolerance, dogmatism (which is another word for judgemental people) should be banished in the name of diversity. However, in the name of diversity, do I have the right to be bad? You might be thinking, “Of course not. How stupid can you be”? Yet, do you realise that people cannot smoke where they want to. I do not smoke and yet I know how smokers feel. And how come I cannot eat sharks’ fin in the name of tolerance and diversity? In other words, for some people, it is alright to be different but not for others. Where is the logic there?

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in his famous soliloquy asked “To be or not to be?” which in the context of tolerance today is a wrong question. To be tolerant or not is not an issue. The big fat elephant in the room, and I do not mean Fr Michael, is “What shall I tolerate?”. And this is no longer a question of morality but rather a question of might. Who has the stronger power will decide what is to be accepted in the name of diversity. Our conundrum is that we recognise that lines need to be drawn, the problem is who should draw them or where should they be drawn. The way things are, it is those who wield power, and the prophetic stand is to hold on to the truth and not allowed oneself to be cowed by the tyranny of “absolute” diversity, tolerance and acceptance.

Coming back to the mistaken myth that we are inherently good, the desire to be good even though it is a godly desire, is not good enough. At the heart of understanding who we are, stands also the question of how we should be and that takes us into the moral realm. Thus, the Wise Men came searching, not for an object, not even for a priceless treasure but for Him so their morality, that is, how to be human, might be given a firm standing. Perhaps we should take a leaf from them.

Diversity, tolerance or acceptance are never ideals absolute in themselves. Whilst they may help us in the social project of building peaceful societies, they must be founded on truths which are eternal. According to Pope Leo LXIII, “The things of earth cannot be understood or valued aright without taking into consideration the life to come, the life that will know no death. Exclude the idea of futurity, and forthwith the very notion of what is good and right would perish; nay, the whole scheme of the universe would become a dark and unfathomable mystery”.

We all yearn for an Elysium—a world without injustice whereby all that is imperfect is wiped off. Sadly, this longing has been shakily premised on the seducing quicksand of acceptance, tolerance and diversity as if these “virtues” once embraced will unfold a world without strife and pain. The reality is unqualified acceptance, tolerance or diversity leads to the chaos of darkness—a darkness which is emboldened by both power and money. He who has more of these will speak a greater “truth”

In conclusion, Epiphany is not a politically correct celebration of diversity, acceptance and tolerance. Rather it symbolises an anthropological quest—man’s search for who he is and who he is supposed to be.[3] It may have started from where he is but it does not end there. Epiphany represents Man’s search for the Divine and that this search is not putative but rather graceful and fruitful. The anthropological quest for God has found an answer in Jesus Christ. He is the light that shines on us so that we may know who God is and who we truly are. To be who he really is, man needs more than acceptance, tolerance and diversity.[4] In other words, Epiphany represents Man’s perennial hunger for light of truth to shine upon his path so that he can be what God has created him to be—a creature graced by truth, beauty and goodness.

[1] If we state that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life, does it make sense that the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, a holy day of obligation traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, two months after Holy Thursday (which is also the Thursday after Trinity Sunday) be transferred to a Sunday (even though Sunday is also a feast of the Eucharist) except that it too has suffered the sweeping aside by the tide of convenience!
[2] The sprinkling of Holy Water earlier in the liturgy, in place of the Penitential Rite, is perhaps a leftover from this past where the Baptism is lumped in together with the other theophanies.
[3]Tolerance, acceptance and diversity may be moral categories but must be informed by a anthropological vision that is eternal.
[4] If nobody accepts you, does it mean you are a nobody? In fact, even if nobody accepts you for what you are, the only Person who accepts you is God for you have been made in the image and likeness of His Son. However, God’s acceptance does not mean permissiveness—God’s acceptance is absolute ontologically but not morally because man is imbued with the freedom to accept or reject Him.  For example, a murderer. God accepts him as a created being (ontologically) with all the defects that come with sin but the life grace (morally) draws him to a higher plane. As Saint Augustine says, “The God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent”. That means in the realm of morality, we are free to reject Him. Sadly, our idea of acceptance is like an “in your face challenge” to the world. This is exactly what the philosophy of “acceptance, diversity and tolerance” asserts—accept me for who I am and allow me to be what I want to be. Instead, genuine anthropology requires not just science but also religious truths to illumine the path of its self-knowledge. Otherwise, diversity, tolerance and acceptance will be no more than selective permissiveness.