YOU CAN STOP your wassailing now Christmas is quite over. Twelfth Night has come and gone, when the English who could afford it used once to have a last fling before going back to the salt fish and all that flat and boring ale. And Twelfth Night was also the feast of the Epiphany.
Now this is a very peculiar and solemn feast, and it is wrapped in clouds of the most obscure sort of scholarship. In fact it celebrates the Manifestation of Christ, and seems once to have celebrated three separate things — the Baptism of Christ, the visit of the Wise Men and the miracle of Cana.
No one seems to know why this should be on January 6, but the Feast of the Nativity used to be celebrated on the same day and was only later moved back to December 25.
All sorts of peculiar things used to happen on this day. The Wise Men became kings — one of them black — and there is somewhere a saint who travelled in a vision with their 200strong retinue.
No Father of the Church asserts that they were kings, and only Matthew writes about them. Scholars tend to think that they were Persian Zoroastrians of a priestly caste which specialises in astrology and the interpretation of dreams.
Some Middle Eastern Churches think.there were 12 of them. Their remains were said to have been found by that indefatigable collector, St Helena. They were said to have been found in Persia, transferred to Constantinople, then to Milan in the fifth century and to Cologne in the 12th.
In the West they are caned Kaspar, Balthazar and Melchior, which are charming names, like those of some of the angels. It is not even agreed that Continued on page 10 they venerated the Child in the stable at Bethlehem.
Contemporary astronomers, however, seem to agree (with the help of Chinese records) that there was some peculiar star or comet or "nova" about at the time. And anyway the story is a glorious one even if it is rather unfair to apply Isaiah's prophecy of the Kings and Camels to it all.
In Italy, because the Magi brought gifts, it is at the Epiphany that presents are traditionally exchanged. And the British monarchs still send gold, frankincense and myrrh to be placed on the altar of the Chapel Royal on this day.
Personally, I don't think they were invented; that would be tocawild a flight of creative fantasy. I just think they have been richly embroidered, and I like my stories heavy with jewels and imagination.
The details do not greatly matter. The feast is resoundingly real. It is a pity that we have lost our tradition of the Twelve Days of Christmas. You cannot have too much of a good thing.
Saint and martyrdom
ONE never learns, least of all by experience. Last week I wrote that I did not know why St Ignatius of Antioch was always included in the Litanies of the Saints.
I wrote that I knew nothing about him, and it is probably journalistically unethical to admit ignorance of anythin. More than that, I said he wasn t in paperback. I just threw that in as a light-hearted and safe piece of nonsensical by-play. i have had a considerable number of quite extraordinary letters about the man, including notes on a lecture delivered in Ghana and one from a nun. A priest in Romford sent a paperback called "Early Christian
Writing" which contains seven letters written by this Ignatius. None of the letters was in the least rude, and all tried to be helpful.
1. can only remember one similar clanger. I wrote once in a spirit of gaiety that the late Archbishop David Mathew was the only future prelate to have served as a midshipman at the Battle of Jutland.
One would have thought that a safe enough generalisation. But no! Another midshipman had become an Anglican bishop. Whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make them generalise. But now I know practically all there is to be known about Ignatius of Antioch, and I still cannot understand why he rates a place in the Litanies. He was Bishop of Antioch in the first century, he was arrested and sent in chains to Rome. On the way he wrote these seven letters to the Christians of wonderful sci-fisounding cities like Ephesus, Magnesia and Trallia.
He also wrote to Bishop Polycarp of Smyrna where the dates (or is it figs?) come from.
He seems to have known only one Gospel that of St Matthew. He probably knew about St Paul's first letter to the Corinthians and he seemed to know roughly what St John the Apostle had been teaching.
He was strong on heresy, and there seemed to be a lot of it about even at that early time. He may himself have been a littie influenced by the Gnosticism he attacked. This heresy had pre-Christian origins and seems to teach that there is an extra and secret revelation known only to initiates. Anyway, he was against it. He was strong on Church organisation, particularly on the monarchical powers of bishops. He wrote some high-flown prose but was thoroughly orthodox and was a precursor of what became the Nicene Creed. His extravagance of language, though un-English, can be excused. He was being sent to Rome to be thrown to wild beasts in the arena in the reign of the Emperor Trajan. And he so looked forward to the process that he exclaimed: "I am the wheat of Christ; may I be ground by the fangs of wild beasts and become bread agreeable to the Lord."
He even wrote to the Romans his most extraordinary letter, asking them not to interfere in any way with his longed-for death. So powerful a death wish would be looked at with some suspicion by a modern psychiatrist, particularly in a busy man with great responsibilities.
But in fact this longing for martyrdom as the short and certain cut to Heaven became positively fashionable. Indeed it became so prevalent that the Church had actually to discourage this unnecessary courtship of martyrdom.
Alas for human beings, some of the would-be martyrs recanted at the last moment and put a formal pinch of incense on the altar to the Divine Emperor which would save their lives. St Ignatius seems to have been eaten in 107. One of the truly admirable things about St Thomas More was that he did all that was reasonable and honourable to avoid his execution.
But Ignatius' "strange cry of ecstasy, never heard before, sent a thrill of wonder through the Christian world. His vision of martyrdom as the crowning triumph to which a follower of Christ could aspire, his own passionate desire for it as the supreme prize to be aimed at ... had a profound effect on the imagination of posterity."
At times, 1 fear, not always a healthy one. But his orthodoxy in religion, administration and death is perhaps why he has been so singled out. Thank you, Sister Mary Peter. And thank you, Father O'Higgins.