Must the answer be kingship, priesthood and death?—Seeking a wholly naturalized celebration of Epiphany

“The Lovers” or “The Dustman” (1934) by Stanley Spencer (1891–1959)

The Epiphany Story told in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12) Translation by David Bentley Hart

Now, Jesus having been born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days when Herod was king, look: Magians arrived in Jerusalem from Eastern parts, saying, “Where is the newborn King of the Judaeans? For we saw his star at its rising, and came to make obeisance to him.”

And, hearing this, King Herod was perturbed, and so was all of Jerusalem along with him; And, having assembled all of the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Anointed is to be born. And they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judaea, for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah. For from you will come forth a leader who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod, secretly summoning the Magians, ascertained from them the exact time of the star’s appearance and, sending them to Bethlehem, said, “Go and inquire very precisely after the child; and when you find him send word to me, so that I too may come and make my obeisance to him.” And, obeying the king, they departed. And look: The star, which they saw at its rising, preceded them until it came to the place where the child was and stood still above it. And, seeing the star, they were exultantly joyful. And, entering the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary and, falling down, made obeisance to him; and, opening their treasure caskets, they proffered him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh. Having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, however, they departed for their own country by another path. 

Magians — men of the Zoroastrian priestly caste of the Persians and Medes, largely associated in the Hellenistic mind with oneiromancy (the interpretation of dreams) astrology and sorcery. It is a word that never merely means “wise” or “learned” men. 


Must the answer be kingship, priesthood and death?—Seeking a wholly naturalized celebration of Epiphany

In 1934 Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) painted “The Lovers” or “The Dustman.” It was the first of what have been called his “sex paintings”, so-called, not because they portray the sexual act in any explicit way, but because in them Spencer “felt free to openly use more private sexual feelings to reach into the imaginative and the visionary”. This desire for a more imaginative and visionary approach to his painting was allied to his decision to leave London and return to live in his birth-place, the Berkshire village of Cookham as an attempt to reconnect with some of his childhood experiences — epiphanies which he called his “Cookham-feelings”.

[NB In this piece I occasionaly rely, with gratidude, upon information and quotes found in this essay by Kenneth Pople (1919-2008)]

Now, although Spencer's strange, mysterious picture is, in part, exploring the idea of the resurrection — the dustman being the resurrected person returning to the joy of his wife — the fact that his friends and colleagues have come to him and his wife to “see this thing which has come to pass” and that, in so doing, have brought with them three gifts — a teapot, an empty jam tin and an old cabbage (all apparently taken out of the collected rubbish) — the painting also clearly offers us a theme worthy of the season of Epiphany.

This English word “epiphany” derives from the Greek word (epiphainein) meaning “to manifest”, or “to display.” The mainstream Christian tradition holds that what was made manifest was Jesus’ status as the incarnation of God and this display, it is claimed, was first seen by the Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) in the form of the Astrologer priests — the Magi, the three kings or wise men — who brought with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts have generally been understood by the tradition to symbolise Jesus’ kingship, his priestly role, and his atoning death — a blood sacrifice — which together, Christianity claims, has saved humankind from its sins.

Now, for good scientific, literary and historical critical reasons which I do not need to rehearse today, we know that the roles of Jesus as a king and priest and the story about Jesus’ atoning death are purely mythical, literary constructs, symbolic back-projections made by certain early Christian communities some seventy to one hundred odd years after Jesus had died and been buried in some, now unknown, Palestinian tomb where, to this day, his bones remain.

Jesus never was a king, nor a priest, and his death was most certainly not a divine, atoning blood sacrifice for the sins of humankind. What has been made manifest to us today — our contemporary epiphany of Jesus if you like — is that he was, and is, for us no more nor any less than an exemplary radical, human religious and political figure who was one of the first people able to begin to leave behind the notion of a “God-in-himself” (the kind of supernaturalist God who requires kings, priests and atoning blood sacrifices) and put in its place the experience of a “God-with-humankind” — or of divinity-with-us — in which everything is dissolved into the simple call to show justice and charity to all people, neighbour and stranger and enemy alike.

Now, given that the symbols of the three traditional gifts are clearly unhistoric, mythical and literary back projections which rely on a supernaturalistic understanding of the world, it seems to me we are wholly justified today, on Epiphany Sunday, in imaginatively wondering what other three gifts might more usefully symbolise the kind of human Jesus naturalistic, historical, humanist scholarship has revealed him to be? Must the answer be kingship (gold), priesthood (frankincense) and atoning death (myrrh)? Clearly the answer is “No!” But what is far from clear is what a more positive answer might be?

Well, as you now know, in his painting, Spencer re-imagines the gifts as a teapot, an empty jam tin and an old cabbage. But what on earth could these things symbolise for us and of what strange epiphany might they be bearing witness?

To get us thinking about this it is, perhaps, helpful to have have a sense of what they meant for Spencer. Here’s what he said about the painting in later life:

The picture is to express a joy of life through intimacy. All the signs and tokens of home life, such as the cabbage leaves and teapot which I have so much loved that I have had them resurrected from the dustbin because they are reminders of home life and peace, and are worthy of being adored as the dustman is. I only like to paint what makes me feel happy. As a child I was always looking on rubbish heaps and dustbins with a feeling of wonder. I like to feel that, while in life things like pots and brushes and clothes etc may cease to be used, they will in some way be reinstated, and in this Dustman picture I try to express something of this wish and need I feel for things to be restored. That is the feeling that makes the children take out the broken teapot and empty jam tin.

Spencer also tells us something more about the dustman. On Spencer’s return to Cookham it seems that the village was still very rural but there were now rubbish collections and he tells us that he became so “enamoured of the dustman that I wanted him to be transported to heaven in the execution of his duty.” The art critic Kenneth Pople (1919-2008) suggests that Spencer seems here “to be saying that he wanted his picture-dustman to be representative of the joy he himself felt at being uplifted into his Cookham-heaven by his new experiences, and so to be emotionally part of himself.”

In the end, it seems that Spencer didn’t feel he had entirely succeeded in doing this and he explicitly said he had not got all his “beloved self into it somehow, and I am afraid everyone will wonder what it all means, just as I do myself.”

So let’s accept the challenge to wonder what on earth it all means and see if our wondering can present us with a few interesting and, perhaps, even useful Epiphanytide questions, thoughts and even some tentative (if always provisional) answers.

Let’s begin with the claim made by Kenneth Pople, that:

In composing the picture, [Spencer] cannot conceive an alternative other than to expect the viewer to be intelligent enough to appreciate that the imagery is representative of a universal hope and joy.

For me everything hinges on Pople’s claim that Spencer’s imagery is representative of a universal hope and joy. Perhaps it is but perhaps it’s not. Given this doubt, before proceeding any further, it’s important to remind ourselves of one of the oldest and most durable philosophical divides that exists in the western tradition of philosophy and religion — realism verses nominalism. Although it is much more complicated than this, the basic argument can be summed up as follows: Realism holds that universals are just as real as physical, measurable material. Nominalism holds that universal or abstract concepts do not exist in the same way as physical, tangible material.

By the way don’t get confused here because, in modern parlance, nominalists are what we would commonly call “realists” and realists are what we would commonly call “idealists”!

So, firstly, let’s look at the painting as realists (that is to say idealists). In this case the imagery in Spencer’s painting is likely to be understood as pointing to some underlying really-real universal hope and joy that exists beyond our everyday, natural hopes and joys. Also, the dustman’s this-worldly uplifting by his actual wife is only made truly meaningful because of the existence of a universal uplifting in another world by a divine universal figure such as God the Father or Christ. Given that it is a woman who uplifts the dustman it’s important to note that Spencer was quite happy to depict Christ as a woman, most famously as he does in his painting “The Resurrection, Cookham” (1924–7). Lastly, from a realist (that is to say idealist) viewpoint, the three gifts would also only be truly meaningful if they also corresponded to some really-real universals in that other world. The question is, then, what really-real universals are being symbolised by a teapot, an empty jam tin and an old cabbage?

Leaving that question deliberately unanswered let’s now look at the painting as nominalists. Firstly, in this case we may say that the joy and hope depicted are not made truly meaningful by the existence of some universal joy and hope somewhere else but by where they are actually being experienced — i.e. in the people Spencer is depicting. We are seeing in those people the only kind of joy and hope there is — and it is enough. Also, the dustman’s uplifting by his actual wife is not made truly meaningful because of the existence of a universal uplifting in another world by a divine universal figure such as God the Father or Christ but by his wife’s actual uplifting of him in this world. We are seeing here the only kind of uplifting there is — and it is enough. Lastly, from a nominalist viewpoint, the three gifts are not made truly meaningful because they correspond to some really-real universals in this other world they are meaningful precisely as an actual teapot, an actual empty jam tin and an actual old cabbage — and they, too, are enough. In short, a nominalist — and I confess to being such a creature (although, following Quine, with some caveats) — is likely to be congenially disposed to some memorable words by Friedrich Nietzsche found in his preface to “The Gay Science”. He writes: 

Oh, those Greeks! They knew how to live: for that purpose it is necessary to keep bravely to the surface, the fold and the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in forms, tones, and words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial - from profundity! And are we not coming back precisely to this point, we dare-devils of the spirit, who have scaled the highest and most dangerous peak of contemporary thought, and have looked around us from it, have looked down from it? Are we not precisely in this respect Greeks? Worshippers of forms, of tones, and of words? And precisely on that account artists?

With Nietzsche’s words I can return directly to my own opening question about Epiphany and whether or not the answer must be kingship, priesthood and death. At the outset I simply said no more than “No!” But now I can fill out my own, positive answer but, naturally, I look forward to your own as well.  

In the context of Spencer’s painting and his three gifts of a teapot, an empty jam tin and an old cabbage and following Nietzsche’s lead I suggest that we should enjoy them, not as symbols of other universal things, but as the things themselves, as simple teapots, jam tins and cabbages, all of which have their own beauty, worth and utility. And, I would suggest, that the strange epiphany to which they are bearing witness is the realisation, again to cite Nietzsche, that we can simply enjoy the “bloom and magic of things close and closest to us” (Friedrich Nietzsche: “Human, All-Too Human” trans. R. J. Hollingdale, CUP 1996, pp. 8) without any need for another world nor for a supernatural God “out there”. This living epiphany is the one we express week by week in our opening words:

> Divinity is present everywhere. The whole world is filled with God. But, in certain places and at certain times we feel a specialty of presence. May this be such a place and such a time.

In Spencer’s painting we see depicted the epiphany of a group of ordinary people feeling just such a living presence in the bloom and magic of things close and closest to them — including a teapot, an empty jam tin and an old cabbage — and it is a joy to behold.

May I suggest then that these gifts are not about kingship, priesthood and an atoning death but speak generally of an egalitarian eating and sharing together with superadded (Epicurean and Lucretian flavoured) sense that death is always part of the endless recycling fluxes and flows of the natural world. And may I also suggest that the dustman, the figure in this painting analogous to Jesus, can stand as a representation of nature as the ultimate recycler and restorer present everywhere, all the time to “whom” we are always already bringing our own gifts.

This means our epiphany, with its three unusual gifts, is one of a communal and ecological life — surely an epiphany suitable for our own age.

Happy Epiphany!


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