Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Real Epiphany

The world seems to be made up of witches of every shape, size and colour, some on broomsticks and some not. All of them are artistically arranged on every street corner, shop window and market stall. Even the salespeople are dressed as witches. Visit a restaurant and the chances are that the waiters and waitresses are similarly clad…although I must ask whether or not a bright green face and false, hooked, nose helps the digestion.

In Piazza Navona, the market stalls which, prior to Christmas, had sold Crib figures and sweets associated with Christmas, a few days later are groaning under the weight of witches, many of them made of straw and each one more improbable than the one before. Instead of sweets, fist-size (and larger) blocks of jet black sugar charcoal form mountains which, as soon as they are sold to the many thousands of teeming customers, tourists and children, are replenished so that the whole process begins all over again.

Why witches and sugar charcoal for the Epiphany? Well, it is because in Italy, children do not receive their presents on Christmas Day, but, rather, on the feast of the Epiphany on 6th January. Very early on in life they learn that, if they are not well-behaved during the course of the year, then instead of gifts, the witch (La Befana) will come and will leave them a lump of coal.

Of course, it is all good fun. Even the children wear masks, cloaks and black pointed hats. Sugar charcoal is apparently good to eat, although I have not had the courage to try.

For the feast of the Epiphany, it seems that the entire world meets at Piazza Navona, especially in the evenings. Rome becomes absolutely thronged with families, in an exuberant, noisy, impenetrable, moving procession towards the Piazza. People come from every part of Italy, apparently merely to walk through the city streets, enjoying themselves. The city suddenly feels like one huge family, with children of every age, shape and size filling every available centimetre of space.

Enter the Piazza Navona at night and it is almost impossible to move. Does every child in the world HAVE to be brought here and be given a balloon? Yet the balloons themselves are beautiful, amazing and memorable in their own right… especially if one escapes from a hot sticky hand to soar into the sky, catching the bright lights above the howl of disappointment of its erstwhile young owner.

Meanwhile, in all the churches and homes, the Magi have appeared at the manger, carrying their gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrrh. Because of the din outside and the magical atmosphere of happiness, the Magi’s coming is silent and unspectacular. They stand or kneel in reverence beside the Infant, wordless and adoring. They are there on our behalf. The noisy, colourful crowds only have meaning apart from La Befana. It is deeply within the heart that there is the real Epiphany: the real manifestation of a Baby who was born for us.

The Coming of the Magi ~ T.S. Elliot

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.