Epiphany is here, and on it we remember the Magi, the wise, and the powerful, bending the knee as one to the Christ. Its opening sentence in the lectionary is from Isaiah 60:3, "Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising."
The politics of Epiphany can be easily forgotten, a forgotten feast drowned out by the pounding of a cultural Christmas hangover. But it is striking how political Epiphany, and its attendant liturgy can be. Oliver O'Donovan recalls the same in the prologue of The Desire of the Nations, quoting the second stanza of the Te Deum:
Thou art the king of glory, o Christ.
Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.
When thou tookest upon thee to deliver man
Thou didst not abhor the Virgin's womb.
When thou hadst overcome the sharpness of death,
Thou didst open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
We believe that thou shalt come to be our judge.
We therefore prayer thee, help they servants,
Whom thou hast redeemed with thy precious blood.
Make them to be numbered with thy saints
In glory everlasting.
The words king, kingdom, and judge leap to the eye; deliver, servants, numbered, saints, and glory follow. O'Donovan writes, "The general picture is a political one, quite clearly: there is a ruler; he has achieved a decisive public act of liberation; by that act he has founded and sustained a community" (1).
All of that political vocabulary persists in many Christian liturgies, despite secularization, despite separations of church and state, and despite unbelief: a relic, perhaps, of more fundamentalist times.
The creation act of the modern, secular state in international relations is often rooted in a mythical account of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the so-called religious wars after the Reformation. In those treaties, and in the political practice that followed, transcendent conviction was stuffed into private regard, mitigating its violent, public eruptions. The political was cleansed of its liabilities.
But there are some ideas which simply cannot survive such a metaphysical scalping: faith, hope, and—we remember through Christmas and Epiphany—peace.
The Peace of Westphalia is a cornerstone of the international system, which rightly prizes stability and order over conflict and war. But its peace is a false promise in a world robbed of the dignity of metaphysics, robbed of theology and of God. Realists would tell us that peace is the absence of war, but Epiphany reminds us that there can be no end to war, neither that within or without, apart from adoration which is shown, today, by the Magi. The recovery in Christian theology of the Hebrew word shalom struggles to unmask the falsity of this Westphalian Peace: to erase the kingship of Christ is not to secure a rationalist armistice, it is to unleash a darkness with no hope for light. In the early Church, the Feast of the Epiphany was celebrated alongside the commemoration of the massacre of the holy innocents.
No politics can be rendered intelligible apart from a theological conceptuality. A politics which does not encompass the direction of society is no politics at all. Where there is no room for direction, O'Donovan writes, "Society is ruled by the imperative of universal suspicion" (10).
Peace is not merely disarmament, it is solidarity. The international system makes us neighbours, but it does not make us brothers. In the absence of God there can be no peace, no right relationship, no restoration. It begins with the Epiphany and with adoration.