On Jesus and James Joyce

Preface to my publishing:

I often catch myself diving head first down the metaphorically bottomless pit of a rabbit hole – pulling together my thoughts and musings – and in so doing, completely forsake any actual responsibilities I might have looming (mmm hmm – my Masters work, laundry, dinner, you get the idea).  Along with this diving into the deep and endless, often crazily imaginative and disconnected trench of thoughts, I tend to begin rambling on and on to my poor husband and pretend that my ideas and thoughts are of real consequence to the world around me.  I’ll have you know, he is a great sport and smiles at me like he’s madly in love with me the entire time I talk – even if I’ve interrupted his train of thought to make him read a poem or a quote or a blog that I’m geeking out about in the moment.  He’s great.  I love him.

Anyway – rabbit hole to continue falling into and subsequently digging – I tend to geek out to Scott because I feel self-conscious about my ideas and when I come to this blog to write I vacillate between two crazy notions –

first: anyone who reads this will see through my thinly layered guise of intellect and laugh knowingly that I have nothing new or important to say

and second: who is really an expert on anything anyway?  we are each one only spouting our own opinions and ideas and can only add to the chaos of ideas past and present – I am no less qualified than anyone else.

The problem with these two notions is that the moment I hit publish I firmly believe the latter idea, however, it only takes about two seconds for me to begin second guessing myself and I revert to the former notion and fall into an agitated state of “crap, now they’ll all know I’m a fraud.” and I begin to worry that people will actually read this – so forgive my stream of conscious writing and entertain me with the idea that I have something to add to the millions of writers past and present who have had opinions strong enough to feel like they might publish them.

Blogging feels like cheater publishing to me (though I have no experience with any other format).  I am given the free will to publish anything I’d like and to hope that it reaches someone who might be interested in reading it.  Yikes.  All of this is a prelude to the fact that I have made a commitment to myself to write and publish more.  I have been writing a lot this week, in my preferred format of thin pen and brownish paper and I will make an attempt to communicate all of those thoughts as a whole here.

Epiphany – Jesus and James Joyce

Last week began the season of Epiphany within the Christian tradition and subsequently our church was filled with twinkly lights and candles – celebrating a season of light and the grace of God embodied in his son.  I found myself on the front pew about 15 minutes before the start of church, sitting next to two other friends, taking pictures of the lights – it’s a season I look forward to every year for two very different reasons than one would expect.  Ready?  I look forward to this season because each week I get to sit in church and revel in the biblical, historical, and contemporary ties to so much of my favorite literature – themes repeated throughout history – and I look forward to the lights.  Simple.

As the title of the blog might have hinted, I can’t help each year to try and connect the Epiphany of Christ to the literary technique of Epiphany used most famously by James Joyce.  I know it’s silly but I’m an English Major and I love words and opinions shared over history, and that coupled with the literary allusions made throughout time –  I just can’t help it.  So, without further ado, this is what I’ve come up with:

The Christian season of Epiphany, as I understand it, celebrates a manifestation of Grace – freely given – An action that shows the grace of God in us and for us.  It’s a season following Christmas, a time in which the Magi (or wise men, whichever you prefer) would have followed a star and presented gifts to Jesus – gifts freely given – to a baby promised to be our savior.   There are much better theologians in the world than myself and I only try to write here what I understand.  The sermon passage last week was centered around Acts 8:14-17 in which two skeptical disciples of Christ – Peter and John, hear reports from Samaria that people are being baptized in the name of Jesus and upon finding the news true – pray for a visible manifestation  – a baptism of the Holy Spirit for these people.  They prayed: “and they placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit”(Acts 8:17ish, NIV).  They prayed essentially for evidence of the Grace of God in these peoples lives and are given this gift .  This is a Heavenly Epiphany – it proves the gift of God’s grace given to a broken and undeserving people.  We all need this.

James Joyce wrote about the epiphanies of his short story collection Dubliners, describing them as such:

“By an epiphany he meant a sudden spiritual manifestation whether in vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of mind itself.  He believed it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”

And in the Norton Anthology of English Literature: Major Author’s edition, a critic wrote that Joyce’s stories were “built around an epiphany – a dramatic but fleeting moment of revelation about the self and world….leaving multiple possibilities in suspension.”

Before even beginning to make connections, I think it’s important to note that Joyce’s stories normally end in suspense filled moments of self-realization which are most often interpreted through a rightly cynical and often hopeless lens.  Unrequited love, expectations completed shattered, desires unmet – all of these epiphanies are presented as naturally occurring events which the audience, if not the characters, should have expected.  At the end of each reading, one is left with a feeling of pity for the poor characters who expected happiness, hoped for grace or love or joy – for greatness.  This type epiphany strikes me as quite similar to the Jesus centered Epiphany, not because of the outcomes (which are more similar than they seem at the onset), but because of the desires and expectations leading up to these epiphanies.  In both cases, the characters – whether Magi following a star, or young boys hoping to go to Araby to find a form of heaven – both of these sets of characters are following a prophesied greatness, their expectations are possibly skeptical to begin with, but they brush them aside and embrace the excitement of hope.  In the case of the Magi, they experience a physical manifestation of grace in a most unexpected form, where as the boy seeking the allure of Araby, finds only a disappointing slum-like scene of a near over flea market – worthless gifts and a waste of time.

Suspending my belief that the Magi truly were excited to meet Jesus and to present this baby surrounded by livestock with priceless gifts, I flash to T.S Eliot’s poem Journey of the Magi for a moment and wonder how the Epiphany would have been for these wise men, had they paused long on lines 19/20:

    With the voices singing in our ears, saying

     That this was all folly

What if these voices were to be believed, that it were folly and the Magi, on their journey became disillusioned by the voices which really only echoed their own cynical thoughts.  Would the final moment of the Magi finding a baby in a stable have looked more like Joyce’s epiphany? Had it been a Joyce epiphany, they might have been underwhelmed by the extraordinary simplicity of a baby.  The cut scene might have instead looked like this:  the Magi, tired from walking, decked out in their beautiful foreign clothing, carrying the heavy burden of their decadent gifts, looked dejectedly at the scene before them – berating themselves for not knowing better, for not expecting the worst.  These would have been the Magi unwilling to have eyes filled with hope or hearts filled with joy.  Their expectations of glory unmet – carelessly selfish, casting aside a gift without recognizing it’s worth. An epiphany which causes the reader to question whether the effort of the journey was worth the sacrifice. Human thoughts of cynicism toward grace undeserved are easy to imagine because it’s hard to believe in a grace given freely – humanity isn’t programmed to believe that anything is free when our entire society is coin operated by capitalism.

The problem with our broken humanity that creates easy acceptance of cynicism and expected disappoint stems from many things, but I think one thing that I’ve notices a lot lately is that we expect gifts.  Christmas, Birthdays, Valentine Days, Anniversaries, and just as many and more such days contrived to support our economy – all of these days spark questions and statements like these: “What do you want?  what do you need?  Make a list for me so I know what to get you…..”  We feel the need to get each other gifts – this is lovely – but we feel like the gifts should be determined by the wants and needs of a person and I think this goes directly against the giving of a gift.  Yes, of course it is nice to get someone a gift that they want – even more it is nice to get someone a gift you KNOW ahead of time they’ll like; but, what does this do to our understanding of gift.

The google definition of a gift reads that it is something “willingly given without payment”  synonym?  an offering.  These allude to the giver and the gift only – no where in the definition does one get the idea that a gift is something requested and fulfilled.  I happen to think that in the grand scheme of gift giving, this might just miss the point.  Had the Magi gone on their journey, following a star, and expected a savior at the end, they might have had something very different in mind than what they found.  Their epiphany would have been that of Joyce – a humanly cynical epiphany.  I happen to like the way Eliot ends the Magi’s journey and while I know it is fabricated, I can’t help but hope that this is how the Magi ended their journey.  Experiencing Birth and Death, Eliot finishes the poem:

 40-44: We returned to our 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.

I like this ending because it doesn’t end in the stable, Magi surrounding the Christ child and presenting gifts.  It ends with the Magi returning to their kingdoms, changed forever.  No longer do they understand the wold from whence they came – they look forward to it’s renewal.  Eliot and Joyce both end in Epiphany – Joyce with cynicism, Eliot is arguably cynical, however, the bent of the cynicism is not centered on the unfulfilled expectation, but instead upon the manifestation of grace and the effect that that grace had on the lives of the characters involved.

In this season of Epiphany, I hope to incorporate my literary and biblical understandings of Epiphany.  To recognize the brokenness of humanity and the cynical observance of the reality of human truths, while also recognizing that grace has been given – a gift which I might not understand, feel that I deserve or can ever repay.  I hope to really try to understand that this, after all, is the entire point of a gift – no repayment – an offering.  I did not ask for grace in a way that I knew how.  I could not have, no matter what time in history I might have survived – I do not have the capacity to understand the scope of the grace necessary to love no matter the failings, the faults, or the disbelief’s, and so I will, in this celebration and following of light – seek to accept that I don’t have to understand, and to be thankful for gifts freely given.

Goodnight Friends.  I would love to know your thoughts on Epiphany and/or epiphanies – whichever strikes your fancy.


2 thoughts on “On Jesus and James Joyce

  1. Great blog! It’s given me a lot of food for thought. In my opinion, the Christian idea of grace is non temporal–dislocated and alien to human expectations–which can be a blessing and a source of frustration.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s