Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Epiphany: 3 kings or 3 queens?

“Epiphany” by Janet McKenzie, copyright 2003.
Collection of Barbara Marian, Harvard, IL

Reimagining the three kings as queer or female gives fresh meaning to Epiphany, a holiday celebrating the visit of the Magi to the infant Jesus. It is observed on Jan. 6.

The word “epiphany” also refers to a sudden, intuitive perception. By looking at the Bible and church history from a LGBT viewpoint, people can experience new insights -- their own personal “epiphanies” of understanding. New interpretations of the wise ones known as the Magi include:
  • Queer Magi. LGBT church leaders suggest that the Magi were eunuchs -- people who today would be called gay, queer or transgender.
  • Female Magi appear in a controversial painting by Janet McKenzie. Epiphany is also known as Women’s Christmas.
  • Queer gifts are presented to the Christ child in an icon by William Hart McNichols.

For a new version of this article, click this link to
Queer Epiphany: Three kings or three queens?

Queer Magi
Although they are often called the “three kings,” the Magi stand in contrast to worldly King Herod who sought world domination by massacring the “holy innocents” who might grow up to take his throne. The wise Magi who followed the star to find the newborn Jesus were wizards who provide a higher wisdom and astrologists with expertise in cosmic balance.

The Magi played the shamanic role often filled by eunuchs, an ancient term for LGBT people, says Nancy Wilson in her book Outing the Bible: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Christian Scriptures.” She writes:

“They were Zoroastrian priests, astrologers, magicians, ancient shamans from the courts of ancient Persia. They were the equivalent of Merlin of Britain. They were sorcerers, high-ranking officials, but not kings—definitely not kings. But quite possibly, they were queens. We’ve always pictured them with elaborate, exotic, unusual clothing—quite festive, highly decorated and accessorized! …Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus!

They also have shamanistic dreams. They deceive evil King Herod and actually play the precise role that many other prominent eunuchs play in the Bible: they rescue the prophet, this time the Messiah of God, and foil the evil royal plot against God’s anointed.”

The concept of the queer Magi is amplified by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott, author of Omnigender. “My guess is that they were people who today would be termed transwomen,” she writes in the brochure “Gender Identity and Our Faith Communities.”

Eunuchs and cross-dressers were surprisingly common in the Mediterranean world of the Bible and later. By happy coincidence, a cross-dressing saint happens to have a feast day on Jan. 5, the day before Epiphany. Apollinaria of Egypt, put on men’s clothing and presented herself as a eunuch named Dorotheos in order to live as a monk.

Three stylish Magi wear fabulous outfits on a 1972 German Christmas stamp (Wikimedia Commons)

Female Magi
Female Magi have been envisioned by artists in a gender-bending move that sometimes causes controversy. Epiphany itself is celebrated as “Women’s Christmas” (Nollaig na mBan) in Ireland, where men assume the household duties for the day so women can celebrate together at the end of the holiday season.

A multi-racial trio of female Magi visits the baby Jesus and his mother in “Epiphany” by Vermont artist Janet McKenzie. Instead of the traditional three kings or three wise men, the artist re-interprets the Magi as wise women from around the world.

Jan Richardson, an artist and Methodist minister in Florida, also portrays the Magi as women of different races in “Wise Women Also Came,” an image that appears on the cover of her book “Sacred Journeys: A Woman's Book of Daily Prayer.”

The unconventional portrayal of the Magi makes good theological sense. Barbara Marian, who commissioned the McKenzie painting, explains: “The story of the Magi in the Gospel of Matthew allowed the Jewish followers of Jesus to imagine the unthinkable -- God’s grace extending to the outsiders, the gentiles. Who are the outsiders in our world? Can we imagine the favor of God extending beyond the human boundaries of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, religious devotion, and gender?”

Marian commissioned “Epiphany” for the Nativity Project, which revisits and revitalizes the Gospel with new images of women. “It’s easy to get so caught up in regal images of Matthew’s night visitors that we miss the core message -- Christ for all people,” Marian says.

Conservative Christians protested against the inclusive “Epiphany” in 2007 when it appeared on the Christmas cards of the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The Standing Committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Ft. Worth, Texas, sent a notice to clergy and 2007 convention delegates condemning Jefferts Schori for her choice of art. “Happy Multicultural Feminist Celebration Day,” sneered the headline of a traditional Anglican blog where nearly 100 comments were posted condemning the image as “stupid,” “faux-nouveau hipster theology” and worse. For more info, see my previous post Conservatives blast inclusive Christmas card.

McKenzie denies the accusations that she is trying to be divisive and rewrite scripture. “Of course this is as far from my thinking as possible,” she says. “I feel called to create sacred and secular art that includes and celebrates those systematically ignored, relegated and minimized, and for the most part that is women and people of color.”

The artist continues to be amazed that her loving images provoke so much anger. “Even this gentle image of a loving Holy Mother and Child, with no agenda except to include and honor us as the nurturing feminine beings we are, surrounded in community with other women, is still misunderstood -- even at this late date,” she says.

McKenzie has weathered even bigger storms before. Her androgynous African American “Jesus of the People” painting caused international controversy when Sister Wendy of PBS chose it to represent Christ in the new millennium.

Critics focus on the content of McKenzie’s art, but her outstanding artistic style is one reason that her work attracts attention. The Vermont artist uses drawing and line with oils to build images that glow. Her painting technique and pastel colors are reminiscent of American Impressionist Mary Cassatt, who is famous for painting intimate scenes of mothers and their children.

The controversy over McKenzie’s work is a reminder of the power of art, and the continuing need for progressive spiritual images. Opposition seems to fuel her passion to paint. “We all need to find ourselves included within the sacred journey of life, and afterlife,” McKenzie says. “I have been surprised to find archaic and out-dated hate still in place, still alive and well and fueled by fear, in response to some of my art. I have made the decision to respond to such hate not in the way it comes to me, but by creating ever more inclusive art that confronts prejudice and hate. The only path open to any of us is the one of love.”

McKenzie’s art is featured in my book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More” and her book “Holiness and the Feminine Spirit.”

(Special thanks to Barbara Marian for permission to quote from her article “Recasting the Magi.”)

“The Epiphany: Wisemen Bring Gifts to the Child”

Queer gifts

Father William Hart McNichols paints another kind of queer Epiphany. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Roman Catholic priest whose gay-positive icons have caused controversy. He worked at an AIDS hospice in New York City from 1983-90, when many in the gay community were dying of the disease. During that period he painted “The Epiphany: Wisemen Bring Gifts to the Child.”

St. Francis and St. Aloysius are the wise men visiting the baby Jesus in this icon.  Instead of the usual gold, frankincense and myrrh, the “gifts” they bring to the Christ child are people with AIDS, perhaps gay men. The baby Jesus reaches eagerly to receive these gifts. The child and his mother appear in a form popular in Mexico and other Latino cultures as Our Lady of Guadalupe and El Santo Niño de Atocha. The halo around them echoes the colors of the rainbow flag of the LGBT community. McNichols offers a prayer with this icon:

Dearest Mary, Our Lady of Guadalupe,
Mother of the poor and the oppressed,
we watch full of reverence
and joy as St. Francis and
St. Aloysius bring the gifts of
these two people afflicted with AIDS
to the Holy Child in your arms,
who is so eager to receive them.
Teach us to find and embrace
your Son Jesus in all peoples,
but most especially those who
are in greatest need and
who suffer most.

In closing, the question arises: What gifts are queer people bringing today to Christ, the church and the world?
Related links:

LGBTQ Nativity 4: Queer Magi visit Mary, Josephine and Jesus

Nursing Madonna honors body, spirit and women

“Wise Women Also Came” and Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson


This post is part of the LGBT Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to LGBT and queer people of faith and our allies.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


eric said...

I've said before, perhaps even in one of my previous comments on other posts, that it is ridiculous for us to think of God in specific terms... namely "God is male" or "God is female" Both are accurate, and neither is accurate. God is, to me, male, female, both male & female, and simultaneously neither male nor female. Pick any dichotomous terms we apply to the Divine, and some variation on my opinion holds.

And so, for me, it's not important as to whether the Magi are kings, queens, priests, priestesses or whatever.

The message, as mentioned in your post, that the Magi shows this event as having wider implications than merely to the Jews is what is most important.

But SEEING the Magi as Queens, like seeing them as Kings... or as any other variation... is powerful stuff.

When I image them as kings, I consider them with a set of preconceptions that go with power and masculinity (here I mean maleness more than machismo). To image them as queens, necessitates considering a different set of preconceptions... perhaps these might be nurturing or "secondary power"... the idea that yes, as queens they possess the power of that status but (here I use what I hope is not my own mind-set but that of the era) still women, and thus somehow LESS powerful.... to be respected, but perhaps with a certain disdain...

Yeah, I'm a guy, and so I probably am possessed of some degree of chauvinism here, even while attempting to dispel it.

What I'm really trying to say is this... no matter what they were, it can only broaden our perspective and understanding to view "fixed" events with eyes opened to new and disparate possibilities.

I can just see the 3 magi as totally effeminate gays! What would that say about the event? What if they were brutish warriors, instead? 3 prostitutes? 3 lesbians "pretending" to be kings?

Each imaging brings new potential insight.

Ann said...

Of course it is a story but even if it happened-- it is likely women were part of the group, Greek uses the male plural when even one man is present in the group - so we don't know how many people nor their gender. We know they brought 3 recorded gifts and they come from the east. I just ordered the book Holiness and the Feminine Spirit which features these paintings.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Ann and Eric, I thank both of you for shedding more light on Epiphany.

Ann, it’s helpful to know how the original Greek text treats gender. I agree that women were probably present, even when only men are mentioned in the text -- that goes for ALL the events in the Gospels. Enjoy the Janet McKenzie book! I’m a big fan of Janet and her art.

Eric, wow, you’ve raised many pertinent points. Yes, God is beyond gender, we’re both clear about that. The Magi were human, though. Showing them as female may mean taking “artistic license” to change the gender of historical figures, but it is in keeping with the theme of the story -- Christ was born not just for the Jews, but for “outsiders,” and women were outsiders to religious power in ancient Israel. Considering whether they were gay is more of a question of understanding the translation and meaning of “eunuch.”

I am amazed at your suggestion, what if the Magi were “3 lesbians ‘pretending’ to be kings?” Wow, three drag kings!

I’d love to find some art that explores these queer ossibilities, but I haven’t found any yet. However, the traditional “three kings” do look rather “gay” when you start to think about it.

Ann said...

Girl Jesus? Image and Spirit blog here

eric said...

Hi Kitt,

I didn't intend to suggest that the Magi weren't human. My suggestion is really more that we really know so little about them, indeed there is considerable question as to whether or not they even existed.

They are in the gospel for a reason. Their coming to see Jesus, gifts in hand, has something to teach us. The author of the story had one message, but we may be able to draw many others.

Each gender or orientation that we place on the Magi helps us to unwrap that message in a new, refreshing way.

My point about God of course is that God transcends all labelling. The Magi do not. But understanding their story from the different perspectives might enable us to learn something.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Ann, thanks for the link to a lovely Christian art blog. The painting certainly LOOKS like a girl Jesus, but I’m not sure that’s what the artist intends. It’s often that way. I’m going to return to the Image and Spirit Blog to see more.

Eric, thanks for another helpful comment. I used to focus mostly on the gender of God, but lately I’ve come to see the value of re-envisioning the followers of God. It opens up the stories in all kinds of ways.

There are other wonderful sides to the story of the Magi--following the star, bringing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh…

Maybe the Magi didn’t exist in history, but neither did the “Little Drummer Boy.” And yet thousands of people are moved by the story of how he visits the newborn Christ and says,

“Little Baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that's fit to give the King. Shall I play for you, on my drum?”

Turtle Woman said...

I love this painting of the three women magi, and I definitely can relate to eric's insightful comment that the three kings might have been three lesbians pretending to be kings. When I was a little girl... our neighborhood always did a Christmas play. For a few years, I lobbied hard to be one of the three kings. This was circa 1966, and luckily for me, the 12 year old "director" of our nativity play gave the go ahead. Naturally, I wanted to be the king bearing GOLD! So there I was in a turban carrying a box with gold chocolate coins in it, and was as happy as can be. Later, I came out as a lesbian, so Eric, what you said was true, I was a little lesbian pretending to be one of the three kings! Thanks for reminding me of my own lesbian past!! :-) Oh, and the song we used as we walked in: "We Three Kings"-- my all time favorite Christmas carol, we had the good scratchy record version! Just wait long enough and maybe I really will get to be king of lesbian nation :-)

eric said...

All good points, Kitt.

As an aside, I love The Little Drummer Boy. Mom & I shared wonderful times listening to it. It was her favorite Christmas time song, and as a result it became mine, as well.

As her health deteriorated due to Alzheimers, I played it for her over and over again... she always smiled, and her eyes would water.

Now, it always brings tears to me at Christmas, as I imagine her literally in the presence of the baby Jesus with the little drummer boy playing his pit-a-pat rhythms.

Trudie said...

I love all the commentary exchange prompted by this most delightful post. The one bit I wanted to add is a cherished memory of my own, Eric, because at Christmas time each year when I was a child, my Dad used to read to us The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke. Beautiful story, for anyone who hasn't read it!

Kittredge Cherry said...

I love hearing the stories that REALLY move people at Christmastime. Thank you, Turtle Woman, Eric and Trudie for sharing the simple, meaningful moments.

Turtle, you must have been a gorgeous baby-dyke King!

Eric, I believe that your mom is with Jesus and the little drummer boy. It reminds me -- lesbian theologian Mary Daly died recently at age 81. I heard that her caregivers were reading one of her books to her as she died. As an author, my first reaction was: I don’t want somebody reading one of my books to me when I die! I’d rather hear music, and Little Drummer Boy would do.

Trudie, I never heard to the “The Other Wise Man,” so I’ll check that out. Today’s L.A. Times had an article about a lovely Mexican tradition for “Three Kings Day” -- pastry called “rosca,” shaped like a crown, with plastic baby Jesus hidden inside the dough to represent him hiding from King Herod. Maybe with your Latino connections you’ve eaten rosca? I hope to visit one the nearby Mexican bakeries next Epiphany so I can try a rosca.

Michael said...

I wonder whether the popular conception of the Magi as kings was allowed to develop because it was easier for a triumphalist Christanity to accept than that, as Magi, they were 'pagan' priests and astrologers. Presumably when they left Bethlehem they went back home to resume their priestly duties and their astrological work. There's nothing in the story to suggest otherwise.

I've written something about that here

Kittredge Cherry said...

Michael, happy new year! It’s great to hear from you, and thanks for the link to your in-depth post connecting the Magi to today’s astrologers. I do think the idea of “three kings” was easier for a triumphalist Christianity than astrologers or even wise men. Even today kings get a lot more respect than wise men and women.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Based on Trudie's recommendation, I added a link to "The Other Wise Man" to the main post.

Yewtree said...

Lovely image - I like Janet McKenzie's style, it's quite gentle and a bit Art Deco. And these Three Queens are very goddessy. What's not to like?

I love this quote, Also, the wise eunuchs, shamans, holy men were the only ones who had the forethought to go shopping before they visited the baby Jesus! -- Yup, so obviously they were women or gay, because otherwise they'd have just gone to the gas station for a bunch of flowers wrapped in cellophane ;)

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, Yewtree, I included that quote because I like it so much -- and because "our Tribe" is hard to find now.

I thought it was out of print, but I just discovered that it IS available again. Here's a link to it on Amazon:

Our Tribe: Queer Folks, God, Jesus, and the Bible