Wednesday, January 05, 2011

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


Terence Weldon said...

Thanks, Kitt. There is a great deal to think about in this. First off, in the modern world we easily forget how commonplace eunuchs and cross-dressing were throughout the Mediterranean world, in Biblical times and beyond. (Two further signs of this are the wonderful coincidence that today is also the feast day of St Apollinaria /Dorotheos, one of the group of Eastern cross-dressing monastic women, and on Christmas Eve was the feast of SS Protus and Hyacinthus, eunuch slaves who were crucified alongside their mistress St Eugenia / Eugenios, who was another of the cross-dressing female monks.)

Consequently, we simply assume that the stories we read can be interpreted as if they were set in modern conditions. They cannot. To the people who object that we are making scandalous assumptions when we give them queer readings, the simple response is that the standard hetero interpretations may have even less sure foundation in historical evidence.

Secondly, we need to remember that beyond the liturgical sense, there is another meaning to "epiphany": this refers in common parlance to a new insight, a new way of seeing things. When we read Scripture and church history with a deliberate effort to set aside the unwarranted assumptions that underlie the usual heteronormative, we can find in them fresh insights - in short, new "epiphanies" of understanding.

Joe Perez said...

Fascinating post, Kitt. The idea of the wise ones as eunichs is new to me.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Sometimes I feel like I’m repeating myself too much, so I greatly appreciate your comment, Joe. You encourage me to keep on posting about the queer Bible interpretations of eunuchs and other matters. These ideas are new and need to be presented again and again so people can find and absorb them.

Terry, thanks for sharing your scholarship about eunuchs and cross-dressers from church history. I used to think there was a limited number of queer saints, but now that I have been blogging about them for more than a year, it seems like many of the saints might qualify as “queer” in some way, and there is no clear dividing line between “straight” and “queer,” only a spectrum or rainbow of queerness. You’re so right about the basic meaning of epiphany as a new insight. .

Joe and Terry, thanks for voicing your appreciation and happy Epiphany! May you have many epiphanies in your own lives!

Trudie said...

This is exceptionally well done, Kitt, and I agree that although you may feel at times that you are repeating yourself, the fact is that the message DOES need constant repetition, because the contrary voices are so deeply embedded in our culture and our psyches that the truth is all too often drowned out. Many recent experiences I've had tell me that love and acceptance and alternative viewpoints MUST be spoken to counteract hate and prejudice and anger -- over and over and over again!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, the message of inclusive love does need constant repetition. Thanks, Trudie, for the affirmation -- and for introducing me to "The Story of the Other Wise Man" by Henry van Dyke. The book makes beautiful reading for Epiphany by blending elements of various Bible stories, such as the Magi and the Good Samaritan,

CJ Barker said...

A really first rate job on this Kitt. And yes, what's old hat to some is often brand new to others. I've tried to "keep up" with things lgbt and religious for years, but this was a new one on me, too. But even if it weren't - and even on matters where you are covering ground I'm already pretty familiar with- you do such a good job that it's always worth reading.

As for "epiphanies," I wasn't raised Christian, and my conversion occurred strictly within the confines of the Evangelical world, so it fell to my partners (a now deceased Lutheran one, and my current Catholic one) to try and explain the joys of Advent, Epiphany, Saint's Days and such. I must admit, it's mostly been pretty much lost on me. But these posts of yours make it all alot more comprehensible. They give me a reason to pay attention to such things and care- not to mention giving me interesting things to think about. So thank you!

Kittredge Cherry said...

You're welcome, CJ. And happy Epiphany to you! I appreciate your reminder that Epiphany isn't celebrated much in the Evangelical world. One fundamentalist even criticized our LGBT Saints series by saying that the word "Saints" wasn't even in the Bible.

I had to break the news to him that the word “saint” appears more than 60 times in the Bible!
Here's one of my favorite passages that mentions saints. It comes from The Epistle of Paul to the Ephesians 3:17-19:

“I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the SAINTS, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Mark Thomas said...

Is reality created simply by saying that someone, somewhere believes something?

This little article offers zero proof that the magi were homosexuals or that they were women, other than saying that someone, somewhere thinks that they were.

I know how leftist dissenters work though. All you need to do is to cite someone, somewhere as having said something and it will accepted as truth.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Thanks for raising some valid points, Mark. There is no “proof” that the Magi were women -- that is simply an artistic vision designed to make their story relevant to women.

There IS evidence that the Magi were eunuchs. I hope that I have time to add more references to this post. If many people come to the same conclusion, it becomes more credible. So here is a quote from someone else who says the Magi were eunuchs: Rev. Andy Braunston of Metropolitan Community Church of Manchester.

I quote from:

The word “magi” comes from the same root that we get “magician” from. It refers to the priestly class of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia – the area now covered by Iran. As part of their religion the priests paid attention to the movement of the stars and saw meaning in their movement. Astrology was then seen more of a science than we see it now. Interestingly Zoroastrian priests were often eunuchs – we know that the term eunuch means much more than a castrated male in the ancient world and often referred to people who didn’t have children and included gay men.