Reimagining the three kings as queer or female gives fresh meaning to Epiphany, a holiday celebrating the visit of the Magi to the baby 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 LGBTQ 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. LGBTQ church leaders suggest that the Magi may have been eunuchs — people who today would be called gay, queer or transgender. Intriguing questions are raised by the artistic tradition of showing the of three Magi together in bed.
- Female Magi appear in various books, videos and artwork, including a controversial Epiphany painting by Janet McKenzie. Three Wise Ones embody different races — and some perceive a transwoman among them. Epiphany is also known as Women’s Christmas.
- Queer gifts are presented to the Christ child in an icon by William Hart McNichols.
Queer Magi for Epiphany: Bed sharing and fabulous clothing
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 more likely wizards who provide a higher wisdom or astrologists with expertise in cosmic balance.
The Magi played the shamanic role often filled by eunuchs, an ancient term for LGBTQ 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.”
One of the Magi’s shamanic dreams is recorded in the Bible. The gospel of Matthew says that after the Magi found the baby Jesus, God came to them in a dream and warned them not to return to King Herod. They went back home another way, thus thwarting Herod’s plan to locate and kill the infant Messiah.
The dream of the Magi was a common motif in medieval European art. These little-known images startle today’s viewers by showing the three kings together in one bed — sometimes even nude (but always wearing their crowns).
This looks like a homosexual liaison to many people now, but bed-sharing was a common custom in the Middle Ages. Back then people usually engaged in communal sleeping, not sexual activity, when sharing a bed with traveling companions, family members, colleagues and others. Still these historic artworks do provide a visual aid for considering the queer side of the Magi.
As Wilson pointed out, the Magi are often depicted wearing gorgeous, elaborate attire. 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.
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.”
The idea of queer Magi is taken farther — some might say too far — in the fun music video “We Three Queens” by American drag queens Manila Luzon, Peppermint and Alaska.
Female Magi for Epiphany
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.
“More than a few people have asked about the gender of the tallest Magi in Janet’s ‘Epiphany’ image. Male? Female? Trans? I find that stunningly wonderful because possibly three minority groups might be embodied in this portrait in the eyes and imaginations of so many viewers!” said Barbara Marian, who commissioned the McKenzie painting.
The unconventional portrayal of the Magi makes good theological sense. Marian 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 revisited and revitalized 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. In 2015 she donated them to the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
A 2017 illustrated book on the theme is “Three Wise Queens: A Story of the Nativity” by James Allen, with illustrations by András Barlogh. The multiracial trio named Hekima, Sophia and Mingzhi journey across three continents to find a baby unlike any other in Bethlehem.
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.”
Controversy over female Magi by Janet McKenzie
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.”
Queer gifts for Epiphany
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?
Progressive Epiphany links
“Wise Women Also Came” and Women’s Christmas by Jan Richardson
Three Wise Men in a Bed: Bedsharing and Sexuality in Medieval Europe (notchesblog.com)
Top image credit:
“The Dream of the Magi,” Salzburg Missal, Regensburg, Germany, 1478-1489 (Wikipedia)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Calendar series by Kittredge Cherry. The series celebrates religious and spiritual holidays, events in LGBTQ history, holy days, feast days, festivals, anniversaries, liturgical seasons and other occasions of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people of faith and our allies.
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