Sunday, January 6, 2008

Epiphanies of all sorts

Sweeney Todd's "Epiphany." Photo from

Happy Feast of the Epiphany! This has always been one of my favorite religious holidays, for its name and the promise it brings of revelation and renewal. The Three Wise Men, the star, and the gold, frankincense and myrrh provide it with interesting imagery. And if you're in France, getting to eat delicious almond King Cake (and possibly getting crowned if you receive the lucky piece) is lots of fun, too.

"Epiphany" is also the title of one of the key songs in Sweeney Todd (saw the movie about a week ago, and enjoyed it). The former pastor at my church had a nasal tenor voice and occasionally sang something as part of his sermon. Once, oddly enough, he chose "Not While I'm Around," from that same musical. And if you divorce that song from its original context of a traumatized child singing to a cannibalistic pie-maker to warn her of a mad serial-killer barber, while meanwhile the pie-maker is plotting to kill the child... then yes, it does work rather well in a Catholic sermon. (I think the priest's point was something about God's love and care.)

A little while after that sermon, it was Epiphany. In the foyer after Mass had ended, I again told the priest how much I had enjoyed "Not While I'm Around" a few weeks earlier, then added, "But it's a good thing you didn't sing 'Epiphany' today!"

You know, the song that has one of my favorite Sondheim lyrics in it (oh, who am I kidding, I have about a hundred favorite Sondheim lyrics):
No, we all deserve to die
Even you, Mrs. Lovett, even I
Because the lives of the wicked should be made brief
For the rest of us death will be a relief
The way this quatrain sums up a whole philosophy of life (or rather, of death) is breathtaking. It divides the world neatly into two groups of people--"the wicked" and "the rest of us" who are abused by the wicked--and argues, with chilling logic, that death is the right answer for BOTH groups--it's like the thought process of a religious fanatic. "Yes, I can go on a Crusade, or a suicide bombing mission, to kill my wicked enemies...and if any innocents get killed in the process, it doesn't matter since they'll go straight to heaven!" It is incredibly rich. And all in only 32 words.

Actually, presenting the song in this context, it could form part of a sermon on fanaticism or negative utilitarianism... but otherwise, it's not something you want to hear on Sunday mornings from the pulpit.

But whether you are having an Epiphany filled with gold, frankincense, and myrrh, or more of a "they all deserve to die" Epiphany, I wish you the very best.

1 comment:

Mead said...

Did you see that I also blogged about the Feast of Epiphany? Yet evidently we're antiquarians. I led a teacher workshop the other evening and only a few of the educators had even heard of the occasion....