Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Elshtain’s Epiphany

John D. Carlson


By John D. Carlson
January 3, 2014

James Joyce’s classic “The Dead” unfolds over the Feast of Epiphany. The story’s final passage is replete with contradictions, evoking splendor and melancholy, lightness and darkness; it captures the levity of spirit that is born of solemnity, as it brings the living into communion with the dead:

It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

I was reminded of this story while reflecting upon the Christmas letters of the political philosopher Jean Bethke Elshtain who was born on Epiphany, 1941 and died August 11, 2013. Elshtain, who taught for nearly 20 years at the University of Chicago, was a leading public intellectual with far-ranging achievements: Giffords Lecturer, advisor to presidents, and holder of multiple endowed chairs. She also spent considerable time in the trenches, actively supporting civic commissions institutes of which the Center for Public Justice was but one. She published hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including many reviewed by The New York Times. But she also wrote really wonderful Christmas letters..

One letter reflects upon “some of the most beautiful prose in the English language”—those above lines from Joyce: “Breathtaking in its beauty and sadness, the connection between this world and the next, between the living and the dead, is evoked so palpably it brings tears to one’s eyes. And one reflects on those who have departed—long ago, more recently—and, too, on those who have only recently joined us, whose human adventure lies ahead.”

For Elshtain, this was a kind of prologue to the family news—deaths, births, achievements—that generally fill Christmas letters.. Her invocation of the “human adventure” was a gesture to the hope made available through the birth of new souls, offered when many celebrate the birth in Bethlehem that gave hope to the world. Yet just as the light of hope appears brightest in the darkness, Elshtain understood that natality becomes most poignant when juxtaposed against finitude and mortality. This insight became particularly acute in her final years. Written during Christmastide—that often overlooked season between Christmas and Epiphany that connects the old year with the new—her letters understood and connected the contradictions of Christmas in ways that secular commercialized celebrations cannot.

For many Americans, Christmas is now over. Remembrances of those who have died are confined to end-of-year retrospectives during the last week of December. With the arrival of the New Year, the slate must be wiped clean to make room for the new. This is no time for eulogy or solemnity. We want the light without the darkness, the splendor without the sadness.

But this is not how life actually reveals itself to us. And this is why there is no adequate non-religious response to the deaths and tragedies and disappointments that, we know all too well, befall many families. Herod’s rage and terror has no place in a society that wants only to remember the idyllic birth in the stable. But that, too, is part of the Christmastide story. The challenge, then, is how to discern and navigate contradiction instead of ignoring or wishing it away.

For Christians—for whom the Feast of Epiphany of 2014 completes the season that began on December 25, 2013—there is room for the old and the new to coexist. This is the epiphany that Elshtain proffers to us. “The promise of Christmas with its theme of natality,” Elshtain maintained, entails the perennial “possibility that something new and unexpected might burst through the crust of ‘the same’ and surprise and renew the world”. The renewal of the world depends on retaining memories of the past, insights of the old, and lessons of the dead. And so, even though it is the New Year, we do well to remember those who have departed —that they are, rather, still with us and may be brought into communion with the living. May their epiphanies inform our Epiphany.

John D. Carlson is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University, where he also serves as Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict. Many of his writings are available at his website

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”