Forming character through the insights of literature, contemporary culture and Scripture.
by Eldon Heinrichs
WELCOME TO THE season of Epiphany. I’ve often said how much I like Epiphany more than Christmas. The dust has settled, the expectations have been lowered, new rhythms are being established in light of the possibilities of a new year. The Christ child is still a newborn, oblivious to angels and shepherds, magi and sheep, a vulnerable human consciousness still awakening. We humans are trying to awaken too - from the hangover of Christmas and the sleepiness of winter.
image by Lydia Penner
Epiphany in History
Epiphany begins after the 12 days of Christmas. (Yes, those twelve days of milking maids and partridges in pear trees!) The twelfth night of Christmas, also referred to as the eve of Epiphany, is a day that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus and was traditionally celebrated with partying and revelry - a temporary suspension of rules and social conventions. In Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, named in honour of this day, there is an overturning of conventional social norms and gender roles, along with the general merriment around such chaos (think of Mardi Gras before Lent.)
In the Church of England, the Twelfth Night was when celebrants sang songs, defaced doors with chalk, and ate Three Kings’ or Twelfth Night cake. Inside the cake was baked a bean and a pea. The cake was passed out to everyone in the household, including servants, one of the few nights where such social mixing was allowed. Who ever found the bean was declared King of Misrule, whoever found the pea in their cake was declared Queen of Misrule. The evening would proceed with the merriment and chaos of possible gender reversals and overturning of power structures. It’s like what happens in The Prince and the Pauper, where the king becomes the poor person and vice versa.
The Feast of Epiphany on January 6 would traditionally have been preceded by the gentle mocking of conventional norms, the temporary upending of social order, and the playful reversal of gender roles. From the hull of this pretend shipwreck, the difficult journey from the Twelfth Night of Christmas into Epiphany’s new morning might begin, a possible rebirth into a new way of being human, of being together, or of organizing ourselves into something that looks more like Jesus. It is a celebration of our new birth, a pilgrim journey to Bethlehem. Rebirth is a painful process as well, because it requires the death of old ways of being. Epiphany is also therefore marked by “dis-aster”, (“dis” means ruined and “aster” means star) - a ruined star, where things are turned over to make way for the new. (Interesting that Epiphany and the January 6 riot in the USA are the same day.)
We humans have an instinct that the world is not right, but a complete inability to bring it about, so we dabble in anarchy, we pretend we are something we are not, but after the revelry is over must confess that we do not have enough light for the
path ahead. Things do not change. In our hungover state we we squint to the West and notice the sparse light of a distant star and begin moving our feet.
Origin of the Word
Epiphany is from the Greek word epiphaneia meaning a “manifestation” or “striking appearance”, also, “to display”, “to show off” or “to come suddenly into view," It is also the name of festival held in commemoration of the appearance of a god at some particular place. In literature, an epiphany marks the turn where the protagonist is forever changed and cannot return. Epiphany texts in the Orthodox tradition feature Jesus’s baptism and his first miracle (water into wine) occasions when the veil was lifted - the identity and mission of Jesus was revealed.
Epiphany is made up of two words. “Epi” meaning on, upon, above, close to, leaning towards, beside, in the way of, or near to. It’s a funny word because when they say there’s an “epicenter” of an earthquake, why don’t they just say the center? They say it’s the “epicenter” because they’re unsure where the center really is - it could be 6 km underground. It’s “near the center” of where it’s being felt. The word “demic” in “epidemic” means “the people” which means it’s “near the people”. The second part of “epiphany” is the greek word phainein which means to "bring to light, make appear, to shine, to make visible, to manifest, to strike with awe.” So for example, the word “theophany” means “the appearance of a god”.
So why is this day called epi-phany not “theo-phany”? After all, it is a well established credal, doctrinal tradition that this child is indeed “Emmanuel” i.e. God with us. It’s in using that funny little prefix “epi” that things get interesting. This word is a descriptor of an area, a direction, an approximation. “Look over here, in this direction, here is the neighbourhood, you’re getting close.” What are you getting close to? A shining, a manifestation, an appearance, a sudden awakening. It’s a description of a journey - “go this way” - not of an arrival: a journey into an ever deepening mystery.
The poet David Whyte gets at very this idea when he writes:
We are in effect, always close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach: the step between not understanding that and understanding that, it's as close as we get to happiness.
It’s interesting because we often think of happiness related to an arrival instead of a journey into something.
Epiphany as Journey
All and in All: An Epiphany of Christ
Paul, known previously as Saul, was no stranger to a life-altering epiphany. On the road to Damascus, he experienced a startling and dramatic unveiling of who Christ was, and subsequently experienced the complete unmaking of his entire identity and calling. He spent eight years in the desert making sense of what happened to him. When Paul, in Colossians 1:13, writes “he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins,” he is talking from direct personal experience. This leads us to the first epiphany in Colossians, the Christ hymn in 1:15-20.
15-18 We look at this Son and see the God who cannot be seen. We look at this Son and see God’s original purpose in everything created. For everything, absolutely everything, above and below, visible and invisible, rank after rank after rank of angels—everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him
We know the rest. Christ is the one in whom, through whom, and for whom the entire cosmos is made, is sustained and is reconciled. Christ is the place, the intersection, where heaven and earth overlap and intersect. Christ is the meeting place, the new Temple. As The Message says “...so spacious is he, so expansive, that everything of God finds its proper place in him without crowding. ..all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe...get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross.
More epiphany language follows in v. 26-29.
This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it’s out in the open. God wanted everyone...to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out...the mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory.