Christians close out the Christmas season with Epiphany. Twelve days of Christmas conclude with the visit of the Magi, who come to pronounce the child as a universally recognized king, not just a Jewish one. The word epiphany is tied to this Greek root, meaning a manifestation of a divine or supernatural being. Epiphany Sunday proclaims that the babe promised to the tribe of Moses is suddenly revealed to be the good news of the Christ—the anointed one, or Messiah—for the whole world.
That indeed is a sudden insight, when you are referencing an idea of the Jewish messiah, a particular promise made for a particular people who took pains to be set apart from the rest of the world. Holiness seemed to depend on their very separation, embedded culturally into all everyday activities such as cooking, working, dressing and even bathing. But here the Gentiles worship the child and offer gifts meant for a divine king. It seems so sweet in our holiday songs and festivities, but really, if we think at all about it, it would have been shocking.
Maybe I am drawn to the whole idea of Epiphany because of its intimate connection with my own story. My mother recounts how I was brought home from the hospital on “Little Christmas,” a common term for January sixth, or the Feast of the Epiphany. I’d been born prematurely on December twentieth, so my birth may have been more a shock than my Epiphany arrival at my family home. There weren’t any camels in my story, but it sounded arduous enough, as my father had the flu, so my mother drove to the hospital while my father relaxed in the passenger seat. Of course, it was freezing cold and snowy—it was Chicago, after all. She dropped him at the front door, then parked the car and made her way back into the hospital, managing all the departure arrangements while he waited in the lobby with cigars and conversation. I sure hope he didn’t infect anyone with more than his humor.
Anyway, I’m intrigued by Epiphany and our common use of the term. I’ve often heard people proclaim they’ve had an epiphany, when what they mean is that they’ve had a promising idea or realization. I guess in a lower case setting, that is alright. In general, the word has lost a sense of the divine revelation and is more about the general idea of revelation or insight. Despite not being ascribed to God, it will often be conveyed that an epiphany came out of nowhere—we were just taking a walk, or in the shower, when suddenly we made an astounding discovery about a puzzling problem. A lightning bolt hit us or light bulb turned on. (The latter is a lot safer than the former).
Really however, those who study epiphanies—brain scientists and psychologists—say that our epiphanies are the product of long deliberate ponderings. Einstein thought deeply about relativity and the laws of physics, doing many imaginal exercises using available theories, before he had his epiphany in an elevator about special relativity. Archimedes was well-prepared to invent hydrostatics as his mind was steeped in math; Newton, also a Christmas baby born prematurely, was not only well educated, but had prolonged time to ponder independently as a scholar when his university was closed during the Great Plague. No doubt these men were geniuses, but their epiphanies didn’t fall from the sky. Their minds were readied to receive their enlightenment. Though not talking about flashes of insight, or epiphanies as we know them, Malcolm Gladwell, in his popular book Outliers, points to all the preparation and cultural facilitation that is commonly behind those who achieve what seems like out-sized success. Even the Magi fit Gladwell’s schema.
So, what does Epiphany, and epiphany, mean for us? For me, at least, it means to pay attention during what seem to be ordinary seasons of life. Notice the wonder that isn’t wrapped up with new babies and bright lights, but with new sunrises and night skies. Notice the breadth of what is gifted to me in this life—the universality of it as well as the particular. While newborns will always take my breath away, there is something to marvel at in the face of anyone I greet, and something to learn from rituals of the everyday. I’m a person more wired for intensity than patient progress, scanning the heavens for divine revelation but not necessarily readying myself to recognize it when it comes.
On this Epiphany Day, I hope to return to my steady life with a mind open to the wonders that imbue my daily comings and goings. I will ponder all the ways my Christ story has brought surprisingly good news from people and places I didn’t expect to see or know. According to some, the Hindu term for epiphany would be bodhodaya, from Sanskrit bodha‘wisdom’ and udaya ‘rising’. Wisdom rising sounds like something we could welcome all year. Let’s prepare for that.