Epiphany: A bright thought & the real end of Christmas

by Stephen R. Clark

Christmas is greeted by many with excitement, by others with anxiety. Potential stressors include being thrown together with relatives that grate, dealing with the drudge of shopping, or just enduring non-stop Christmas music.

But whether you love or loathe Christmas, nearly everyone wants to know when it’s over.

Oh, you thought December 26 was it? Nope. The official last day of Christmas is traditionally January 6, which is called Epiphany.

However, the word and the day, Epiphany, hold a variety of nuanced meanings.

A light bulb called “Eureka!”

One of the meanings of epiphany is “a shining forth.”  The word initially referred to divine manifestations. However, over time, it also came to mean “a sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.”

Frank Maier, a journalist, once wrote that he “experienced an epiphany, a spiritual flash that would change the way I viewed myself.” Irish novelist James Joyce is credited with first using the term this way in his novel Stephen Hero, which was a precursor to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He also used the term in Ulysses,where Stephen Dedalus muses, “Remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world, including Alexandria?”

For Joyce and others who use the word in this sense, it points to those often unanticipated and startling moments when something suddenly crashes into our consciousness with intense clarity. You know, those light-bulb-over-the-head moments. As J. K. Rowling explains, “There’s nothing better [than] when something comes and hits you and you think ‘YES’!”

For writers, epiphanies are coveted and eagerly sought after. As we craft an article or devotional, we hunger and thirst for the perfect “Aha!” image, phrase, or metaphor. That magic thing that will tie our words together, end our piece with a bang, and make our readers go, “Wow! This is an epiphany for me!”

On the thirteenth day of Christmas – Epiphany!

I had a tiny epiphany a few years ago when it dawned on me that I had managed to get through the entire Christmas season without once hearing “On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me….” Amazing, eh?

The song traverses the full 12 days of Christmas, accumulating a plethora of laying hens, leaping lords, golden rings, calling birds, and a zoo’s worth of other livestock. Unfortunately, our culture only gifts on the 25th. A real disappointment when I was a kid.

Epiphany, January 6, actually marks the true end of Christmas. The 12th day of Christmas is the day before Epiphany.

Some people leave their Christmas tree up until Epiphany, when, traditionally, it is supposed to be taken down and burned, or at least recycled.

All those other gifts accumulated from your “true love”? They can now be returned, put to work, shooed away, auctioned on eBay, or eaten.

We Three Kings a caroling

Epiphany is also known as Three Kings Day (or Festival of the Three Kings, or Adoration of the Magi). Viewed as the traditional day when the three wise men (magi) visited the baby Jesus, it also celebrates the Christmas star that guided them.

For some, Three Kings Day is as big or bigger than Christmas and involves even more gift-giving and great holiday food. In Bavaria, there is said to be a custom called “Star Singers,” where, from New Year’s through January 6, children dress as the three kings and go door to door caroling while holding up a large star. They are greeted at each home with money or treats, the money usually being given to charities.

According to The Christian Sourcebook (Ballantine, 1986), “Epiphany began in the Eastern Orthodox Church—perhaps as early as the third century—and originally was a celebration of Christ’s birth. In the fourth century, however, December 25 was declared Christmas, and Epiphany took on its current significance. Although Epiphany falls on January 6th, it is often observed on the first Sunday after the New Year.”

As I mentioned, the word epiphany derives from the Greek word for “appearance” or “manifestation” or “a shining forth.” So it makes sense that the Christian feast day by this name celebrates the revelation (theophany) of God incarnate as Jesus Christ. It is an acknowledgement of Emmanuel, God with us.

2020—what a long, strange trip you’ve been

So here we are, Epiphany 2021, fresh into another new year. In some respects, it feels good to say goodbye and good riddance to 2020, the year of COVID-19, massive wild fires, endless hurricanes, political madness, and so much more wackiness. It’s been a nauseating roller coaster of a year. Here’s hoping the new year brings less stress!

Still, the start of a new year is always a time of anticipating what adventure this way comes. What epiphanies lie ahead? What new insights will be gained?

In his book, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet, Christian Wiman says, “Nature poets can’t walk across the backyard without tripping over an epiphany.” I believe the same could be said for Christian writers as we live out our faith, experiencing the woes and wows of this world. Nothing is a wasted moment; all moments are seeds of epiphanies that will yield new insights into the holy.

For Christian writers, now is a good time to reflect and process on what’s passed before. To glean the goodness of God that’s there and leave last year’s tares behind. As we lean into our spiritual journey, we can be sources of epiphanies for our readers.

As John Milton wrote, “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.”

Lean into grace and gratitude and let Christ’s truth shine out from all you write.

I pray this year will be filled with awe-inspiring epiphanies as you continue to faithfully practice your God-given—and essential—craft of holy wordsmithing.

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