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.

Christmas Greetings from Our Team

We appreciate each reader who follows, reads, comments on, and shares our blog posts. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a few days, four of our writers would like to share some thoughts with you. Enjoy!

Christmas Drama

by Randy Petersen

For a decade and a half, I wrote a new Christmas drama for my church each year. I loved doing this, but it became a huge challenge to find an angle we hadn’t tried before. Allegory? Been there. A zany innkeeper? Yep. Time travel? Every which way.

An approach we began to use exclusively was the modern-world story in which characters encountered and internalized the Christmas story in some way. This was a challenge too, because I always wanted to avoid a hokey conversion scene. I found that incremental changes in a situation or relationship carried more power. Two estranged sisters beginning to talk again. A prodigal daughter with an illegitimate child being welcomed home for Christmas dinner.

As a Christian communicator, you’ve probably wrestled with this too, or something like it. The Greatest Story Ever Told has been told many times. We don’t need to improve on it, but we do need to bring it home. How does the miracle of Christmas apply to the Worst Year Ever Lived (at least in the 21st century)?

It’s an honor to share this assignment with you, my freelancing colleagues. So as we go through this season and into a new year, let our creativity flow, our imaginations bursting forth with innovation, our hearts brimming with empathy, our minds honed to extreme clarity. May the miracle of Christmas invigorate our language as we find new ways to bring glory to God in the Highest.

Treat Yourself to the Joy of Writing

by Ann Byle

The holiday season can wreak havoc on your writing schedule, what with all the present buying and wrapping, decorating, making food for special meals, and gathering with friends and family in person or virtually. On the other hand, it can be a lonely time for those whose family is gone or far away.

Whatever kind of season you experience, finding time and space to write can be an oasis of calm in a fraught season. Search out those half hours of time to calm your heart and mind and write a few paragraphs. If time is all you have, start a project you’ve only dreamt of so far. Treat yourself to the joy of writing this holiday season in small pieces or days at a time. Writing time is never wasted and is the best gift ever.

My plan? Write when I can amid lots of activity, write when I have no other choice except to go bonkers, and write with joy and intention. And look forward to Ordinary Time when things settle back down sometime in January. May joy and peace be your companions this holiday season.

The Message

by Stephen R. Clark                                                                                                                   

The season speaks to us, a secret signaled incessantly in blinking lights and garland flags of pine and tinsel. Green with hope and red with joy, the message turns our thoughts outside our own needs, desires, and wants.

Trees suddenly grow indoors, decorated with memories, bearing the fruits of love and time. Gilded and ribboned packages magically appear under these incongruous evergreens—expectations and dreams captured in cardboard boxes.

At night, the air aglow with star shine on the snow, whisps of angel songs drift white and pure straight into our hearts. We gather inside our homes around hearths ablaze, warmed by goodwill and God’s grace. On the mantle, the story of Christ’s birth is played out in a motionless menagerie, objects of simplicity and awe.

Through eyes of innocence, we look past the nascent Nativity, just beyond the horizon of the season, where the new year waits poised with promise. The Message of the season fells fear of the future as the immanence of Christ’s presence is again heralded by the world.

Childlike, we are reborn, our voices and souls caroling the Gift of the Ages, in whom we live, and move, and have our being. It’s Christmas. Emmanuel is come. Maranatha!

If You Were a Christmas Carol, Which One Would You Be?

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

As you listen to the same carols over and over (and over and over) again this season, try this: Ask yourself which titles best describe your life. What message does your life— and, by extension, your writing—send out to those who are listening? Here are several examples to get you started.

  • What Child Is This? — Is Jesus unknown to you? Are you seeking Him?
  • Do You Hear What I Hear? — Are you so intently focussed on what God is saying to you that you are eager for others to hear Him as well?
  • Come Thou Long Expected Jesus — Do you desire to be close to Jesus? Do you tell Him so?
  • Silent Night — Are you able to be quiet and reflective of God’s gift or is your holiday full of noise and activity?
  • How Great Our Joy — Does your relationship with Jesus fill your life with great joy?
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain — What’s the message you send out to people at Christmas? That you’re excited and stressed about all your festivities and preparations, or that the birth and life of Jesus is the best gift you’ve ever received?

This Christmas, just as these songs proclaim the good news of Jesus’ birth, may our lives of joy, peace, and love do the same.

Keep X in X-mas

I see the title has offended you. Let me explain. You may still be offended, but for the right reasons.

First, a linguistic thing. You may already know that our letter X looks like the Greek letter chi, which is how the early Christians would start to spell Christos, Christ. So “Xmas” is not just a shortcut for lazy typesetters or a way for marketers to avoid a potentially divisive religious reference—it is both of those things, but not only those things. It has some ancient wordplay to it.

But I want to dig deeper into this abbreviation. In your high school algebra class, X was generally an unknown quantity. You needed to “solve for X.” You would turn equations this way and that until you could find the true value of this variable.

In a similar way, when the apostle Paul visited Athens, he found a big stone X in the marketplace. Well, not exactly. He saw a shrine “To an Unknown God.” In algebraic terms, this was the variable they were solving for. Paul declared, “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23 CEB).

We might see Christmas in our culture as one big shrine to an Unknown God. In this season, people mobilize around a lot of good themes—love for others, the joy of giving, peace on earth—which we can wholeheartedly affirm. But do they know the Christ of Christmas? Like Paul, we have an opportunity to reveal the God they worship unknowingly.

Knowledge that Grows

But we need to remember that Christ goes beyond our knowledge too. We are always learning more, “growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10 NIV). Paul prayed for the Philippian believers “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight” (Philippians 1:9 NIV). Our own knowledge of this X-factor, the Christ of Christmas, is always on the move.

So, to squeeze every drop out of this metaphor, let’s say we take our algebra exam, solving for X, and we hand it in. We’re likely to get it back from the teacher with a few red X’s on it. This symbol also acts as a corrective.

The Christ of Christmas acts that way too. When our growth is hindered by greed or pride or a lust for power, Jesus challenges us, just as he did throughout his earthly ministry. “You can’t serve God and money . . . Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” His words take a red marker to our lives, correcting our errors, but also training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16).

Treasure

And if you’ve spent much time reading pirate stories, you know “X marks the spot,” especially on a treasure map. Jesus said God’s kingdom was like a man finding a treasure in a field. He sold everything he had to buy that field.

The Christ of Christmas is that treasure.

So whenever we see that marketing shorthand this holiday season, we’ll know that the X of Xmas marks the spot of the greatest treasure we know, a treasure worth selling everything for. That treasure may be buried under sales and decorations and traditions, but let’s dig it up and share it with those neighbors who desperately need to know this unknown X-factor.

Randy Petersen