I grew up in the Christian church, but my first conscious encounter with the word epiphany was in AP English my senior year, after reading James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” I wrote a paper about the function of epiphany in the story, turned it in with fear and trembling (this was a teacher who was known to write “yuck!” in the margins or cross out whole paragraphs with a dismissive “verbose!”), and was elated when it came back with an A+ and some questions for further investigation. The experience itself was something of an epiphany to me: I had learned how to see something in a piece of literature that explained not just the story, but something about life itself.
In consequence, in that way that only a seventeen-year-old can, I fell in love with the word. It seemed there were epiphanies to be had everywhere – about myself, my friends, the meaning of life itself. The realization of something hidden: isn’t that the ancient dream of philosophy itself, and the hope most of us harbor about the mundane dailiness of existence?
I had no idea that the word had anything to do with the Christian church until later, in college, when I started attending an Episcopal parish. But the discovery that there is an entire season devoted to revelation and illumination somehow failed to capture my imagination quite the way Joyce’s story did. Maybe it’s because Epiphany is often overshadowed by those flashier pairs of seasons: Advent-Christmas, Lent-Easter. Maybe it’s because it overlaps with our secular New Year celebrations, in which we focus on self-improvement, organizational schemes, and personal enlightenment. We wind up forgetting that we were a people walking in darkness who have seen a great light. And maybe most of us have exhausted ourselves with Christmas celebrations and are just plain holiday-ed out. Give us some good old ordinary time, please.
But for those of us who are Gentiles by birth and who take the biblical narrative seriously, Epiphany is a Big Deal. It marks the revelation of Jesus as the promised Messiah for Israel and the nations. That’s us. Epiphany is the revelation of the Light we didn’t even know we needed; of the darkness and emptiness we had been pursuing; and the joy and rest that comes with adoption into God’s family. It’s also a time to recognize that much of the world is still lost, pursuing those things which cannot save and which do not bring rest. And that as recipients of the Light, we are also its bearers.
That being the case, though, I feel terribly impoverished when it comes to ideas for celebrating this season as a family. I’d like to give my kids a more concrete way to meditate upon and reflect the Light of Christ. Right now, I’ve gotten stuck with reading the Epiphany scriptures and then just talking about it a lot – which is a good enough start, I guess, but isn’t enough. Most of us have lots of traditions around Advent and Christmas which help us embody those seasons, and our churches help out too: we make Advent wreaths together, deliver gifts, sing the same songs. Likewise for Lent and Easter. I’d like some of that for Epiphany!
Bobby Gross has some great devotional materials and suggestions for grownups in Living the Church Year. I’d like to know if any of you have Epiphany traditions, ideas, or suggestions for marking this season of light, especially with children. Haley and I will brainstorm the book side of it! Do let me know your thoughts.