Embodying Epiphany

photo courtesy of the resident 5-year-old photographer

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.

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11 thoughts on “Embodying Epiphany

  1. I really like the book Celebrating the Christian Year by Martha Zimmerman. The subtitle of the book is “Building Family Traditions Around All the Major Christian Holidays.” She does a great job of explaining the history and significance of our holidays (with many scripture references) and then gives ideas for family activities, including recipes for special foods to help make the holiday memorable. Now that my children are older, I do fewer of the activities but the book has definitely had a big impact on me by deepening my understanding of many holidays. I especially like her discussion of Santa Claus. She gives a history of the real St. Nicholas and his Christian faith, with suggestions for celebrating St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 6. The result is that rather than Santa Claus taking attention away from Jesus during the Christmas season, celebrating St. Nicholas Day adds to the joy and meaning of Christmas.

    • Thanks for the recommendation, Beth. That book has been on my radar screen for awhile, and now I’m more encouraged to pick it up. I feel like I have good resources for celebrating the Christian year devotionally – as an adult – so it’s great to find something with whole family activities.

  2. Thank you for this suggestion! There are lots of Waldorf inspired ideas to use to help celebrate the Epiphany with small children. Many Waldorf families do not open their gifts until the 12th night as this was the traditional way and also truly allows for a twelve day Christmas celebration and gives more room for a quieter Advent season. Last week we attended our first Three Kings party with a local Waldorf home school group. Food: A Kings cake of course. I like the French or German styles best – both are different from each other but are quite and plain. Craft: a crown with tissue paper jewels – can be felt for older children. Play/Procession: An angel with the star, three kings with gifts, and a Mary and child – procession to Mary while singing We Three Kings. Giving Mary the gifts. Ending with Story: There are several cute Waldorfy spin on Epiphany stories, but some can be overly pagen. I just like reading the King of Kings story in the Jesus Story Book Bible. Tomie de Paola also does a nice Three Kings picture story as well. After the story, the older children did a puppet show of The Friendly Beasts – each child memorized his animal part with corresponding puppet.

    I am currently compiling a book of ideas for preschoolers and kindergarteners on how to better celebrate and focus on the traditional Christian markers through out the year – with a strong Christian emphasis. I found doing things like this over the advent season really helped to take the emphasis off of receiving gifts and American Santa Clause and make the whole season rich and meaningful to my four year old. For several years we have been hosting an annual St Nick tea for friends with small gift exchanges, so Santa is not a figure in our home on Christmas Day. I am also looking forward to doing this over the Lenten season as well.

    Popular Waldorf books such as All Year Round by Ann Druitt and Festivals, Family and Food among some others offers a lot of fun craft ideas along with background to the traditional events in the Christian Church Season. I have several Waldorf inspired favorites! All with fantastic craft ideas to help celebrate the seasons and holidays — better than any I have found elsewhere. Although many Waldorf inspired celebrations do quite overlap with many pagan festivals — so I am always looking for more ways to Christianize the seasons and this book will surely help! Thanks again!

    • Wow – thanks for such rich ideas! I came across All Year Round and Festivals, Family and Food at our local Waldorf toy store during Advent, and thought about picking them up – now I definitely will. I think the Waldorf approach does a lot of things right when it comes to engaging children’s imaginations; giving them concrete and beautiful materials to work with; and translating things into their natural language of play.

      I never thought of throwing a Three Kings party or a St Nick tea. Both sound entirely fun, and like great possibilities for inviting unchurched friends for a kind and gentle introduction into the rhythms of the Christian year.

      I’d sure love to see your book once it’s done!

  3. Thanks for the encouragement to make epiphany practices part of our family traditions!

    I’m afraid I don’t have any good kids lit recommendations. However, two things occur to me off the cuff.
    1. There are great pieces of literature that are not directly theological that help us see the light. I think immediately of The Tale of Despereaux, and the consistent theme of light.
    2. Our pastor, Greg Thompson, has treated the Light really well in two recent sermons: the most recent titled “By Renouncing Cynicism” and three weeks ago “By Joining in the Song of Light.” http://trinitycville.org/worship/sermons_online.php In the most recent one, he read a selection from Wiesel’s “Night” that brilliantly captured how light shines in darkness . . . through music. 🙂

    • I had completely forgotten about the Tale of Desperaux – and my daughter is pretty perfectly aged for it right now. I am going to the library TODAY to get it! And I’m going to start brainstorming about other books where light and illumination feature prominently. I love the idea of just surrounding our kids with the appropriate images and metaphors at different times of the year without necessarily “teaching” about them constantly. Thanks for encouraging me back in that direction, Graham.

      Thanks for passing along the sermon links, too. They’ll be accompanying me on my run tomorrow morning. There is some wonderful orchestral music out there that plays on the themes of light and darkness – immediately the final movement of Beethoven’s 9th jumps to mind – and I’ll consult the resident musicologist in our home for some more suggestions…

      • I await the recommendations of the resident musicologist! Does that happen to be the same person as the resident-5-year-old-photographer? 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Christmas Story and the Coming of Hope | Elevate Christian Network

  5. Pingback: We Three Kings « The Best Christian Kids Books: Aslan's Library

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