Epiphany. According to Merriam Webster, it is “a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something;” or “an intuitive grasp of reality through something (such as an event) usually simple and striking;” or “an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure.”
It wasn’t until I started going to church that I learned epiphany had any other meaning than that light-bulb over the head feeling when you finally got something that, for a time, you didn’t understand: the ultimate bright idea. The word epiphany comes from the Greek, ἐπιφάνεια, (epipháneia), meaning “to appear.” It was used in early Greek texts to refer to the rising of the sun and to the appearance of enemies on the battlefield. But most of all it was used in reference to the appearance of a god in the human realm – a theophany. In the Christian church, the holiday of Epiphany first appeared in the Greek-speaking East as the celebration of the baptism of Jesus as the official “appearance” of his being the Son of God. Later, in the Latin West, Epiphany came to be associated with the visit of the Magi (documented in the gospel of Matthew) and the “appearance” or manifestation of Jesus as the son of God to the Gentiles.
Given that these are two different ideas about when and where Jesus is truly manifest as divine, it opens up the possibility of other epiphanies in the narrative life of Jesus. Another common epiphany is Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding at Cana (John 2), where he turns water into wine.
Some years ago I was commissioned to make Epiphany banners for my home church, Third Lutheran, in Louisville, Kentucky. As I was conceiving of those pieces, I felt I had to go all the way back to the Annunciation as the first epiphany in a series. God is made know to Mary and Joseph, and then to angels and the shepherds, to the greater people of the world (the Magi) and finally to Jesus himself at the baptism.
The contemporary theologian Miroslav Volf suggests that the heart of Epiphany is the joy that comes from these revelations about God. And that to experience a true rejoicing, which is not a mistaken interpretation of something that might bring pleasure, the thing over which we have joy must both be good and also “appear to us as good. Joy is a fruit of truthful seeing of genuine goods.”
Volf goes on to make us think deeply about the season of the Epiphany. He writes:
Christ has come to bring joy not only by turning darkness into light, conquering powers of evil, and establishing the reign of justice. He has also come to bring joy by turning water into wine, by overcoming what we lack, and helping sustain and enhance the goods we already enjoy.
As we travel the seven weeks of the Epiphany season, let us take a look around and ask ourselves: where is Jesus continuing to be revealed in our world today? Where is the genuine joy that comes from the things that are gifts of the Spirit and of our work in the world, our calling to be the hands and feet of Christ?