James Joyce has been credited with secularizing the term “epiphany‘. Certainly it became more common parlance because of his book, Stephen Hero written in 1944. In this book, he spoke of “epiphany” in this way:
When looking at a clock on Grafton Street in Dublin he said, “I will pass it from time to time, allude to it, refer to it, catch a glimpse of it. Then all at once I see it and I know at once it is Epiphany.”
For James Joyce an Epiphany is a sudden spiritual manifestation. It is a moment when we recognize the soul of a thing. It is the “third quality” which Thomas Aquinas spoke of in reference to the Eucharist. Perhaps we have all had moments of spiritual awakening, or insight. That is; when something took on a new clarity and was illumined in a way we had never seen before. However, when we use the word Epiphany in this way it seems as though epiphany happens by chance.
The story of the Magi in search of “the newborn King of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) is so much more than a momentary, spiritual manifestation or recognition. And it did not happen by chance! This Epiphany is so much more than the way we have come to use the term Epiphany. We don’t know much about the Magi, or where they came from, but the Gospel tells us they saw the star at its rising and then, here is the important part - they went in search of the star and the king it represented - we don’t know how they knew that it was a sign of the newborn king of the Jews - but they went to see what they could find. In this they went on a journey in search of God. At great sacrifice to themselves they traveled a great distance in foreign lands. In one of my favorite poems by TS Eliot called “The Journey of the Magi” , we see a glimpse of what they might have endured on this journey:
“A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.”
And the camels galled, sore footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
Then, the camel men cursing and grumbling
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly…..
The first Epiphany did not happen by chance. Instead it was three men, who at great risk to themselves, went in search of God. There were likely moments of doubt - when they asked, “why are we doing this?” Or, when they first approached the stable they may have thought - “surely this cannot be it. Did we come all this way for this?”
And yet they came - and even if the outcome was not at all what they expected, it also did not disappoint. The journey itself was life changing for them, the sight of the Christ child a miracle. The Gospel tells us, “they were overcome with joy”.
he question for us today in this season called Epiphany is: are we willing to take the risk of searching for God? (Or, are we afraid that we will search, and then not find God?)
The Epiphany did not happen by chance. Like so much of God’s work in the world, people were involved, choices were made, risks taken, and God, who was already here, was made manifest.