Into Ordinary Days
This Sunday marked a lesser known holiday after the fanfare of Christmas. Epiphany, the historical Christian feast day that celebrates the arrival of the magi to the birthplace of Jesus, is described in Matthew 2:9-12. "After [the magi] had heard [Herod] the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route."
Like many words that evolve in meaning through time and use, the word epiphany has come to mean more than the holiday it represents on January 6. Merriam-Webster offers an array of uses: an appearance or manifestation especially of a divine being, a sudden perception of the essential nature or meaning of something, an intuitive grasp of reality through something usually simple and striking, an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure, or a revealing scene or moment. Each of these definitions carries with it similar qualities—namely, vision and introspect, reality and awakening. As one who loves words, I like to think that all epiphany is inspired by the first Epiphany, when the Word became flesh and defined for us the meaning of vision, reality, meaning, and wakefulness.
In his poem Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot imagines the reminiscent thoughts of one of the magi who journeyed from afar to witness the birth of Christ. Using the voice of a pagan king, Elliot portrays the weight in the soul of a man who has truly confronted the Child king. The poem powerfully concludes:
Birth or Death? There was a birth, certainly,
We had evidence, and no doubt I had seen birth and death.
But had thought they were different, this Birth was
hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our palaces, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
with an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Coming in contact with the Christ, proclaims Eliot, waking to the Child who was born to die is in a sense like dying ourselves. Though the poem seems to strike a somber note, it is a proclamation echoed triumphantly throughout the New Testament. The apostle Paul speaks readily of life in Christ using the words and imagery of death. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20). Uttering a similar connection between loss and epiphany, Jesus proclaims, "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39).
With those who first watched God stepped from the heavens and into an unlikely stable, we are reminded on the feast of Epiphany that we are people with everything to lose but everything to gain. Like those who first journeyed to set their eyes on the Child born to die, we awaken to life, but we awaken as Christ was on that first night—homeless, out of place, and longing for the house of many rooms. We awaken to a story that reaches beyond self, even as it requires us to die to ourselves. But in so doing, Christ himself transforms our lives and our deaths, speaking words where death stings and tears flow. "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me... [But] I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones" (Matthew 16:24, 19:28).
Into the wordless void of a world weary of God's silence, God not only spoke, but sent the Word as flesh to stand beside us, to cry with us, and to lead us home. Epiphany, like the Incarnation itself, reminds us that into ordinary days epiphany comes, that even death cannot stop wakefulness, and that this very story which moves our lives to insight is in fact still unfolding. The Christ Child appeared before the magi. The risen Christ stood among his startled disciples. And Christ the King will come again. There was a first Epiphany and there will be more to come.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.