January 6th; the "twelfth" day of Christmas. Observed by most churches (I suspect), yesterday.
"Epiphany" comes from the Greek word "epiphaneia," which my Bauer (Greek lexicon) translates as "appearance", with the intransitive verb form "to show." Interestingly, the English word was so associated with the church that as recently as some 20 years ago the OED entry for the word still gave a first definition as the festival on January 6th, commemorating the visit of the Magi, and the second definition "A manifestation or appearance of some divine or superhuman being."
So it has almost always been a "religious" word in English.
Interestingly, too, the Greek word ("epiphaneia") only appears in the letters of the New Testament, and once in the Gospels: in Luke 1:79.
"To shine on those sitting in darkness, in the shadow of death, to guide our feet to the way of peace."
The last "verse" of the song of Zechariah, the "Benedictus."
One can make a lot of idle speculation of all of this. Epiphany is actually at the heart of Christianity, and causes the constant friction Christianity has had with Greek rationalism ab initio. Greek epistemology, via Aristotle, was based on the idea that knowledge was "discovered" from the natural world (so for centuries those we now call "scientists" were referred to as "natural philosophers"). Plato's epistemology is often considered to be different, but the difference is really only in type, not in kind. For Socrates knowledge came, not from the "illusory" world, but from the "real" soul, and the memories recovered there via the instruments of the illusory world. Either way, though, the most important knowledge is "discovered" by the activity of the subject.
Hebraic epistemology, on the other hand, and such as it was, centered on revelation, on the revealing of knowledge from the source of all things: the Creator.
This is not a mere academic concern. Much has been made of late about Paul's writings, and how they are less valid than the Gospels because Paul never knew Jesus (neither did the Gospel writers, most likely), and mentions little about the life of Jesus, and nothing about his teachings, but claims authority based on his "revelation."
"for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words..." --Ephesians 3:2-3.
Revelation, for many in Paul's audience, was grounds enough for a claim to authority, one that would then be tested against the "proven" revelation of the Scriptures. To his Gentile audience, Paul would then appeal to a different kind of knowledge; but this brings us to Matthew, and the story of the Magi.
The story itself is really quite simple. A lot of traditions have grown up around it, to the point we are convinced Matthew mentions three wise men (he only mentions three gifts), and that the star "led" them to the stall (that's Luke, by the way) in Bethlehem, all the way from "the East." In fact, it's the traditions around Matthew that have led to speculations about whether the star was a nova (Johannes Kepler's theory), a comet (Halley's?); or even a planetary conjuuction. Which shows, in part, the pervasiveness of Greek epistemology. Or maybe it's just a "human tendency." But, as Yeats asked, how can you know the dancer from the dance?
Back to Matthew: First, the star doesn't move until the end of the story. What the Magi report to Herod is that they have seen the new king's star "at its rising," and have come to pay him homage. A bit of Greek epistemology, I think, intruding into Matthew's Jewish world. Nature reveals a truth Herod's scholars have missed, until it is pointed out to them. But the Magi don't know everything, and have to rely on the Holy Scriptures for final directions. It is only then that the star "moves" and guides them until it stands still over the spot where the child lay. Which may simply mean, again, it brought them at night (a powerfully metaphorical scene, that; the light shining in darkness.) Why do I insist on the distinction? Because Matthew tells us Herod ordered the death of all males 2 years old and younger, based on what the Magi had told him. So "lay" doesn't mean an infant unable to sit up.
So what is the Epiphany? Traditionally, it is the revealing of Jesus to the Gentiles. Perhaps there is even a bit of unintended bias involved in it, as most of the early church "fathers" were primarily Greek in their epistemology, and sympathetic to a story that gave them an opportunity to "see" the Christchild in signs available to those without knowledge of the Scriptures, but also signs that required them to come to the Scriptures for full understanding. Certainly Augustine and Aquinas would find that a comforting tale.
But it is also the crucial story for Christians, a much more important story than simply the chance to wear coloured robes and lead a camel through the church (which my church did yesterday, and I'm glad they did it. They were glad, also, for the first time, that the floor was tile, not carpet.) It is the story of how we know what we know, and where our knowledge truly comes from. It is not a story with an answer, however. As T.S. Eliot intuited, it is a story that only points in a direction.
A story worthy of more meditation and consideration than we are wont to give it.
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