Epiphany (celebrated on January 6 in 2011) is the only holiday in the Christian year which you can tell a whole lot about merely by considering its name. "Epiphany" is, of course, a word in current usage with a positive meaning: "an intuitive grasp of reality usually through something simple and striking, an illuminating discovery, a revealing scene of moment." It is also, with Christmas and Easter, one of the three oldest festival days of the Christian Church. It commemorates, according to tradition, "the first manifestation of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles." Translation: those strange visitors, called magi in the biblical, birth narratives, "three kings" in Christmas carols and artwork, were the first non-Jews to recognize that the child born in Bethlehem was in fact the Savior of the world.
In the churches of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, the recognition of Christ's divinity occurs first at his baptism by John in the Jordan River. For these churches this was the breakthrough moment, the occasion on which it was recognized that this man was in fact the Son of God.
In churches of the West the evening preceding Epiphany is called Twelfth Night. Hence, the twelve days of Christmas. Personally, I like the idea that Christmas is actually a season which stretches out from December 25 all the way through to the New Year, culminating in Epiphany. This simple fact allows one to separate the secular and commercial Christmas from the more reflective period in which the actual significance of Jesus Christ can be contemplated. A period of twelve days allows an appropriate amount of time in which to probe to a deeper level of understanding. Thus, Epiphany may redeem Christmas, and this time of the year can indeed by an occasion for illumination and discovery, a breakthrough moment in which those things that are most real (and thus most divine) in human life come shining through.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.