Penny dropping time

The Rectory, January 1999

The Feast of the Epiphany is usually celebrated on January 6th. In fact we shall be marking it also on Sunday 3rd January so that we can celebrate it as a community. In the Eastern Churches Epiphany is really more significant than Christmas Day. The reason for this? Well, if Christmas Day marks the actual birth of Jesus, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the day the penny dropped and a few people began dimly to grasp who this child might be and to see something of his significance for humanity. So the real celebration is the understanding of who Jesus is.

The word epiphany means literally a showing - a manifestation, or a moment of disclosure. It points to those moments which we have all experienced at some time or other when something quite ordinary suddenly strikes you in a new way and you seem to understand something in a new way. It is often quite difficult then to explain this to others who see, as it were, the surface only but not the deeper meaning. I remember having this experience in an art gallery when I saw for the first time a painting which I had seen in reproductions. Something just clicked and I said (to myself I hasten to add) "yes!" I do not know that I fully understood what I meant and I certainly would be hard pressed to put it into words, but the penny had dropped, and I think I saw what the artist was seeing. I like the German word which someone has used of moments of religious disclosure - Blick - for the sound of the word conveys that sudden opening of the eyes or the mind. In a similar way we jokingly say dong! when somebody finally grasps the, to us, simple point we have been at pains to explain to them. It is as if a light has been switched on in the mind.

So the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates that moment, not just way back when Magi came to the manager, but now when we begin to realise who Jesus is and what this might signify for humanity. No doubt for the Magi that profound moment did not solve everything, indeed it raised more questions perhaps than it answered. But from that moment began a process of rethinking God; of relocating God, not in the stars but in the poor; of asking again what then is God like - a fearful warrior or a God of infinite love and mercy. No doubt they wondered about the nature of a God whose intervention is so discreet and humble, and of what this must mean for the way he establishes his truth, his kingdom. An Epiphany marks a beginning not the point of arrival.

The challenge for our sophisticated world is whether something so simple as the birth of a child in a stable can be the turning point of our humanity. Can this ordinary event be a moment of disclosure and the beginning for each of us of a new journey? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian hung by the Nazis, in a meditation entitled The Moment of Fulfilment, writes:

How do we wish to meet this child?
Do we carry our head, which has had to think so many heavy thoughts and solve so many problems too high for us to bow it humbly before the wonder of this child?
Can we one more time forget entirely all our strivings, accomplishments, and importance, to join the shepherds and the sages from the East and offer childlike adoration to the divine child in the manger?
To take, like old Simeon, this child in our arms and instantly acknowledge with gratitude the fulfilment of our entire life?
It is truly a strange sight when a strong, proud man bends his knee before this child, when with a simple heart he finds and reveres in him his Saviour.
And our old, clever, experienced, self-assured world
must no doubt shake its head, or perhaps even laugh with contempt, when it hears the cry of salvation from believing Christians:
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given."

Leslie Morley
St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 26th December 1998