The epiphany of there being no “Epiphany”

Epiphany by Kevin Roddy (Source)

A short thought for the day” offered to the Cambridge Unitarian Church as part of the Sunday Service of Mindful Meditation

In western traditions of Christianity, the season of epiphany, which has just begun, centres upon a short legendary tale told only by Matthew (2:1-12) concerning a group of Zoroastrian astrologer-priests out of the east who, guided by a star, take a long journey west to visit and make obeisance — that is to say, to pay deferential respect — to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. Matthew tells us that whilst passing through Jerusalem they inform King Herod that they are looking for the newborn King of the Judaeans, and Herod, in reply, asks them to return to him once they have found the child so he, too, may go and make his own obeisance. Leaving Jerusalem they eventually find their way to Bethlehem and, having paid their respects and given gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh to the child, they depart for their own country by another path having been warned in a dream not to return to King Herod.

Now, as many of you will know, the mainstream western Christian tradition has long interpreted this story as being the symbolic moment when Jesus — who, it believes, is very God of very God — first appeared, or was made manifest, to the Gentiles, i.e. to someone who was not themselves Jewish. The word “epiphany” is simply the Koine Greek word meaning manifestation or appearance. And, at this point please, please, please remember that Jesus and his family were Jewish through and through and Jesus was never a Christian but only ever a faithful, if always a radical and reforming, Jew.

Now, there are many things one can say about this story, but one thing that has long struck me as worth pointing out concerns something really important that is missing from the story, glaringly so when you think about it. It is the absence of any further information about what the Zoroastrian astrologer-priests, the so-called Magi, make of, and do with, their epiphany. In the story, they simply up and leave and no more is ever heard about them. In fact, we cannot be sure they experienced any epiphany at all, let alone the one the Christian tradition thinks they experienced.

I suppose that most Christians through the centuries have simply assumed the epiphany made them cease to be Zoroastrian astrologer-priests and to become Christians. But really, there is no reason to assume this was the case and, as a modern way of putting things has it, other possible epiphanies are available.

Although I realise this is a myth and that this is not history, taking the story at face value, it’s entirely conceivable to me that one epiphany they may have experienced was related to the fact that their journey ended in a certain kind of disappointment. I can easily imagine that on arriving in Bethlehem they did not find either the King of the Judeans or the Christ Child of Christian legend. Perhaps all they they found was simply a lovely, new born child of the kind that can be found everywhere and always across the generations and geography, and that it was this that became for them an epiphany of the everyday miracle of life itself. Such an epiphany would not require them to convert them from one religion to another but it may well have brought about a radical change of perspective on their own faith tradition. Indeed, it is possible to imagine one scenario in which this epiphany deepened their own Zoroastrian faith and made them more faithful and more rounded astrologer-priests than before. It is also possible to imagine another scenario in which this was an epiphany which ended the certainties of their old faith entirely and helped them to enter on to a path of free religion and enquiry related to the kind of religion a church such as this tries to encourage in its own time and context.

I’m absolutely sure that only a little more thinking could suggest to us other kinds of epiphany that the Magi could have experienced. However, today, I don’t need to run through all the possibilities because the basic point I wish to make today — and make really quite strongly — is that the Magi’s epiphany, if epiphany there was, is one about which we know absolutely nothing. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. This itself should be, I think, a kind of epiphany for us.

With this thought in mind I’ll begin to draw to a close by borrowing an insight from the American philosopher, Bruce W. Wilshire (1932–2013). The answer to what epiphany was had by the Magi — if any — is not something we can spin out of our heads as if we were gods. All we can ever do is “listen, resonate to affinities, send out questions, listen for answers, send out more questions. We can only continuously echo-locate and re-locate ourselves” (The Primal Roots of American Philosophy: Pragmatism, Phenomenology, and Native American Thought, Penn State Press, 2000, p. 171).

And what this means for me is that the epiphany I experienced when I read this story this year is that, at heart, perhaps what all of us should always-already be doing on our own journeys of faith — following whatever star is before and above us and going to whatever locations and people we find and meet along the way — is simply to be listening, to be responding to the affinities where we find them, sending out questions, listening for answers and then, sending out more questions as we continue to make our own way home by an ever new paths, continuously echo-locating and re-locating ourselves within this extraordinarily rich, hyper-plural and ever-moving world.

When we have truly learnt to do this, really to do this, we are, I think, close to practising something that can be called Free Religion and are able to see that, although there is no such thing as “the Epiphany” to be experienced, epiphanies that help us lead better, more fruitful and creative lives can, potentially at least, be experienced everywhere and all the time by people from every faith and philosophy.


Samuel Clarke said…
Recently found your blog on the Unitarians site. Very interesting and insightful. Keep doing what your doing!
Dear Samuel,

Thank you for your note. Much appreciated. Sorry it wasn't published sooner -- my comments alert function doesn't seem to be working at the moment. My apologies.

Go well,

All the best,