Epiphany: learning to see what we are shown
Blog post by Ian Bauckham, CEO of the Tenax Schools Trust
Once again Christmas has happened and a new year has started. But Christmas is not quite over yet. The famous song about a partridge inexplicably sitting in a pear tree reminds us, importantly, that Christmas traditionally has twelve days, the final day, the sixth of January, being the now often forgotten celebration known as Epiphany. Nowadays, especially in this country, Epiphany has simply become the day we take down the Christmas decorations and face up to the rest of January stretching ahead of us.
But there is much more to Epiphany than this. In Greek, Epiphany means ‘showing to’, and was used in pagan times to refer to a celebration of a god who had intervened in human affairs and supposedly made him or herself visible to mortals. As so often, the early Christians stole the term to refer to the events which early on in the Gospels recount events which tell of Jesus making himself known, showing himself, as the Saviour.
We tend to think of Epiphany as being the celebration mostly of the arrival of the ‘three kings’. Of course, the three kings, or magi, meaning wise men, with their ancient traditional names (Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar) are not specified in the Gospel account: we are told only that some wise men brought three gifts. No detail in these ancient accounts is there by accident: the three gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh, all have rich symbolic meanings. Gold points to Christ’s role as ruler, or king; his priesthood is indicated by frankincense (priests in the ancient world mostly offered sacrifices and were intermediaries between the divine and the human); and myrrh, which was used to embalm the dead, foreshadows Jesus’ death. The star the wise men followed symbolises the light which the coming of Christ brings, and their return home “by a different route” indicates that they had been changed by their encounter and experience.
This latter point is beautifully re-imagined by TS Eliot in his poem The Coming of the Magi:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here in the old dispensation
With an alien people clutching their gods…”
In everyday language we sometimes hear the word ‘epiphany’ being used to indicate a sudden, lightning-bolt, realisation: an ‘epiphany moment’. This is not quite what the Wise Men seem to have experienced – in Eliot’s reimagining, it is more the beginning of a smouldering dawning that something is different.
The celebration of Epiphany actually embraces more than the coming of the Wise Men. Traditionally, it includes also two other Gospel episodes in the early ministry of Jesus. The first is his baptism in the River Jordan, when the Gospel writer explicitly links Jesus to the Father and the Spirit in the voice of the Father and the dove of the Holy Spirit.
The second is the Wedding Feast at Cana, when water is turned into fine wine to enable the celebration to continue. In the words of Life in all its Fullness: the Church of England Vision for Education: “It is a sign that does what is necessary to save the day, and far more than is necessary. It was a quiet, untrumpeted sign, done for the common good of the host and guests, to celebrate one of the most universal social realities, coming together in marriage; and it seems that most of those present were not even aware that Jesus was responsible for it. Yet some, his disciples, did have eyes to see it, and believed.”
It is good to reflect on the story of the Wedding at Cana in the context of our life in school, especially Church schools. In many different ways, teachers’ job is to bring about ‘epiphanies’ for young people. In one way, this can happen through normal academic subjects, as incrementally and methodically knowledge and understanding is built and students master knowledge, come to deeper understanding and become ever more competent and confident.
To live life in all its fullness requires more still: connectedness with others in a community, commitment to others, to values, and to a greater purpose than oneself, service to each other and the common good, are also fundamental to human fulfilment and happiness, and good schools model and open young people’s eyes to these and so enable human flourishing in its deepest sense, as well as enable young people to be resilient in the complex and challenging world they will inhabit.
In Church schools, many may, like the guests at the Cana wedding, remain oblivious to the true source of our ethos, whilst nonetheless benefiting from it and growing in it. At Cana, Jesus did not trumpet his miracle, but quietly and unobtrusively offered the abundance which enabled others to celebrate joyfully as a community. Gradually, and perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight, the guests may have realised the full power of the epiphany, the ‘showing’, which was offered to them.
Both faith and learning can be a slow and incremental process. We need to learn patience and perseverance, so that, perhaps like the wise men in the Eliot poem, or possibly the wedding guests at Cana, we can eventually look back and come to understand what we have been shown and make sense of it in our lives.