Since today, January 6, is the first day of the Epiphany season in the Western Christian Church and has to do with history of the word, “epiphany,” I thought I’d put up an excerpt from the introduction of the book that gives a brief history of the word that includes an explanation of the Epiphany celebration in the church. We thought it was so funny that the book was released on January 4, the same week of the official Epiphany day in the church — it was a complete coincidence…serendipity at play again in epiphanies!
A question I get asked a lot is, “What do you mean by epiphany, exactly?” Everyone from Oprah to Mutual of Omaha is talking about realizations and awakenings, and many times these are referred to as “aha moments.” But to me, that term is a little more casual and speaks more to everyday insights. By epiphanies I mean the major, life-changing revelations that have had the greatest impact on our lives.
After all, the word epiphany originated in ancient Greece to describe our great revelations from the gods, and it has a deep, archetypal resonance. The history of the word is fascinating. Epiphany, when it’s capitalized, is the name of the Christian church celebration of the three wise men or magi coming to see the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. This is usually celebrated on January 6, which in the Western church calendar starts an Epiphany season that lasts until the first day of Lent. It is a season of new beginnings; after the visit of the magi, church feast days and readings recount the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, and Jesus’ first public miracle at Cana, where he turned water into wine. Epiphany, from the Greek epiphaneia, means “appearance” or “manifestation,” and was first seen in English around 1310. For about three hundred years, it meant the religious feast day and nothing else.
By the mid-1600s, epiphany—with a lowercase e—was being used to refer to other manifestations of Christ and to appearances of divine beings in other religions. Since the nineteenth century, the meanings of epiphany began expanding. Writers such as Thomas De Quincey (who wrote of “bright epiphanies of the Grecian intellect”) and William Wordsworth, then later James Joyce (who wrote that epiphanies “are the most delicate and evanescent of moments”) and John Updike, helped broaden the definition of epiphany to include the secular realm. Today it carries a range of meanings, including “an intuitive grasp of reality,” “an illuminating discovery, realization, disclosure, or insight,” or simply “a revealing scene or moment.” My definition of an epiphany is “a moment of sudden or great realization about life that usually changes you in some way.”
I started asking the people I interviewed for their definitions and was enchanted and inspired by some of the answers I received:
An epiphany is a realization; an opening; a portal to the Divine; growing up; a magic moment that impacts you and changes you forever and you can remember it as vividly as you experienced it; a moment that changes the lens through which you view your life; our soul scratching around our head and giving us a signal to guide our lives with; a moment of descending light, open knowledge, and choice; a drastic shift in energy and change of perspective that happens in the form of a moment of clarity; something that gives you the strength to take a different direction or move forward and opens up everything; a sense of wonderment; a clarifying direction; that moment where you know your life is never going to be the same;
One of my favorites is Maya Angelou’s answer:
“It probably has a million definitions. It’s the occurrence when the mind, the body, the heart, and the soul focus together and see an old thing in a new way.”