Happy New Year and Happy Epiphany Day! Here’s to a season of new realizations and new beginnings and a little history and definition of “epiphany”…
Epiphany, from the Greek “epiphaneia,” means “appearance” or “manifestation,” and was first seen in English around 1310. 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. 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,” or (my favorite) “a moment of sudden or great realization about life that usually changes you in some way.”