I’ve always loved the story of the three wise men coming from the East to see the Christ child, born in a stable behind the inn that didn’t have any room. The word epiphany means ‘a showing forth’ or ‘an appearance’.
The magi come pursuing a star (a bright candle indeed), following astronomical signs and wonders — an ancient tradition indeed, going back at least to ancient Chaldaea and Babylon, who gave us our systems of twelve and sixty and three hundred and sixty for marking time and the degrees of the heavenly spheres and other circles — and they find what they didn’t expect.
One of my favourite short stories is “Epiphany” by Connie Willis, a tale of the second coming and an exploration of how difficult it might well have been for the magi to keep heart as they travelled west. Connie Willis is a writer of science fiction (author of one of my favourite books, To Say Nothing of the Dog), and wrote not only this short story, which I re-read frequently, but also another that gave me nightmares on reading it and still makes me shudder with horror when it comes to mind.
(I find short stories a bit hit-or-miss: occasionally there will be one that uplifts me, as “Epiphany,” or a funny one that works perfectly, as “The Dinner Party” by Mona Gardner, but more often I am hit by the horrific ones; Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” for instance. I don’t read many collections of short stories, nor am I much inclined to write them.)
Connie Willis’ “Epiphany” is, as I mentioned, a tale of the second coming, of both Christ and the magi, a theme woven not so much with the post-Christmas feastday celebrated today in western Christendom (I’ve always liked the sound of that word, which is so rarely useful nowadays, but seems appropriate when distinguishing between the ‘eastern’ and ‘western’ Christian traditions and calendars) as with Advent beforehand.
Epiphany the feast marks a moment where the actual and the real, the mythic divine and the particularly human, come abruptly into relation. In the Christian tradition this is an historical moment; others religions describe the relation in other forms (as Arjuna looking into the mouth of his charioteer, the god Krishna, in the Bhagavad-Gita, and seeing the whole universe within).
It’s something we feel occasionally, I think, in life, and we call them epiphanies, moments where ordinary things suddenly turn into revelations. The veil of phenomena (the things that ‘appear forth’, the pheno- related to the phany of epiphany, from the Greek word for ‘to bring to light, make appear, show forth’) parts to show real relations, or so at least we intimate. (We see a blankness ahead as a corner, not a dead end.)
Epiphany marks the strange and unexpected end of a patient — or impatient, perhaps, if you go with T.S. Eliot’s poem – journey after a star, bearing gifts for an intimation of hope and mystery and meaning.