When I was a child the word ‘Epiphany’ struck me as strange.  It seemed to communicate little about the visit of the Magi — the three Wise Men — bearing gifts.  Yet, that is the name the Church gives to the Twelfth Day of Christmas, January 6, when our seasonal celebration ends.

Then, in high school, we studied the construct of ‘epiphany’ as it was used literature: communicating a discovery or sudden clarity.

The Revd Charles Henrickson is pastor of St Matthew Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) in Bonne Terre, Missouri.  In his sermon last year, he explains the meaning of the Epiphany and of Jesus’s baptism.  Often, because of the way the Church calendar works, the two readings come quite close together as we hear them read at worship.

What follows are excerpts from Pr Henrickson’s sermon which he gave at this time in 2010 (emphases mine below):

Now the religious use of the word “epiphany” does share the idea of a discovery, a realization, but it is a realization that comes by means of revelation, God’s revelation. God reveals himself to us, makes himself known to us, and that is an epiphany. We could not have arrived at it by our own reason or observation. We need God to shine the light for us. This is the “epiphany” we’re talking about today, and it is the connecting link running through this whole Epiphany season.

Let’s start with the wise men and their visit to Bethlehem. They had an epiphany, and God did it for them. The word “epiphany” literally means a “shining forth,” and when something has light shining on it, it appears. So “epiphany” can mean an “appearance,” when something appears on the scene. For the wise men, God really did shine forth the light to lead them to their discovery. The appearance of the star led them to the appearance of the Christ, the one born king of the Jews. They would not have found him on their own, but God did an epiphany for them.

These were wise men, these were scholars, learned men, but they did not find or discover Christ on the basis of their own reason. God led them to him. In the first place, these wise men from the east, who were pagans, Gentiles, must have heard about a coming king of the Jews from the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Remember, the Jews had been scattered from out of their land centuries earlier, and that’s how a Hebrew wise man like Daniel, for instance, came in contact with the wise men of Babylon. They would have found out about the Hebrew messianic prophecies through exchanges like that.

And even then, they look for Christ in the wrong place, in the king’s palace in Jerusalem, where human reason would tell you to expect the great king. Instead, they need more Scripture then to lead them to the right place, to Bethlehem, a humble little town, but that is where the Christ is. God uses the Scriptures, not just a star, to do an epiphany for these pagan wise men. Otherwise, they would have been in the dark.

So, essential to the idea of epiphany is that God is shining forth the light for us, through his word, when we would otherwise be sitting in the darkness. “The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.” That’s us. By reason and by nature we would be in the dark concerning God. We would not know God; we would not know where to find him. And even if we did realize that there is a God, we would not know who he really is or how we get right with him. Like the rest of the people of this world, we’d be groping around in the dark and still ending up in death.

But God has shone his light for us in his word, in his gospel. The good news of Christ breaks forth like the sun dawning at the end of a long dark night. “Aha!” we say, as the light comes on. “Now I know who God really is! Now I know a God who is for me, who loves me, who forgives my sins and rescues me from death and damnation!” What wonderful good news! And we rejoice. Like the wise men, who finally see the Christ child, we “rejoice exceedingly with great joy.” This is it! “Eureka! I have found it!” We have found him, for God has revealed himself to us in his Son, through his word.

And this is good news for all peoples, for all nations. The pagan wise men were led to Christ, and so will all sorts of other people who do not know God–wise men from the east, the learned and the simple, men, women, and children, from north, south, east, and west–all people whom the Lord will draw to himself. And so another theme that comes out this Epiphany season is God revealing himself to the nations, through the gospel outreach of his church. A strong mission emphasis fits the Epiphany season. As St. Paul says, “Of this gospel I was made a minister . . . to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known. . . .” We in the church who have received the light of the gospel ourselves now become the beacon God uses to draw others. “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light. . . .”

It’s important that we understand that the Epiphany was a complex revelatory event and involved more than giving presents to the Christ Child, significant though they were.  As Pr Henrickson points out, the Magi were so close yet so far in locating Him.  They needed divine revelation in order to find Him.

Also, as he states, Holy Scripture reveals Christ to us as well.  On a personal note, I know so many Christians who boast about attending service every Sunday, yet feel no compunction to become better acquainted with the Bible.  ‘I know all that already.’  But do they?  Do we?  Every time I read the Bible — and some books I have read two or three times already — I find a verse I missed in earlier readings.  Every reading gives me a minor epiphany, a revelation, as it no doubt does  you.

Imagine how those minor epiphanies add up to a greater revelation and a more intense love of our Saviour, our only Mediator and Advocate.  Let us pray that this greater revelation leads us to greater evangelism in His name.