There have been several movie and TV versions of the story of Peter Pan. One was a movie starring Robin Williams, called “Hook,” and it asked us to imagine that Peter Pan had, in fact, in spite of all his previous promises to the contrary, grown up. We find him living, in the 1990’s, near a big city, where he works as a ruthless merger-and-acquisitions lawyer, mercilessly gobbling up small companies in order to turn a profit. He works, as a matter of fact, all the time, so much that he is losing touch with his family – his wife; and two children, who are in elementary school. He has forgotten that he ever was Peter Pan. He has no recollection of anything previous to being sent to private school by the family who adopted him. He name now, is, and as far as he is concerned, always has been, Peter Banning.
Then one day Peter’s past comes back at him in a way which can’t be neglected, in the way he has neglected his family and earliest memories: His children are kidnapped, and it turns out they have been kidnapped by his old nemesis Captain Hook, who is still vowing revenge against Peter for having caused him to lose his hand to a hungry crocodile, the hand that has now become the “hook.”
Hook takes the children back to his pirate ship in “Never Never Land,” knowing that Peter will have to come after them, and certain that finally they can have a glorious final war between Hook and Pan, between evil and innocence.
Hook had wanted this battle to take place for a long time, but had been unable to figure out a way to make it happen. What could convince a successful and determinedly-adult lawyer to come back to Neverland and join in the old contests again? Then one day, he said, the idea of the kidnapping just came to him. He described its coming to his chief assistant pirate, Smee. It was a flash of brilliance, he said; it suddenly just sprang forth from his mind, the perfect scheme. It was a revelation, as if curtains had been drawn aside and the idea stepped forward and presented itself in all its glory, had suddenly shown itself. It was, he said, this sudden revealing, this show, an “epiphany.” An epiphany. Smee would go on to have his own brilliant idea a little later, but since, like most pirates in Never Never Land, he was not real familiar with big words, he would call his an “apostrophe.” But Hook had the right word; an epiphany – that sudden revealing, that glorious show.
In a short novel called A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce gives an account of his childhood and teenage years. He recalls his home, and particularly the political debates which took place there, about who should lead his family’s country, Ireland. He portrays his schooling – his teachers, his classmates, his successes in the classroom and failures in the playing fields. He depicts his church, the Roman Catholic Church of early 1900’s Ireland, and his relationship with it – being taken to it, withdrawing from it, attempting to return to it, being frightened by it, being comforted by it. He recalls his friends, and his early infatuations with girls.
All his experiences, with family, politics, school, and church, are part of his development, in this novel, into an artist – not an artist who works with paint or marble, or with music, but with words: a writer. He did not set out to become an artist; it was not part of a grand long plan he had devised. But he did become one, as he discovered who he was, and as he discovered what art was. Every now and then, he would have, he believed, a sudden episode of discovery, a sudden illumination, a sudden insight – into something about his life, or into other lives, or into the meaning of life as a whole. Something would be discovered by him; something would be revealed to him; something would be shown to him – something important, something life-shaping. He called these moments of insight, these moments of revelation, of
being-shown . . . epiphanies.
The Magi, also known as “wise men” or “kings,” came from somewhere east of Judea, somewhere in Arabia or Persia. They had been watching the skies at night for some time, the movements of the stars and planets, and had seen something unusual, something special, something they took to be a sign.
They started on a journey in its direction, heading west, searching for what the prophecies said it signified: the coming of a great ruler. As they journeyed west, they came to a small occupied nation called Palestine, the last nation before the Great Sea, and they headed for the place one would expect to find the new grand ruler who had arrived: to the palace, at the central city of Jerusalem. But the new ruler was not there. So having consulted with the scholars there and having heard the prophecies of which they knew, prophecies concerning a town called Bethlehem, they journeyed on to Bethlehem, continuing their search.
And there, in a small house, not a palace; in a little town, not a capital city; in the company of a carpenter and his peasant bride, not courtiers; they made a discovery. They experienced a sudden insight, a flash of knowledge. Something was revealed to them; something was shown to them. The new great ruler was not a powerful king but a little baby, born to these small-town poor people. The new ruler was not a traditional king, in a palace, with an army.
And Mary and Joseph may have made a discovery, too, may have suddenly learned something, been shown something, too. These men were not Jews. They were Gentiles, from far away – and they said Jesus was their king, too. Could he really be a king for all people, Jews and Gentiles alike?
The Western Christian Church came to celebrate this day of discovery, of being shown: the Magi’s being shown a baby boy, and humanity’s first being shown that Gentiles could worship him too. The date of the observance was finally fixed as twelve days after Christmas, on January sixth. And this day of revelation, of sudden insight, of being-shown, was given a name: Epiphany.
A second story of Jesus associated with Epiphany, especially in the Eastern Orthodox Church, goes like this:
One day John the Baptist was out in the wilderness preaching his message of repentance, and baptizing those who were willing to repent. He had baptized several people in a row, and turned to receive the next one . . . and he recognized him. And he said, “I need to be baptized by you. Do you come to me?” And the man, whose name was Jesus, answered, “Let it be so.” So John baptized him, pushed him under the waters of the rivers as he had done with so many others, in spite of his reservations. And when Jesus emerged from the water, the Spirit of God could be seen coming down from the skies and alighting on him, like a dove. And a voice was heard: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Yes, there are two stories associated with this Sunday in early January, in the Christian Church – and they work very well together. Because Jesus’ baptism too is a showing, a revealing, a demonstration. The Spirit of God was seen coming down upon him; a voice was heard blessing him. On this day Jesus begins his public ministry, begins to show people who he is. So we also tell this story this time of year, near the day of “Epiphany,” the day of revelation, the day of being-shown.
The word “Epiphany,” then, has to do with showing – with revealing, with demonstrating, with placing before people a new truth, a new insight, a new discovery. And in the Christian church, specifically, this time of Epiphany is a time celebrating the showing of who Jesus is: a new type of king; a king to be worshipped by Jews and Gentiles alike; God’s Son, the beloved, with whom God is well-pleased. Epiphany celebrates the revealing, the showing to us, of Jesus Christ.
Webster’s dictionary has it just about exactly right: one definition of the word “epiphany” it gives is “a January 6th feast in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, or in commemoration of the baptism of Christ.” The other definition it gives is “an appearance or manifestation”; one could add “or a revealing or a show.” Epiphany is the time we are shown things, about Jesus.
The holiday of Christmas celebrates the birth of a baby, and it celebrates hope, and it celebrates promises of peace on earth and peace between humanity and God – and it’s a wonderful celebration. But the holiday of Epiphany, in a way, offers even more in that it offers demonstrations, evidence, a series of showings, of Jesus’ identity, not just the promise of a baby.
He was God – not just another prophet or priest or teacher or king – and Epiphany shows us that. It is insight; illumination; a revelation, as if a curtain was drawn back from before a wondrous idea; a discovery; a sign. Epiphany is God’s show. Welcome . . . to the show.