Epiphany has always tended to be underestimated in the Church of England, probably largely because it has been associated almost exclusively with the visit of the Wise Men to the infant Jesus, and thus regarded as essentially an appendage to the celebration of Christmas. The word “Epiphany” itself, however, means “manifestation”, “disclosure”, or “appearance”, and the essential content of the festival is the celebration of the revelation of God in the person of his Incarnate Son. The eastern churches have always connected Epiphany with the baptism rather than the birth of Jesus, seeing the initial decisive disclosure of the Incarnation in the descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove and the Father’s acknowledgement of Jesus as his unique Son in the voice from heaven.
The Syriac name for Epiphany is Dencha, a word which literally denotes the rising of the sun or of stars, and translates the term “dayspring”, for instance in the celebration of the Incarnation in the canticle Benedictus: “the dayspring from on high hath visited us” (Luke 1:78). This in turn recalls one of the seasonal sentences suggested for use during the Epiphany season: “The grace of God has dawned upon the world with healing for all mankind” (Titus 2:11). The verb translated “has dawned” in this verse is cognate with the word “Epiphany”. These passages build on an ancient tradition, clearly illustrated already in the prophecy of Isaiah (9:2): “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined”, where the Syriac translates “has shined” by the verb cognate with Dencha.
The theme of light is an important one in biblical thought. It is too easy for us moderns , who have artificial light available at the touch of a switch, to fail to appreciate the adverse effect darkness had on human life and activity in the ancient world. No wonder darkness was used as a symbol of all the negative aspects of human life and experience: moral evil, military defeat, misfortune of every kind, severe illness, and death itself. No wonder either that dawn was a natural image for an intervention that relieved a situation of darkness. It is extremely appropriate, then, that the coming of the Incarnate Son of God into human life should be portrayed by this same terminology. No doubt it goes back to the saying of Jesus himself : “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).
The verse from Titus draws attention to the association of dawn with healing. So traditionally light was associated with salvation in the widest sense, as we see in the opening words of Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation”. We may sometimes be tempted to focus the redemptive work of Christ almost exclusively on his passion, but the passages we have been considering serve as a useful reminder that the Incarnation itself was undertaken, as the Nicene Creed states, “for us and for our salvation”.
Tony Gelston, Emeritus Reader in Theology, University of Durham.