Okay, off the top of your head, name three Christmas stories. Fairly easy, right?
Now name three stories about the Epiphany.
For most of us, that’s significantly harder.
The Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th) is when Christians commemorate the visit of the three wise men (or Magi) to the infant Jesus. It’s a lovely event to celebrate, these three very learned men going all that way to bring gifts to a baby. If you’re like me, though, this day tends to get somewhat overlooked in the transition from Christmas/New Year’s to Life As Usual.
But it’s worth reflecting a little on this day, because the day reminds us that after Christmas, life does not go on As Usual. Any encounter with God changes us, right? And that personal change, that shift into a new way of being in the world, is what the Epiphany is all about.
So here I offer three great Epiphany-themed works of literature. The three pieces are all short (ish), and they’re all available online (click on the title of each one to find the online text). Each one, in its own way, makes January 6 — the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas — more meaningful.
So brew a cup of tea or coffee, grab a few minutes to read, and let the Magi become more than just the three most exotic-looking guys in the manger scene.
1) The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry van Dyke (1895)
My aunt gave me a paperback of this book approximately twenty-five years ago, as part of a Christmas gift. I’m not sure why, but it took me twenty-five years to read it. (The fact that I kept this book all that time, moving it from one home to the next, shows that I knew I’d get to it eventually). I just finished it the other day, and oh, what a beautiful story.
It’s about a fourth Wise Man, Artaban, who sets off to find the new King. He plans to join the other three, but is waylaid on the route by encounters with people who need his help. And I don’t want to be too spoiler-ish, but let’s just say the journey to the King takes longer than he’d expected, and the slender little novella (you can read it in about an hour, easily) is a reminder that the interruptions that come in life do not have to be distractions on our path to find God. Maybe, says this beautiful little story, those distractions are where we find God. As a mom who frequently sees her efforts to pray interrupted by a small boy needing something, this is a message I need to learn and re-learn.
2) “The Dead” from Dubliners, by James Joyce (1914)
Yes, let’s get past the title, which sounds like a real downer. And let me acknowledge up-front that “The Dead” is not, strictly, speaking, a story about the wise men. It’s about a dinner party in snowy Dublin on what appears to be the Feast of the Epiphany, and it focuses on Gabriel Conroy, who is attending with his wife Gretta.
Joyce himself used the word “epiphany” to refer to moments of revelation, moments when his characters have sudden, powerful awareness about life and themselves. And when you get to the end of this story, you realize that Gabriel has discovered certain things – including that his wife has had a tragedy in her past that he never knew about — and that he can’t go back to the way he was before. It’s a subtle, powerful story.
“The Dead” also has what I think is the most beautifully-written ending of anything I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a lot). Anytime I see snow fall, I find myself thinking, “Snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain …” (There is also a very good 1987 movie adaptation by John Huston. It’s a hard story to make a movie out of, but the film succeeds beautifully.)
3. “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot (1927)
The Magi Journeying by James Tissot
...And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet….
This one is a poem, and if you’ve never read it, take five minutes and check it out. (Then take five more minutes and re-read it. If you’re like me, it takes several readings before you feel you know a poem.)
I blogged about the poem a few years back, so I won’t repeat what I said then. I will say that I love this poem because it acknowledges that birth and death are sometimes so closely linked that you can’t separate them. One experience can hold both, at the same time. Seriously, it’s a great poem.
Do you have other good Epiphany stories to share? Do you recognize the day with any traditions or customs?