Firecrackers pop, pop, popped. Young men on horseback rode down the street in groups of three whooping and shouting. A festive mood hung over the small Puerto Rican town our taxi driver drove through en route to the airport. It was January 6th, twelve days after Christmas, and I wondered why they were celebrating.
The driver told us the observance of El Dia de Los Tres Reyes Magos, what we call Epiphany, was a big deal in Puerto Rico and most Latin American countries. Pueblos host parades where people wear giant wise men costumes, families exchange presents, and there’s lots of food including the Rosca de Reyes –a ring-shaped sweet bread to mimic the kings’ crowns. Children leave their shoes outside the door like Christmas stockings and some leave hay or grass in a box for the camels like cookies for Santa Claus.
A day set aside to party and commemorate the magi’s visit was a novel concept. My church upbringing lumped the three kings in flowing robes and their camels in with the shepherds, sheep, cows and donkeys, and Matthew 2:1-12 in with the Christmas readings. But from an historical perspective, it’s nothing new as liturgical churches have celebrated Epiphany since the middle of the fourth century.
What is an epiphany? One common usage is for the light-bulb moments when a special insight or revelation breaks through. An epiphany is also a time when humanity catches a fresh glimpse of the divine as in each of the moments venerated in Epiphany celebrations. Western churches focus primarily on the epiphany of baby Jesus to the wise men from the east as the moment when Christ first appeared to the Gentiles. Eastern churches focus on multiple aspects of Christ’s incarnation including his birth, baptism (Mark 1:9) and the miracle at Cana when Jesus changed water into wine (John 2:1-11) in their celebrations.
In these epiphanies as well as the transfiguration and the seven appearances of the risen Christ, the theme is the movement from “ignorance to insight.” For each person or group there was a moment when the puzzle piece clicked into place and they saw the divine in a new light. Each time the divine uncovered a bit more of the mystery for those watching. While they still saw in a glass darkly where smudges obscured the view, condensation hung in droplets, and imperfections distorted the image, the focus was a wee bit sharper.
Those aha moments will come to us, and we need to be on the lookout for them. We won’t see Epiphanies like the magi or John the Baptist or Mary Magdalene, but lower case epiphanies will interrupt our world. They might show up after we’ve released an old grievance and felt God’s forgiveness afresh. They might surprise us when we read a familiar Scripture and have a new depth of understanding. Maybe we’ll see God’s love through the caring embrace of a friend or sense it more deeply when we find joy in a period of suffering. When the awareness of our foolishness is about to overwhelm and grace nearly drowns us, when an addiction loses its hold, whenever the divine breaks in, that’s an epiphany.
And the time to light the firecrackers.