Just when you thought Christmas was finished and forgotten, twelve drummers drumming drop by.
That’s right, tomorrow is Epiphany, the twelfth day of Christmas. Traditionally celebrated as the day the wise men brought gifts of homage to the baby Jesus, the word “epiphany” has come to represent any sort of revelation, usually through a sudden insight. We even have a popular image for it – someone whose face is as lit up as his thoughts, illustrated by a light bulb in the air.
Revealing vital truths
Epiphany is a literary term, too – one of the chief pleasures of a tale well told. Sometimes an author teases the reader by revealing important truths in a whirlwind – the climax of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for example, or the final page of Ian McEwan’s “Atonement,” coloring everything that came before.
More typical are the epiphanies when a character realizes something that was previously hidden or unrecognized. Elizabeth Bennett discovers that she has misjudged Mr. Darcy, for instance. Inspector Javert’s understanding of himself is turned upside down when he re-evaluates the life of Jean Valjean. Saul has a vision on the road to Damascus and is struck blind.
These sorts of epiphanies are so life shattering that they require action. Elizabeth sorts out the failings of pride and prejudice and gives Mr. Darcy another chance. Inspector Javert can’t reconcile the seeming contradictions of justice and mercy and jumps into the Seine. Saul changes his name to Paul and joins the religious band he had earlier persecuted.
In real life, of course, epiphanies are sometimes gradual awakenings or reluctant lessons learned slowly. The first week of January is a great time to witness those sorts of struggles. For many of us, Epiphany represents the end of the first week of trying – and often failing – to keep New Year’s resolutions. How many Januaries have we joined a gym, watched our diet, resolved to stay in better touch with family, made a household budget – only to slip back into more familiar habits long before February?
One story about someone who made numerous resolutions he didn’t keep is especially appropriate for this time of year. In fact, John Newton’s life might be the best epiphany story I know. Born in England in 1725, he had an unhappy childhood and went to sea early as an apprentice sailor. That career was a checkered one, including desertion from the Royal Navy and service on several slave ships.
He was quarrelsome with his shipmates and disrespectful of authority, getting into repeated dire straits such as being imprisoned, starved, chained, and marooned as a slave worker in Sierra Leone for a time.
Again and again he was rescued or reprieved and felt grateful, only to lapse once more into risky, reckless behavior. Almost lost in terrible storms at sea, deathly ill for months, a witness and perpetrator of inhumane treatment of slaves, he repeatedly tried to amend his behavior and failed.
His epiphanies were slow and hard won. After he married, he finally quit working as a captain in the slave trade, later partnering with prominent abolitionists. For a time he made a meager salary as a customs officer in Liverpool, though he began studying theology on his own and was encouraged to become a clergyman.
Without a formal education, however, Newton was turned down for ordination by the Bishop of York. That disappointment would have been enough to discourage most people, but Newton persevered, writing and publishing a moving personal account of his experiences as a slave ship captain and his religious conversion. When his story caught the attention of an influential lord, Newton was ordained by the Bishop of Lincoln and he was given a job in a small congregation in Olney.
Deceptively simple hymn
As part of his job, Newton began to write hymns, and on Jan. 1, 1773, he introduced “Amazing Grace” to his congregation, little suspecting that it would become one of the best known and loved hymns in English. The lyrics are deceptively simple, a first person narrative of someone who describes himself as a wretch, someone lost who is grateful to have been found – someone blind whose eyes have been opened, as good a description of epiphany as any.
In my own life, epiphanies are rare opportunities to reassess where I’ve been and where I’m going. The new year lends itself to that sort of reflection – taking stock of things left undone in the old year, things that need doing in the new.
This year I’m also going to keep John Newton’s many failures and ultimate successes in mind. His gradual lurching to grace is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever made a New Year’s resolution and found it a hard path to follow.