06 January 2004 | Faith & Society

Epiphany is the Christian festival which marks the revelation of the newly-born Jesus to the magi or wise men, led from the East by a star.



In our extraordinarily individualistic society, why are almost all of us happy to use as our most personal name something which others gave us, in whose choosing we had no part? This is hardly to be explained by arguing that names are unimportant to us.


Perhaps we accept to such a large degree our names as given because our identities, which our names signify, are in important measure also given. We do not, at least in any logical or unfettered way, decide who we shall be; rather we discover ourselves. We participate in our own creation, but from raw material which we are given. But what is this process of discovery? What is it about ‘I’ which is I?


A growing child sits unwrapping a present. In this solitary version of the children’s game ‘pass the parcel’, the present has many layers of wrapping paper. Each layer represents a period of time, perhaps a year; and in between each layer is a surprise – experiences, abilities, setbacks. We watch the child growing older before our eyes. We think first that the child is meant to play with the surprises only briefly, and keep unwrapping the far more valuable real present. What if one of the surprises is too captivating and the child discards the real present? But as the child ages, a different perspective strikes us. What if – devoted monk-like to the task, with untouched toys piled around – the ageing child ultimately finds the parcel to be empty?  


In becoming ourselves we decide, however slowly and awkwardly, what to keep and what to discard. For example, in the unwrapping of John Lennon, the child given this identity discovered both a lyrical and a musical talent, and a vicious appetite for making fun of people with disabilities or deformities through drawings, song and mimicry. One gift the adult kept, the other he tried to discard, as he similarly worked to discard violence which was quite deeply ingrained within him: ‘I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace … I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regret his violence’ (quoted by Ray Coleman, p 557).


Epiphany is the unwrapping of a mystery. Traditionally at Epiphany we think of the unwrapping of the identity of Jesus in a manger and the revelation of his true identity as a king. Moreover a king whose kingdom would extend to all people – for the wise men who arrive by divine navigation and bearing gifts are not Jews like Jesus, but ‘from the East’.


(Matthew 2: 9-11)

‘and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.’  


We are born; we are given a name; we are given family, or the absence of family; we are given circumstances, abilities, health, confidence, wealth or the absence of these things. With the insights of psychology, we realise that one person’s gift is another person’s baggage. We can see in the magi story all sorts of baggage – other people’s baggage – being deposited in Jesus’ nursery, just as it was in our own.  (Whose is this stuff? And who asked them to give it to me?)


What can be most clearly identified as ‘you’ or ‘I’ is not the totality of what we are now or what we were given then, but the difference between the two: what we choose to do with what we are given; as we unwrap the present, what we accept and what we discard.


The baggage for Jesus includes an asserted kingship over you and me. The identity of Jesus lies in what he does with this. The assertion of the Christian faith is that to receive fully our own identity, we need to unwrap not only our own present, but his.



Almighty God

Even by your outrageous standards

This feels like the journey of a fool.

Still lead me on

And let us see if we can find this thing

Of which so much has been spoken:

My forgiven soul.


In Jesus’ name I ask.


Just a second