Dark Epiphany

Happy Feast of the Epiphany.

Epiphany comes from a Greek word meaning appearance or manifestation. In the western churches, the manifestation of Jesus as the Son of God is linked to the visit of the astrologers from the east (the “three wise men” of popular Christmas folklore). Eastern churches, however, see the Epiphany, or Theophany (“appearance of God”) as associated more specifically with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, when a voice from heaven announced “This is my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on him.” (Matthew 3:17 NJB).

It seems to me that most people hunger for an epiphany. Most people yearn for the appearance of the Divine in their lives. Maybe we conceptualize it in different ways, or have different beliefs about how possible or probable such a manifestation might be. Some of us might envision such an appearance in our imagination and then talk ourselves into believing that we have been given a special gift. Others might ignore the burning bush when we stumble upon it, simply because we were expecting a sign of a different nature.

I rather think that the yearning, the hunger, the longing is itself a type of epiphany. Struggling with the absence of God is a way of experiencing God’s presence. Call it a dark epiphany, perhaps. We fool ourselves if we think that God only shows up in the light. We’re so busy looking for the lone brilliant star that guided the magi, that we never bother to gasp in wonder at the luminous presence of God in the entire expanse of the deep, dark sky.

Back on the winter solstice I quoted Arlo Guthrie, who said “You can’t have a light without a dark to stick it in.” Perhaps we cannot be dazzled by the brilliance of an epiphany without the deep unknowing of the dark epiphany. Only in the mystery of God’s hiddenness can God’s manifestation blaze forth.

So the next time you feel afraid of the dark — whether it is a physical darkness, or the darkness of your own unknowing, the darkness of the future, the darkness of others’ hostility or ignorance, or perhaps the darkness of suffering and death — take a deep breath. Consider that, in the midst of your fear, the circumstances are ripe for a dark epiphany. And wait. And trust. And then see what happens.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Shadwynn


    I agree with your thoughts on the interior richness of a “dark epiphany.” It saddens me to think that the Feast of the Epiphany is almost a forgotten observance for most Christians. There are so many spiritual gems to mine in its symbolism.

    Your thoughts reminded me of the opening rite for a Eucharist that I wrote a few years ago. (The poet in me writes them whether or not they are ever actually used. If nothing else, they are poems of devotional praise to God.):

    Celebrant: Lo! Deep in departing darkness, behold a point of Light! Upon early morning’s slumber-drugged horizon, the Daystar appears!

    People: And our shadows are made luminous with hope!

    Celebrant: Long have we lived in the uncertainty of dim perceptions, shadowed by the Eclipse that is the Mystery, the Creator concealed, the Black Sun circled with golden nimbus.

    People: Enlighten us, O Gleaming Dream of Dawn, and infuse our darkness with vision!

    Celebrant: May the Star of Jacob shine forth from within your spirit!

    People: And also within yours!

  • http://www.healthyspirituality.org jean wise

    Loved your statement: “Struggling with the absence of God is a way of experiencing God’s presence. ” So hard though isn’t it to rest in God’s hands when we can’t feel his presence You make wonderful hope-filled points here. Thanks

  • http://thepollinatrix.blogspot.com The Pollinatrix

    This post is uncanny in its timing for me. I had a nightmare last night, the kind you wake from and still feel terrified, like there’s a tangible presence of evil in the room. I hadn’t had an experience like this in a VERY long time.

    It showed me the extent of my spiritual growth because my two responses were a) to immediately go to the realization that if this was an actual manifestation of evil, it only points to the reality of God; if evil has substance, how much more does God have. And b) I then deliberately invoked that divine love to come over it, which was much more effective and comforting than simply turning on a few lights and telling myself it was nothing.

    I absolutely love Shadwynn’s liturgical poem!

  • http://acatholicwomansplace.blogspot.com claire

    Thank you for your concept of ‘dark epiphany.’ It is worth savoring for a while :-)

    Some years back, in the dark night of cancer, I discovered that nothing was mine: even my heartbeat was God+de’s.

    Recently, I am finding that I seem to become my true self in darkness — as if it needed its safety and silence to take shape, shed the superfluous and become ‘true.’

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

    Beautiful post, I like it very much. I had similar thoughts about Epiphany and apophatic theology last year.

    I love Shadwynn’s liturgical poetry too. I’d love to see the whole thing.

    Carl and fellow readers, are you aware of the Tenebrae service just before Easter? That also seems to me to be a rich mine of symbolism about darkness and light.

    And you will of course be aware of the feminine and receptive and positive symbolism of darkness in the Pagan tradition.

  • noel

    the priest in me like melchisadec of old
    likes shadwynn and thinking of using for eucharist later this evening
    would that be alright

  • http://heartofflame.blogspot.com/ Yewtree

    Yes, good old Melchizedek. Apparently, in the Gnostic tradition, Christ was seen as Melchizedek.

  • Shadwynn


    Thank you for asking. If you should find in those words an enhancement to your personal devotions, feel free to recite them…

  • Michael Windover

    I can see that desiring to see God is evidence of His being, since I believe it is God who creates us with that desire. In turn, the acknowledgement of His being is in a way “seeing” Him.

  • http://www.umilta.net Julia Bolton Holloway

    Melchisadek. King of Righteousness. The Priest who comes to Abraham with gifts of bread and wine. Genesis. The Psalm of Sunday Vespers. The Epistle to the Hebrews. Perhaps written by Prisca. Certainly not Paul’s Greek.
    My dark night of awakening to evil was filled with the palimpsest of Warsaw in The Pianist, of Gaza being bombed into oblivion, the doctor lamenting the bombing of his family, of the Roma families living without water, without garbage disposal, with leaping rats, in Florence, of crimes against humanity.
    Then, reading this post, and remembering the book, ‘Rainbow Theology’, written by the Aborigine in Australia they gave me, where they say we don’t need the Joshua model, of conquering genocide, but the Melchisadek model, where the indigenous priest king of an agricultural people comes to the nomadic cattle-herding Abraham with gifts of bread and wine, teaching the harmony of God’s gifts of the fruits of the earth and the vine and the work of human hands, ‘hand’ in Hebrew and in Julian meaning God.
    Melchisadek. Melech=king, Melchior=one of the Kings, Zadok=righteousness, Zadok the High Priest, as in the choral music of British coronations. Olive groves, wheat fields, vineyards, and wells in Palestine, the staffs of life.

  • http://thepollinatrix.blogspot.com The Pollinatrix

    And speaking of uncanny – I recognized the name Julia Bolton Holloway just now, but couldn’t remember from where, so I went to your website, and realized I spent several hours there when I was researching The Dream of the Rood in graduate school. The truly odd thing is that I just yesterday posted on my blog about this poem.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Oh, yeah, Julia’s website is the holy grail of Julian of Norwich resources. My site hopes to be like hers when it grows up. For those who haven’t been there (yet), here’s the link: http://www.umilta.net

    Also worth having is her translation of Julian’s Showing of Love — the only translation I’m aware of that specifically draws on all of the major Julian manuscripts, rather than just one or two of them.

  • noel

    dia dhuit carl,
    wonderful wonderful site that of julia s julian of norwich a woman i plan to get to know this year.
    and the comment from julia ………….
    julia i am a basketmaker from ireland and i send you love and peace and know all is well all is blessed

  • http://www.umilta.net Julia Bolton Holloway

    Dear Basket Weaver from Ireland, following in the footsteps of Egyptian monks who came to Ireland, Thanks.
    I find the Carmina Gadelica – on the Web – (and gorgeous!) very much Julian’s shalom, of all manner of thing being well, of all being blessed.
    I’ve written a new book, Anchoress and Cardinal: Julian of Norwich and Adam Easton, O.S.B., on spiritual direction between men and women down the centuries. It’s published by James Hogg in Analecta Cartusiana, Salzburg.
    Julia in Florence

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlmccolman/ Carl McColman

    Julia, do you know who distributes your latest book in the USA? Failing that, do you have contact information with the publisher directly?

  • http://www.stevewestsmusings.blogspot.com Steve

    I love the idea of the “dark epiphany.” It reminds me of one of the teachings in the body of literature on the dark night of the soul in Christian contemplative tradition. I wish I could remember the source, but the idea is that sometimes in the darkness, when God seems so absent, it is only because God is so close that you can not see him.