Pietro Perugino - The Adoration of the Magi (E...

Pietro Perugino – The Adoration of the Magi (Epiphany) – WGA17259 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not January 6, but last week’s Word Nerd discussion about capturing moments with our loved ones made me think of the word Epiphany, since an epiphany is, in itself, a moment.

Epiphany comes from the Ecclesiastical Greek. I’m not sure why church Greek gets a different etymological designation than plain old Greek, but epi- means “upon” and phanein means “to show.” I love the very churchiness of this word, since Jesus was God showing himself upon the earth.  

Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary says Epiphany is “A Christian festival celebrated on the sixth day of January, the twelfth day after Christmas, in commemoration of the appearance of our Savior to the magians [Magi] or philosophers of the East, who came to adore him with presents; or as others maintain, to commemorate the appearance of the star to the magians, or the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Jerome and Chrysostom take the epiphany to be the day of our Savior’s baptism, when a voice from heaven declared, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” The Greek fathers use the word for the appearance of christ in the world, the sense in which Paul used the word. 2 Tim. 1.10.”

What a moment for those magi it must have been to look down into the face of little Jesus and know in a sudden rush: This is God. Epiphany, indeed.

 With a lower-case e at the beginning, epiphany is “a moment of sudden intuitive understanding; flash of insight.” An aha moment!

This was from Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, 2006. How very interesting that somewhere between 1828 and 2006, epiphany leaked out of church language and into common English. But then, aren’t most epiphanies a spiritual experience? An epiphany is just different than simply realizing or coming to understand something, yes?

In the etymology of epiphany, Webster’s New World sent me to fantasy, so of course, I did as I was bid. I discovered  that the Greek phanein came from the Latin phantasia, which means “idea or notion.”

Epiphanic, even!

WORD NERD CHALLENGE OF THE WEEK: Find some words–other than fantastic or epiphanic–that come from the roots phanein and phantasia. Remember, Greek doesn’t have a  letter f, rather the letter phi, so think about ph. (This is also a spelling tip. If you know the word in question derives from the Greek…you’re probably going to have a ph, not an f. Then there are words like fantasy that kinda derives from both, since Greeks and Latins shared words back and forth. But that’s life in the English language.)

AND A QUESTION: What is your epiphany about who Jesus of Nazareth is? I urge you to seek that epiphany if you’ve not yet decided who Jesus is. John 14:6 is a great place to start. Look it up on the BlueLetterBible website.

My own epiphany about Jesus came when I was sitting alone in my college room, desperately not wanting to be a goodie-two-shoes Bible-thumper. But I knew I couldn’t take the part where the Bible says He came to die for my sins—MY sins—and leave the part where He is the only way to heaven. Or the parts where He claimed to be God. I suddenly realized I had to believe it all, or none of it. To do any less is to take things out of context, and to a Word Nerd, context is everything. I walked out of that dorm room a different person.


(Thanks once again to my trusty Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition.)