THE AMERICAN Heritage Dictionary defines ''epiphany'' as a ''sudden manifestation of the essence or meaning of something.'' Last Saturday was the Christian feast of the Epiphany - Three Kings Day - but on that day an equally dramatic manifestation occurred in the chamber of the United States Congress. Electoral College votes for president and vice president were solemnly registered, sealing the ascendancy of George W. Bush and Richard Cheney.
What should have been a mere formality turned out to be an emphatic recapitulation of the election drama as members of the Congressional Black Caucus rose, one after the other, to protest the filing of the electoral votes from Florida.
As the presiding officer, Al Gore was obliged to overrule the protests. Other vice presidents, having lost bids to succeed to the highest office, have had to wield the gavel against themselves in such a setting, but Gore's doing so seemed especially poignant. That is so, first, because the Black Caucus members, in speaking out for Floridians whose votes were not counted, were speaking out for him, making explicit the awkward fact that he, not Bush, was the true winner of the election.
When Gore gaveled them out of order, staunchly defending the spirit of amity that now reigns between Democrats and Republicans, it seemed a tragic replay of the worst aspect of Gore's fall campaign against Bush, the pretense that nothing really separated the Democrat from the Republican.
Gore's awful mantra was, ''I agree with you'' - awful because he so clearly did not. As he had been throughout his two terms as Clinton's vice president, Gore was once more thrust against his will into the role of obfuscater, instead of truth-teller. The truth is that something wrong has happened in this election - even if the American system is proving itself incapable of redressing it. Gore's loyalty to that system is admirable, but it has also put him in a box, a locked box if ever there was one.
Every adult knows that there are some circumstances in which rules take precedence over truth. When Maxine Waters, Democrat of California, vented her frustration by announcing that she did not care about the procedure that made her protest inadmissible, Gore replied from the podium, ''The chair would advise that the rules do care.''
There were chuckles from the (white) legislators, but Americans watching on television were not seeing something that was funny.
Yes, sometimes there is a gap between what rules require and what is clearly true. Mostly we live with it. But one of the things that made the counting of the Electoral College vote an epiphany is that it was the Black Caucus, and the Black Caucus alone, that showed itself sensitive to that gap in this case, laying bare the fact that the wound of race has been opened by this dispute, whether white people see it or not.
What does it say that even the most left-wing of white congressmen and senators have adjusted themselves to the problematic Bush election, while the Congressional Black Caucus has not?
Blacks have had far more experience than whites of the gap between rules and truth, since the rules, first, of slavery, then of segregation, then of class have denied the truth that black Americans are equal to white. Additionally, whites as a group, including liberals, can be more sanguine toward what the rules require, even if they accept the truth that Bush's election is wrong, because the privilege-protecting Bush administration will be protecting them.
White liberals may object to Bush policies, but they won't be burdened by them in any way comparable to blacks.
Who will disproportionately benefit from the coming tax cuts? Who will disproportionately suffer as the Bush glorification of capital punishment goes national? Who will carry the weight of further government withdrawal from programs designed to advance minorities, support cities, protect the impoverished? The epiphany is in who has found it easy to accept the dubious outcome of the election, and who has found it nearly impossible.
Al Gore tried hard the other day to preserve the spirit of friendly cooperation that has descended on Washington. ''Let us put the rancor behind us,'' Henry Hyde, Republican of Illinois, pleaded in a show of the new love that has, with the exception of the literally unruly blacks, swept the nation's capital.
But perhaps the Black Caucus registered its protest as a way of bringing forward an ancient epiphany, one that predates even the journey of the Magi: those who sit atop the social and economic pyramid always speak of love, while those at the bottom always speak of justice.