“A sudden and important realization or manifestation.” That’s how the 1998 edition of The Canadian Oxford Dictionary presents the meaning of the word “epiphany.” I can give a couple of examples of epiphanies from my own life. My earliest epiphany, that I can recall, was the moment I realized, while doing some Grade 9 or 10 math homework, that mathematics is actually beautiful. (Epiphanies do not necessarily have religious content. Nor do they necessarily make sense to others!)
Another epiphany came much later in my life when, during a private retreat, I realized that God does, in fact, love me. I’m not an etymologist by any means, but I would add the word “life-changing” to the Oxford definition. Important realizations should be life-changing, otherwise they would not be important. Certainly these epiphanies of mine, each in their own way, made a difference in my life. But enough of me.
I invite you now to stop for a moment and scan your own life for moments of epiphany — moments when you suddenly realized a truth that has, since then, coloured your life. Now don’t continue reading until you have thought of at least one. Ready for the next step? Here goes: Matthew says that a star led wise men from the East to their epiphany moment. Homework and an insightful Cenacle Sister led me to mine. What “star” led you to your epiphanies? Hold on to that thought.
Long ago, wise men in far-off lands looked to the heavens and had an epiphany, a “sudden realization” that something important was about to happen. This realization was enough to send them on a journey to Judea. The church celebrates this epiphany story as key to our realization and understanding that Jesus came for all nations, all people: his offer of grace and salvation is for everyone regardless of race, nationality or culture, or any other category we humans might use to divide ourselves. And this is the cause of great comfort and joy, because most of us in the pews today, like the wise men of the Gospel, are quite unlike the shepherds who were the first to acknowledge the child in that Bethlehem stable as Saviour and Lord.
We all need a star-like sign to remind us that we are loved and embraced by God. A good look around most parish churches in Canada would show that indeed the nations are gathering in the name of our loving God.
If we return to our various individual daily epiphanies, I’m betting that if we shared them with others, we would find a wide variety of epiphanies and a variety of “stars” that led us to them. On this Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we do well to put energy into considering the many and varied epiphanies of others, especially their religious epiphanies. This is a day for celebrating the fact that God reveals God’s self to each one in ways that the each one can appreciate.
As a former primary grades teacher, I know what a burden mathematics can be for some people. But for me, my realization of the beauty of mathematics gradually evolved into an understanding that mathematics is, for me, and probably some others, a revelation of the beauty and glory of God. On the other hand, the beginning of any discussion of astronomy or cosmology — the speciality of the ancient wise men — causes my eyes to glaze over. God speaks to each person in language they can understand. To each their own.
In celebrating the universality of God’s love today, we are challenged to open ourselves to the ways in which God is speaking to those outside the walls of our church. If we cannot speak the God-language of the world of our daily lives, we cannot hope to get Christ’s message to take root out there.
Now for our final step. I said earlier that I believe an epiphany should be life-changing in some way. Luke’s shepherds were, at least temporarily, sent to mission. In the two verses following those read at Christmas Midnight Mass, Luke reports that “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.”
It’s difficult to tell how the experience of the wise men in today’s Gospel story might have coloured the rest of their lives. They had set out to find “the child who has been born king of the Jews.” Whether they came away with a deeper understanding that he is Christ, the Lord” (as the shepherds did) is never revealed. They simply paid homage.
This is a good time of year to reflect on what religious epiphanies, what realizations, we have experienced since last year’s proclamation of this story. How has our understanding of God changed? How has our understanding of who we are as baptized people changed? How has God invited us to mission? How has our response to our lifetime of epiphanies evolved and grown this year?
Bick is a happily retired elementary school teacher who lives in Toronto. She is a liturgist with a master’s degree in liturgy from the University of Notre Dame and is a human rights advocate working for prisoners who have experienced prolonged solitary confinement.