8 Jan 2017
The Epiphany of the Lord
In 1966 a Broadway musical came out called “Mame.” It starred Angela Lansbury, and was set in 1929, right at the start of the Great Depression. Everybody’s spirits were down, of course, because of the Stock Market crash, and so they started to sing this upbeat song called “We Need a Little Christmas.”
“Haul out the holly; Put up the tree before my spirit falls again. Fill up the stocking, I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now. For we need a little Christmas right this very minute, candles in the window, carols at the spinet. Yes, we need a little Christmas right this very minute. For I've grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older, and I need a little angel sitting on my shoulder, need a little Christmas now.”
And it seems so often that that’s what we need, too. We need a little Christmas. Or, rather, we need a little Epiphany. Epiphany is the revelation, the manifestation of God’s grace and glory. The word ‘epiphany’ means literally to show or make known. And God’s grace was shown to the Magi by the guiding star in the night sky. To the shepherds, too, God revealed his glory by the angels coming to them. It’s what they needed to be lifted up and set on a good course.
I think of athletes or artists, or parents or woodworkers, or anybody who’s ever asked someone else for guidance on what to do or how to do something. And whoever that coach is, whoever that teacher or friend or mentor is, well, they’re like a little Epiphany; they give direction, they nudge, they bring clarity and encouragement to go on. And we certainly need that from time to time: we need a little Epiphany.
Of course, the Epiphany we get isn’t always what we’re looking for. And sometimes it’s actually the opposite of what we’re looking for. When the Magi came to King Herod, Herod was not at all happy with that little Epiphany he got—the Epiphany that a newborn King of the Jews was somewhere on the scene. For us Catholics, the Crucifixion is a major Epiphany; it’s the most significant way that God reveals his grace and glory; but at the same time it’s a bloody mess! . . . who wants that?
It’s kind of like Christmas morning as a little kid, and you open that one gift of . . . socks and underwear. I mean, I know others want you to be warm and clean as a child, but . . . socks and underwear? Of course, then you grow up and realize that, yes, they are a gift from someone who loves you and wants you to be warm and clean and taken care of. So, yes, socks and underwear can be a little Epiphany of God’s love and care, even if they weren’t exactly what we were expecting as a kid.
Regardless, though, that little Epiphany is given to us: to accept or reject, to question or wonder about. When St. Paul wrote his letters, he was taking the Epiphany—the revelation he received from God—and he was sharing that with others. As he says, “You have heard of the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for your benefit.” St. Paul just kind of lays God’s message out there, and then lets his readers (or hearers) work with it. Today, in Ephesians, he puts out there the Epiphany that God welcomes all people. And that’s something that the Jews of the time really had to struggle with, because they’d only ever known themselves to be God’s chosen people; not the Gentiles.
The Church today is increasingly polarized between: progressives and traditionalists, the youth and the elderly, those who like upbeat worship and those who like a more subdued worship, and so on and so on. But God continues to reveal himself to the Church through little Epiphanies, and we’re left to work through them. For instance, the Epiphany that Christians are called by God to love one another. Or the Epiphany of the moral truths by which we’re called to live. Or the Epiphany, the revelation, that there are many parts of the one Body, and they’re all necessary to the whole Church. Little Epiphanies are given to us: to accept or reject, to question or wonder about.
But, however we take those little revelations from God, we can be sure that they’re meant to help us to where we’re going. “We Three Kings of Orient are / Bearing gifts we traverse afar. / Field and fountain, moor and mountain, / Following yonder star. / O star of wonder, star of night, / Star of royal beauty bright, / Westward leading, still proceeding, / Guide us to thy perfect light.” Epiphany is a time to remember that we’re a pilgrim Church; we’re a traveling Church; here is not our final destination. We’re going somewhere, with the Light of Truth, the Light of Wisdom, the Light of Peace and Forgiveness and Mercy leading the way.
Sometimes in the winter, when it’s nighttime and snowing, and you’re driving on the road, it’s very hard to see the road—especially out in the country. But along the edge of the road there’s that solid white line. And if you’ve ever sort of lost where the road begins and ends, but then you see that white line, it’s a huge relief. That line is such a big help to see where you are on the road. And, however we take all those little revelations from God, we can be sure they’re there to help us know where we’re going.
And where we’re going is someplace that’s still an unfulfilled prophecy. Our reading from Isaiah today talks about the splendor of the Holy City Jerusalem, and how the glory of the Lord shines upon it. People from all over coming streaming to it; the hearts of all nations are converted to the Lord and want to be a part of this city we know as the Church. Of course, that hasn’t happened yet. People come to the Church, but they also leave. People hate the Church, people love the Church. The community of those who are actually faithful to God is still growing. We’re still growing.
Our life as the universal Church, our life as a parish, our life as individuals and families is a work-in-progress. Or, rather, it’s a prophecy-in-progress. And what brings it to fulfillment is whenever we pay attention to all those little Epiphanies—those little signs of God’s grace.
We’re on a journey of faith and life. The Epiphany of God will get us to where we're going.