On January 6 we celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany, and entered a season of the church year that encourages us to travel, like the wise men who sought the child Jesus, on a road that may bring us to adventures we never expected.
The word epiphany comes from a Greek word that means “manifestation” or “revelation.” I often hear people say, “I had an epiphany the other day – now I realize . . . “ and fill in the blank! Rather like “I had an aha moment” – a sudden insight or understanding that we didn’t have before. In Christian theology the word Epiphany is used to describe God’s revelation of God’s self to us – to ordinary people like us, like the shepherds who attended at Jesus’ birth – as well as to the great and holy – the magi or wise men who came to worship Jesus.
Most people have more epiphanies than they remember. The light of the divine is all around us, but we don’t always stop and be still long enough to be conscious of it. We may feel an overwhelming surge of joy, or beauty, or a sense of deep gratitude for God’s gifts. Sometimes it happens out in the country on a clear night, gazing up at the stars with no city lights to dim them. Sometimes we are aware of Mystery, of the Divine, of God – however we might describe it – while listening to a piece of great music, or in the midst of deep love for another person, or in an experience of deep peace and rest after a time of great stress.
People often want God’s revelation to be something really big – something we can label a Religious Experience – a defining moment in our lives. And sometimes that does happen. But more often people know God’s presence in everyday, ordinary ways – often as a nudge, a “call,” to try something new, to respond to that inner desire for something more in their lives.
All epiphanies are an invitation to an adventure that takes us beyond the expected to a place where we encounter our deepest, most authentic self. I think that is what happened to the wise men. A call, a star, an epiphany – whatever you call it – sent them off on a journey they could not have imagined, as they sought the king who was to be born in Israel. When they arrived, probably two years after Jesus’ birth, and knelt down to worship him, they would experienced God’s epiphany to them in the everyday, intimate, homey contact with a little toddler – yet also in an experience the transcendent greatness of God who had come in the form of that small child.
In giving such valuable gifts to this peasant toddler, they convey the paradox that this God of cosmic mission, who reaches out in love to the whole world, is also the intimate Jesus who calls each of us into a personal love relationship. Epiphany brings together the great and the small, the poor and the rich, the creator God of the universe and the God who touches each of us in so many small but significant epiphanies.
Everyone longs to be loved, and perhaps our most important epiphany is to realize that God reveals Godself to us through each other. We are called not only to pay attention to the epiphanies in our lives, but also to be an epiphany for others – to share the light and love of God which we have experienced with those who are hungry and thirsty for a glimpse of the divine.
As the Sisters of St. John prepare to welcome young women for a year’s adventure in community living next September, we long to be epiphanies for those who come, Companions on the Way, and to assist the Companions to become epiphanies for others as well.
Sister Constance Joanna Gefvert