A Change of Fortune: Epiphany’s Ongoing Gift-Challenge
We probably associate Epiphany mostly with the visitation of the Magi – those strangers from the East who recognize in a small child the makings of a king. Epiphany is all about seeing beyond what is obvious on the surface, and in recognizing a call to move from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Really Epiphany is about believing in the possibility of a change in fortune. Too often we limit our future based on what we’ve experienced in the past. If we’ve suffered physical pain for the past few decades we expect that it will continue. If we’ve had a series of heartbreaking relationships we expect the pattern to happen again and again. If we’ve been unsuccessful in achieving our dreams we decide that our dreams were unrealistic in the first place, and will never come true.
But Epiphany challenges us to see things differently. It reminds us that God is at work in the world, constantly opening up new paths to us, inviting us to dream in bigger and better ways. If only we will allow ourselves to believe, to dream, to trust in God’s lovingkindness toward us, the truth will suddenly appear, like the light has been switched on.
Those Who Have Walked in Darkness
But the call of Epiphany doesn’t happen in just one quick burst of light. Because, just as the people mentioned in John 1, we are a people who have walked in darkness. We lost our native sightedness long ago, and now we find ourselves bumping around in the black. We’ve almost lost even the idea of sight, and have resolved ourselves to just doing the best we can with feeling our way through.
So what happens when a bright light suddenly turns on? At first – ironically – the light blinds us. We close our eyes tightly against it, perhaps even covering them with our hands. Then, slowly, we pull our hands away, so the light can come through the eyelids. Carefully, little by little, we allow our eyes to crack open. It takes time for us to be able to really see what the light illuminates; we first just have to get used to the light itself.
A light turned on in a dark room is a change of fortune for the eyes. Our eyes can’t prepare themselves in advance, so they will be ready for the light when it comes. They must simply do is their best to receive the light when it arrives. The people mentioned in Jeremiah face a similar challenge. God tells us that their weeping will be transformed into joy. The blind, the lame, those struggling with childbearing, all will suddenly find themselves empowered to journey back home. How could they possibly imagine this destiny – until they find themselves faced with it?
Becoming Acclimated to Epiphany
It takes time to accept a complete reversal of our expectations – and it usually starts with a faith crisis. I think of a faith crisis as that first blinding moment of insight, when we feel painfully disoriented and just want to cover our eyes and turn away. Of course we weren’t exactly happy in the dark, but at least we had an idea of how to navigate it. Now everything has changed! It takes time for that first blinding moment to relent, time and faith that soon it will be replaced by new sight and new life. What a shame that we so seldom teach young Christians about the necessity of faith crisis! That we treat it as a dirty little secret or even failure instead of a wonderful opportunity for our spiritual increase.
What might be even a bit more of a struggle is for us to realize that the work isn’t completed just because we successfully navigate one faith crisis. No matter how many times I pass through my own dark valleys, I seem to always fall into this particular pitfall. I think, “Wow, I made it through that terrible struggle. I’ve finally arrived! Now I can just enjoy the fruits of my labor.” And for a while, that’s true. But then, inevitably, another crisis emerges, and I wonder, “What did I do wrong? Why am I struggling again?” But, of course, I haven’t done anything wrong. God is just ready to bring more light into my life. My eyes are ready to see more deeply into God’s mystery. So really it’s a good thing! But those first several moments of disorientation can really be discouraging.
Staying Hopeful During Epiphany
The most hopeful thing I can do when I’m in that period of disorientation is to remember what I’ve come through before. I talk to a spiritual director or friend who knows my story, and let them remind me that these faith crises have always led to greater abundance, to deeper freedom, to a more powerful sense of gratitude for the Mystery I encounter. There is no reason for me to expect that this one will be any different. Having a trusted companion hold for me the larger story, having them receive my anxiety without participating in it, hearing them tell me they have confidence in my ability to make it through – this makes all the difference.
It’s also helpful for us to write our own stories. One of the most interesting exercises I’ve done is writing a spiritual autobiography. Being able to revisit my stories, identifying the patterns of grace in my life, helps me to know that all is well. It’s easy to forget how many times God has directed our path, how many “coincidences” have transpired to bring us to this place, how many times our eyes have cleared and we could finally see the way forward. It’s easy to forget, so we must remember. Each step is a miracle of grace, and this is just the next part of the adventure.
Do You Hear What I Hear?
As I was reading the scripture passage for this week, I heard the song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” I have to be honest: this isn’t one of my favorites. I’ve always found it a bit tedious. But this time I heard it with a different ear. The song starts with the night wind talking to a lamb: “Do you see what I see? A star in the sky!” The lamb then talks to the shepherd boy: “Do you hear what I hear? A song in the air!” The shepherd boy tells the king: “Do you know what I know? A baby shivers in the cold!” Finally the king tells everyone in the kingdom, “Listen to what I say! Pray for peace – the child will bring us goodness and light.”
The message passes from a whisper on the wind all the way to the ruler, each time passing into greater power and each time with a deepening understanding. This is the way of Epiphany: blindness gives way to a growing experience of insight and strength. Finally we make the life change – the king of our hearts declares that it’s time for us to take action. And we do! We bask in the glory of our change of fortune. We can see clearly now and we rejoice – until that next blinding moment of new insight.
Epiphany is an open invitation. Even if we cover our eyes and jump into the nearest dark closet, it never closes to us. It stands by, waiting patiently for us to recover our courage, knowing that our eyes are capable of sight they don’t yet know. First, a whisper on the breeze; finally, a commandment of peace and new life. Blessed challenge, amazing gift!
Until next time,