Sunday, January 6, 2019

The work that leads to epiphany


Homily: The Epiphany of the Lord – Cycle C
          In its most basic definition, an epiphany is “a moment of sudden realization or insight”.  In other words, it is that moment that makes you stop and say “oh, I get it!”  This usually occurs after you’ve been thinking long and hard about something: a math problem that just doesn’t seem to work out, the missing word in a crossword puzzle, that glitch in your system at work that you can’t quite pinpoint, or how you’re going to get your kids to three different places at the same time with only one car.  Whether it is big or small, an epiphany is a moment when you break through the barrier of unknowing to find the answer that you were looking for.
          As you can see, an epiphany requires some work up front.  It’s not an epiphany to look down on the sidewalk and find a five-dollar bill.  Good fortune, yes, but an epiphany, no.  An epiphany, rather, requires a deep immersion into the subject—a seeking, a longing for an answer—such that the realization of the answer is immediately known.  For example, when Sir Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity, he had already spent many years as a mathematician and a physicist.  Thus, when he saw the apple fall from the tree (or, as legend has it, when the apple fell on his head while he slept under the tree), he already had a frame of reference to make sense of it.  It was something new, to be sure, but it was born out of many years of intense study.
          These new insights, it seems, always move those who receive them in a new direction.  Sir Isaac Newton could move and expand his study of physics in a new way because of his insight regarding the force of gravity.  An example a little closer to home: the insight that one could find greater freedom, security, and prosperity here in this country has moved millions of people to take a new direction for their lives.  And so we see that an epiphany is not just “a moment of sudden realization or insight”, but also that this insight is one that moves the one who receives it in a new direction. ///
          The word “epiphany”, however, is also used to describe a “manifestation of a divine or supernatural being”.  Combining these two definitions together we could say that an epiphany is a revelation of something (or someone) previously unknown that provides new insight and thus moves its knowers into a new direction.
          The seasons of Advent and Christmas are full of epiphanies that are recorded for us in the Scriptures.  First, in Advent, we remembered the epiphany of the angel Gabriel to Mary that God would be made manifest in her womb.  When Mary received this manifestation of God, her life would definitely move in a new direction.  Joseph, too, when he in a dream received the epiphany from the angel, would have to move in a new direction.  Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her husband Zechariah also faced a new direction for their lives when an angel announced the birth of a son to them: a son who would go before the coming Messiah to prepare his way.
          Now, in Christmas, we have been remembering the epiphany of the angels to the shepherds on the night of Christ’s birth and how it moved them to leave the fields and their flocks to search out the newborn king.  We have been remembering also the epiphany to Simeon and Anna in the temple when Mary and Joseph brought in Jesus to be circumcised on the eighth day after his birth and how it moved them to acknowledge the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.  And, next Sunday, we will recall the epiphany of Jesus as the Son of God at his baptism by John in the Jordan River and how it would begin the new direction of public ministry for him and the new direction of a retreat from public ministry for John.  In each of these moments, we see people who were seeking an insight or a revelation who were then moved into a new direction in their lives once they received it.
          Today, we focus on the epiphany to the Magi—the manifestation of the God of Israel to the “magi from the east”—and we read how it moved them in a “new direction”; and we see a great contrast in this story today between King Herod and the religious elite of the Jews and these magi from the east.
          I find it extremely telling that, in the story that we recounted from Matthew’s Gospel, the “wise men” notice a great star that had appeared in the sky—a star bright enough to be noticed and which remained there long enough for them to travel a long way from the east to Jerusalem to find it—but that King Herod and the chief priests and the scribes of the people didn’t seem to have seen it.  The magi were looking for a sign and thus responded when they “saw his star at its rising”.  King Herod, on the other hand, was more worried about holding onto, and taking advantage of, his power; and so, even though this new light appeared in the sky, the epiphany was not granted to him. /// And so we see once again that an epiphany is received only when we are first looking for something.
          My brothers and sisters, the truth is that God wants each of us to have an epiphany.  Perhaps many of you are not aware of the fact that it is possible to have a personal relationship with Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Mary (recent studies, in fact, confirm that many of you are not aware of this).  Nonetheless, God sent his Son to be born as a human being not only to save us from our sins by dying on the Cross and rising from the dead, but also to manifest himself to his most beloved creatures and thus to make a deep, personal relationship with him possible: a relationship that moves us in a new and positive direction.
          In order to receive this, however, we have to be like Isaac Newton and the magi: we have to be looking for it.  In other words, we have to immerse ourselves in the things that will prepare us for the epiphany that God wants to give us: in prayer, in which we seek to connect with God, and in study of the Scriptures, in which we come to know God and his way of manifesting himself to others.  Then we wait patiently for God’s manifestation.  The magi didn’t fill their lives with other distractions because the stars hadn’t yet revealed anything to them, nor did Isaac Newton give up on studying physics because he hadn’t discovered anything new.  Rather, they waited patiently, looking for the signs that would reveal to them something new.
          And so it is for us.  Regardless of where we find ourselves in our relationship with God, God still wants to reveal himself in new ways to each of us.  And he wants to move us in new directions that draw us closer to him and the happiness of eternal life.  And so why not make a resolution for this new year to seek God’s epiphany in your life—to be ready to be amazed by how God reveals himself to you and then to move in a new and positive direction—to grow in holiness and happiness in 2019?  Make a simple plan to pray and to spend time with the Scriptures each day (and, parents and godparents, to pray with and to share the Scriptures with your children and godchildren); and to seek to understand the Mass more deeply so as to participate in it more fully: for in the Mass we encounter Jesus Christ himself in the gathering of the faithful, in the priest, in the Word proclaimed, and in the sacrifice that we receive from this altar.
          My brothers and sisters, an epiphany is a gift from God to us, but it is a gift that requires some work by us up front.  Let us move, then, like the magi did when they saw his star arise and so seek where he may be found.  And let us allow him to move us in new directions of discipleship (that is, in positive action in the world) and so closer to the eternal happiness he promises us: the happiness to which we draw close every time that we celebrate this Holy Eucharist.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – January 5th & 6th, 2019