To be human is to become visible
while carrying what is hidden as a gift to others.
To remember the other world in this world
is to live in your true inheritance.
You are not a troubled guest on this earth,
you are not an accident amidst other accidents.
you were invited from another and greater night
than the one from which you have just emerged.
(David Whyte, "What to Remember When Waking")
The word “epiphany” is such a dense word. I like to think that words don’t just have multiple meanings in various situations, but that they somehow mean a whole bunch of things at the same time. Like the word “realize,” which I’ve grown so fond of these days. To realize something means two things. I can mean to become aware of something, like, “I suddenly realized that…” But it also can mean “to make something real,” as in when we realize a dream or realize a plan. But maybe those are not two different meanings; maybe when we become aware of something it really becomes real.
So, “epiphany” means for the Christian tradition today this feast, which used to always be celebrated on January 6th, 12 days after Christmas, commemorating the visit of the three magi from the east to Jesus in Bethlehem. But in its origin––and this is why Christianity borrowed the word from the Greek––an epiphany meant any manifestation or appearance of a divine being or some kind of supernatural reality. And then later it comes to mean a flash of insight, but not a mere moment of ordinary inspiration. Epiphany means a realization of the essence of something, even a glimpse at the essence of reality itself, a sudden flash of understanding of the big picture, the ground of being and consciousness maybe. To understand for a moment what it’s all about. The Carmelite author and teacher William MacNamara described contemplative prayer and meditation as a “long loving glance at the really real.” That’s it: God is the Really Real, and when we take a long loving glance we may catch of glimpse of Ultimate Reality. It may be akin to the enlightenment experience that out Asian traditions speak of, or the experience of kensho or satori in the Japanese Buddhist tradition.
But saying, “I had an epiphany” is not exactly correct. It’s like saying, “I had a dream!” No, you didn’t do anything; you were asleep and a dream had you. It’s the same with an epiphany. It signifies that the Divine, God, Ultimate Reality is revealing itself, and we are passive in the process. We can prepare ourselves, but an epiphany is a startling ambush of grace.
These are some of my favorite epiphanies in the scriptures: Moses before the burning bush, and again when he climbs Mount Zion and God is revealed in the dark cloud and fire; Jacob wrestling with the angel; Elijah waiting for God in the cave and God is not in the firestorm or the raging wind or in the earthquake, but in the sound of sheer silence, the still small voice; or Mary conceiving by the Holy Spirit; and this baby that the wise men from the east find with his mother in Bethlehem.
A baby! I can’t think of a better epiphany than what we learn from, how we are amazed by a baby, especially a newborn baby. This is very significant, that glimpsing at a baby we would somehow get a glimpse of Absolute Reality, that everything is somehow summed up in this child, that gazing at this baby we might understand what its all about. This is not just about baby Jesus: this is also about us, about all humanity, all of flesh and all creation, since “Christ is the first born of all creation.” You see, just as we say about the Baptism of the Lord, that what Jesus undergoes he undergoes for all flesh, so it applies here too: who Jesus is he is for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation; what Jesus achieves he achieves for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation; what Jesus receives he receives for all humanity, for all flesh, for all creation. This is Christian mysticism at its most refined.
I’ve recently been struck by how many times Saint Paul especially uses the word “secret” or “mystery.” Even in the reading from Ephesians we heard for the feast of Epiphany––“the mystery hidden before all ages, now revealed in Jesus.” It’s a new way of seeing Jesus, isn’t it? That he came to reveal a secret, to uncover a mystery that had not been made known before. So when Philip asks Jesus to “show us the Father” Jesus tells him, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” If we see Jesus, if we really realize who Jesus is, we will be able to figure out what God is like. “I’m what God is like,” Jesus is saying. But it is also true, since we are branches on the vine, according to Jesus, that if we see Jesus we also realize what it means to be a human being. If we take a long loving glance at Jesus we will realize both what God is and who we are.
So, what’s the secret? What’s the secret?!?
Here it is:
The Father is glad to give you the kingdom!! The gates of heaven are not locked! They’re open! As a matter of fact the kingdom of heaven is among you, within you! (Excuse all these exclamation marks but there is no other way to convey this unless I write in capital letters in bold font… MAYBE I WILL!!!)
What’s the secret?! We are beloved daughters, beloved sons, precious in God’s sight, branches on the vine, and how far could a branch be from the vine?!
What’s the secret? Peter says it quietly in his epistle, we are meant to be PARTICIPANTS IN THE DIVINE NATURE!! If we really realized what that meant it would become real! Divinity is not just something to be adored. It is something to be participated in!!!!!
What’s the secret, what’s the big mystery? Only this, as the priest says when pouring the water into the wine (one of the old “secret prayers” at Mass), we are meant to share in the divinity of Christ who came to share in our humanity. Saint Augustine said it even bolder: Christ became a human child so that every human being might become God! Saint Basil says the same thing, we receive what is beyond our wildest dreams: we become God; we are divinized! I have said it so many times––I have no idea what that means, but I can’t wait to find out! If we only realized that, whew, what a difference it would make.
What’s the big secret? What’s the mystery? That God’s temple is holy, but the temple is not a building; God’s temple is holy, Paul says, AND YOU ARE THAT TEMPLE!!!! YOU ARE THAT TEMPLE!!!! What’s the secret? That the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Spirit living in us, and from there is flows form out of our hearts like a stream of life giving water bringing healing to the whole world.
If only we could realize these things––become aware of them, make them real… Well, to realize them, all we have to do is follow the way of Jesus, which to me involves two steps. First realize our own dignity, realize who we are, become aware of it and make it real. Then, allow ourselves to be emptied, die to the little self we have thought we were up ‘til now so that our real self, hidden with Christ in God can emerge, the real self that is a participant in divine nature, so that we too could become instruments of God’s peace and healing for our world, yeast in the dough, salt for the earth, light for the world. May this epiphany happen to us, and may we realize what it is, and who we are because of it––to be aware, to make it real in ourselves and in our world.