Imagine that you had a secret admirer. You would never know you had a secret admirer unless the secret admirer revealed himself or herself to you. If not, then their identity remains a secret. A poetic way to understand the feast of the epiphany is that we have all had a secret admirer in God, and the Epiphany celebrates the day that God decides to tell us that he is in love with us. In the case of the Epiphany, this isn’t just a poetic image. It is actually quite true.
As y’all are aware, particularly when we have a feast like the Epiphany, I want to first explain what it means and why we are celebrating it. Then I would like to make some kind of spiritual application of that information to our lives. Like many of our feasts, the Epiphany had its early roots in the Eastern church, and is one of our older feasts. Its history is very complicated and for those of you who like studying the development of liturgy, the Epiphany is probably one of the more interesting feasts to study–but we are not going to go into it here.
Literally, an epiphaneia in ancient Greek is a kind of showing or manifestation or “striking appearance.” So when we apply that word to the life of Christ, The basic meaning of the feast is that it celebrates Jesus Christ’s appearing or manifestation to the Gentiles. Because the word, epiphany, is rather vague, it has been connected primarily to the following events in Jesus’s life: his baptism, the visit of the Magi, the first miracle at Cana when he changed water in wine, and it even referred to his birth. It is primarily in those events that Jesus first comes out an reveals who he truly is. At his baptism, God the Father himself spoke and said, “This is my beloved son.” At the visit of the Magi, even important persons from another culture recognize that a new king has appeared. At Cana, Jesus reveals his miraculous power for the first time at the wedding feast.
In many churches in the East and a few in the West, the congregation will hold torches or candles on this feast day to symbolize that Christ is the light — he has shown himself in history through his word and deed and he wants us all to be lights for him.
God is an all-powerful, infinite being. If we are to get to know him, then he has to REVEAL HIMSELF to us. There is only so much that we can figure out on our own with our limited minds. We can look at creation in all its splendor and order and point to a creator. I think we can accept this as a logical proposition even if we also accept the Big Bang theory. (After all, the Big Bang needs a Big Banger.) So in order for us to truly know him, God decided to become a man and teach us about him; but not only to teach, but to pay the price for our sins. He left behind two sources for us to learn about him: Holy Scripture, and tradition of the Catholic church through the succession of the popes and bishops.
God could have left things very general. He could have remained up in heaven and told us to just obey the Ten Commandments and that’s enough. He could have remained distant. But he did not. Almost exactly 2012 years ago, he became a human being in the womb of a Jewish teenager named Mary, fulfilled the prophecies of the Jewish religion, performed miracles, was eventually put to death by Roman and Jewish authorities, and left behind 12 apostles and others to follow his teachings and worship him as the son of God.
Y’all, that is not general at all. That is very specific as a matter of fact. And actually, our faith is so particular and special that I think it bothers some people. Let me tell you what I mean.
There are some people in this world — millions in fact — that think that we should keep our religion so general that we don’t offend anybody anymore. Who cares if we call God “Allah” or “Buddha” or “Jesus” or even “Shiva” or if we think that Mother Earth is God and call her “Gaia,” or maybe we should even worship like Jedi from Star Wars and believe that God is just a great and powerful force. These people would have us think that we should all get along, that we should stop naming God because that divides us, and above all, let’s stop this nonsense of maintaining that he became a man on this earth and demanded that we respond to him with our love and our lives. Let’s not have laws or dogmas anymore because we just argue about those, and try to be as general and mimalistic as we possibly can. This kind of spirit even exists within the Catholic church, you can be absolutely certain.
Why does the specificity of God bother some people? Jesus himself explains it. He says in John 3:20, “Everyone who does evil hates the light for fear that his evil deeds will be exposed.” And some people aren’t evil, they’re just lazy. Having a very vague, general God means that they don’t have to go through any effort to truly follow him. But a specific God who reveals himself to us as a person and demands a relationship with us? That makes some people very uncomfortable indeed.
There are some theologians who have even referred to the fact of Jesus becoming a man as the “scandal of particularlity.” In other words, it is a scandal to some people that God would become such a specific kind of person in history rather than to keep things as general and as distant as worshipping the sunrise. The sunrise won’t ever ask you to special things for him. Mother earth isn’t going to ask you to change your life for her sake. Maybe just ask you to feed a few dolphins, which is fine. I love dolphins.
But Jesus Christ the Son of God will ask you for a significantly more personal response than a dolphin will. Our religion is a scandal because yes, we ultimately have to claim that other religions have a number of things WRONG about the truth of God. It’s not very popular nowadays to say that other religions are wrong. It doesn’t mean that they have EVERYTHING WRONG. There are many things that we have in common with other faiths, but we cannot ignore the fact that there are many things that divide us, and the solution isn’t giving up on what we hold dear in order to keep the peace. That is the solution for cowards and men and women who have lost their faith.
With all due respect, I didn’t give up my own wife and family to preach a God who hides behind the clouds. He asked me very specifically to do this, and I have attempted to respond to him, though haltingly. OUR GOD HAS MADE THIS GREAT ADVENTURE CALLED LIFE VERY PERSONAL INDEED.
There are scholars like Richard Dawkins who are presently arguing that religion is actually the root of all evil. There are already groups forming in the United Nations that want to outlaw religion altogether worldwide. There are more insidious movements in the world to combine all religions into one vast, vague general religion that will supposedly offend no one. But I would be willing to bet that it will offend Jesus Christ. Let’s remember that in the name of wiping religion off the face of the earth, 20th century atheist regimes saw the murder of maybe 50 million people or so — we will never know the extent of it. Arguably, this equals and surpasses the many centuries of religious wars that went before. Both sides have committed atrocities. But let’s not be naive and maintain that religion is the problem.
So what is the real problem? As a Catholic, my answer is this: the real problem is that Jesus Christ has revealed himself and not enough people have responded to his call to repent, to worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, and to love.
But there are forces in this world that are offended by how specific this is. Wouldn’t it be easier to keep things general? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep God as some nameless force, hiding behind the clouds, so long as he doesn’t really ask me to change my thoughts or my actions? Sure it would be. It might be easier, but would it be good? Would it be holy? Would it be true? They mock us and ask, “Do you really believe in this fairy tale? Will you really bet your life that this is truth.” I will repeat what the Jewish general Joshua said as he prepared to take over the holy land: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”
It is a wonderful thing to get along, but not if it is at the expense of the Truth. The problem with all this very cloudy generalness is that the Epiphany teaches us that God has revealed himself as a very special person, he wants us to do special things, he established special sacraments for our salvation. But because of this, we can have a special relationship with him. That’s the payoff.
What does all that have to do with the Epiphany? Good question. I’m glad you asked it. My main point is that the Epiphany is the revelation of a person, a very specific man who was God. After the Epiphany, we can no longer be satisfied with a God who lives very comfortably behind the clouds.
Jesus was not born on a vague day. He was born on Christmas around 2012 year ago. He did not have vague parentage. Their names were Mary and Joseph, and his real father was God himself. He was not a mix of all races, he was very, very Jewish. Because he became a scandalously particular man, many events happened. A wicked king tried to kill him. A group of infants were slaughtered so that Jesus might be put to death. Joseph and Mary had to leave their home for years because of him. 3 wise men probably gave up their religion and changed their hearts in order to pay him homage. 12 men plus many more left everything they had behind in order to follow him. The world has changed because of him. But you know what the real scandal is? Will my heart and life change because of him?
God is not content with being worshipped vaguely. God is not content with us saying hello to him just once a week. God is a secret admirer that has made himself known. He has become so personal in these times that he gives us his very own heart in the Holy Eucharist so that we might have the strength to give him ours. In one of the most beautifully written love notes of all time, a star rose over a manger over 2000 years ago to point the way for us to make a long journey and lay our gifts before an infant God. Our secret admirer has made himself known.
Now its our move.