The Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, New Orleans
I've spent many hours, days, and years in the classroom teaching college students to read and enjoy the mysteries of poetry. Most of my students—usually pre-law, pre-med, engineers—resisted reading poetry as anything other than some sort of perverse secret code used to punish non-liberal arts majors for choosing low-brow professions. But even the flaky liberal arts majors tended to read poetry as if there were a hidden message to be found, a profound moral to uncover. To combat this poetical heresy, I used a variety of ingenious techniques stolen from literary history, colleagues, and Nazi interrogation manuals (!) One of the most popular was something I called the “Ah-Ha Reading.” I would have a poem read aloud by several different students. While each student read, the others would note moments in the poem when they learned something they didn't know. No matter how insignificant, no matter how trivial, jot it down! Then each student would then share his/her “ah-ha moment” and tell us about how the poet revealed this new insight, the fresh bit of knowledge. What word, sound, image showed you this novel idea? Without telling them what I was doing, I had covertly introduced my future doctors, lawyers, and engineers to the art of reading poetry epiphanically; that is, reading for the epiphany, waiting to be suddenly gifted with a beautiful truth. Today we rejoice in the Epiphany of the Lord! The Son of God revealed to us in the flesh—the gift of everlasting life.
Our celebration of the Epiphany of the Lord is packed with references to the notion of revelation. The Lord is revealed to the Magi. He himself reveals once obscured truths. Even now, we—altogether—are revealing God to one another. We also hear “manifest,” “unveil,” and the phrases, “make known” and “made evident.” Something, someone once hidden is now manifest; the veiled is unveiled, the darkness is lit. What starts as a word from Mary and a shadow manifests as a child, a child revealed to be the Messiah. His coming is made known in scripture: Bethlehem, “from you shall come a ruler, who is to shepherd my people Israel.” His arrival is marked, “the star that [the Magi] had seen at its rising preceded them. . .and stopped over the place where the child was.” And his nature and purpose is made known, “[The Magi] prostrated themselves and did him homage.” With these revelations, these beautiful truths in mind, listen again to Isiah, “Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you. . .upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory. . .you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow. . .” Every nation shall come to adore him!
Though we call today's celebration “The Epiphany of the Lord,” it also goes by another name, an older, more specific name, “The Manifestation of the Christ to the Gentiles.” The long-awaited Messiah is promised to the Jews. His arrival is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He is born into the royal line of King David of Israel through Mary, his mother. He is presented at the temple, circumcised, and raised to read and understand the Hebrew scriptures. If this is true, then why do pagan priests, Gentile holy men travel from the east to give him gifts and do him homage as a king? The former Pharisee, Paul, writing to the Ephesians, answers this question for us, “. . .the mystery was made known to me by revelation. . .the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” The Christ is promised to the Jews as their Messiah. And we—Gentiles—are made coheirs, co-partners in the fulfillment of that divine promise. The Magi visit the Christ-child b/c it has been revealed to them that this Child is the king of glory, the king before whom all nations will bend a knee and do homage. The Christ is made manifest to the Gentiles, shown to be the Savior of whole world.
With the manifestation of the Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike comes an astonishing cascade of revelations. The Law of Moses, written on stone, is revealed to be the Law of Love written on the heart. The worship of God in the temple is revealed to be service to others with the temple of the body. The bread and wine of the Passover feast is revealed to be his Body and Blood, broken and poured out for our sakes. The sacrifices of lambs on the altar is revealed to be the one sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the altar of the Cross. Our Lord uncovers sight for the blind; hearing for the deaf; speech for the muted. He manifests health for the sick; mobility for the lame; and freedom for the possessed. He unveils bread for the hungry; consolation for those who mourn; riches for the poor. And, most importantly, he makes known the mercy of God for the sinner. He is God's mercy for the sinner, forgiveness given flesh and bone. And when he is resurrected on Easter morning he reveals to us our end, our goal: everlasting life, perfection as God the Father is perfect. That tiny child, worshiped by the Magi, accomplishes all these things b/c he is the Son of God become man; living among us, dying as one of us, and revealing to us the freely given gift of eternal life.
On occasion, in the classroom, one or two of my students would look up from a poem and give me an “ah-ha” look. That look that says, “I get it! I get it!” It's that look that every teacher worth his pay longs to see. Coming to love poetry for its epiphanies takes practice; it's a habit formed from repetition and patience. The life of holiness is no different. There's nothing hidden in verse. There's no secret code to break or arcane symbols to decipher. There's the text and the reader. In the work of holiness, there's the human soul and the Holy Spirit. Everything we need to start, maintain, and finish a holy life has been revealed. It's all there, waiting for the patient, determined soul to begin. Start each day by giving God thanks for His gift of Christ. Maintain by celebrating his sacraments and doing good works for his glory. Finish each day receiving his forgiveness and forgiving those who sinned against you. Repeat, repeat, repeat. “Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow [and] the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.”
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