The Epiphanies of Life
How have we encountered God in our lives and ministry?
Father Richard Gribble 0
Annually at the outset of the calendar year, midway through the liturgical season of Christmas, the Church celebrates the great feast of the Epiphany. The Gospel story as narrated by Matthew 2:1-12 is familiar to all.
At the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, a star arose in the East, leading three Magi (sometimes referred to as astrologers or kings) to the humble stable. They prostrate themselves and offer gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts represent how these men, themselves royalty, understand the importance of this newborn child. Gold signifies he is indeed a king; frankincense expresses their belief that this king is also divine. Myrrh, a burial ointment, expresses their understanding that this king who is also divine will one day die for his people.
This great feast, when we celebrate men of prominence who, although outside the purview of Israel and the Jewish faith, can nevertheless recognize in Jesus the divine human who will save his people, provides a more general challenge for all, especially those privileged to be priests and religious. Initially, one must ponder what we mean by an epiphany.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word as “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a divine being.” Religious life and priesthood, which centers most on ministry to others, provide many varied experiences that, when we reflect upon them, are truly epiphanies. While these events may not be physical appearances of the divine, nonetheless they are manifestations of God’s action in our life. The question we must ponder is: Have we recognized these epiphanies when they have occurred in our lives? A review of how Scripture manifests the concept of epiphany and how we, as contemporary ministers, have experienced the same can be instructive in helping us recognize and celebrate the power and presence of Christ in our daily life.
Epiphanies in Scripture
Epiphanies manifest in varied ways, and are found throughout the Hebrew Bible. After his initial call from Yahweh, Abraham was visited by the Lord. We hear of Abraham encountering three men as a manifestation of God: “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oak of Mamre. … Looking up, he saw three men standing near him” (Gn 18:1-2).
Jacob wrestled with an angel who struck him in his hip socket (cf. Gn 32:25-26).
God was manifest to Moses in a theophany when the latter observed a bush that was burning but not consumed (cf. Ex 3:1-10). God commissioned Moses to be the deliverer of the Israelites, freeing them from bondage in Egypt and leading them through the Red Sea, crossing the desert to the frontier of the Promised Land.
Young Samuel was visited by the Lord in a dream. Three times God called and the youth went to his mentor, Eli, in response to this apparent summons. Eventually, Eli recognized that it was God who was calling Samuel, instructing him that when called he should say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Sm 3:9).
In each of these cases, God was instructing and challenging and providing a manifestation of God’s presence in the world. All are examples of epiphanies.
The New Testament is equally rich with various accounts that can be collectively classified as epiphanies.
The Epiphany event summarized earlier and celebrated each Christmas season is only one of many manifestations of God’s presence and action in the world.
The Gospels present numerous miracles that Jesus performed, all beyond human capacity and, therefore, manifestations of the divine.
The Pentecost event narrated in the Acts of the Apostles was certainly an epiphany. The Holy Spirit, manifest as tongues of fire, provided gifts beyond the capability at the time of the people who received them. Peoples from across the world, speaking in their own languages, were understood by unlearned people (cf. Acts 2:1-13).
St. Paul’s dramatic conversion as he journeyed to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1-15) was clearly an epiphany, transforming him from a zealous persecutor of Christians into his role as the Apostle to the Gentiles.
POPE FRANCIS’ WISDOM
“Like the Magi, let us lift up our eyes, listen to the desire lodged in our hearts, and follow the star that God makes shine above us. As restless seekers, let us remain open to God’s surprises. Let us dream, let us seek and let us adore.”
— Homily on the Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2022
Epiphanies in Ministry
Throughout our lives as priests and religious, we have experienced many “epiphanies” that most probably were not recognized this way. All people have their own vocation story, whether to married life and family, the single life, or religious life and/or priesthood. In the latter group, each of us has our own story, how we initially received and responded to God’s call to this way of living the Gospel message.
The initial call, however, was manifest and probably powerful. We remember events of this nature very clearly. At that time, however, we did not realize it would lead to a radical change in our life. With our usual 20/20 hindsight, we can look back, review and recognize how this initial call was a true epiphany.
After our initial response to God’s call, most of us entered the apostolic life, seeking to minister to God’s people, the Church as lumen gentium poignantly linking them. More than once we have been challenged in our ministerial lives to enter situations or call upon gifts that were latent or we believed we did not possess to meet the needs before us. Naturally, there may have been a sense of hesitation to move forward, fearful that our efforts would be inadequate or, worse still, that we might fail. However, when we summoned the courage to move forward and engage the challenge, trusting that the Lord would provide the resources needed to meet the opportunity placed before us, the result was often beneficial for others, as well as ourselves.
In such situations, we grew in important and, at times, significant ways. We felt a sense of accomplishment, even exhilaration, and were grateful that the Lord could use us in positive ways to bring his presence to others. God clearly visited us; possibly we didn’t even realize it. These were certainly epiphanies, although we may not have recognized them at the time.
Epiphanies are found throughout our lives in incidents and events that change our direction in life. Many of us are familiar with the story of Dorothy Day and her encounter with the French émigré to the United States, Peter Maurin. Their meeting in December 1932 gave direction to Day’s life through The Catholic Worker Movement and its organ, The Catholic Worker, and simultaneously gave Maurin a platform for his ideas of social change.
Similarly, we encounter people who can transform our lives. As a young man may meet a woman or vice versa that changes his or her direction in life, possibly leading to marriage and family, so, too, it is quite possible that we can encounter someone who transforms our direction in ministry.
Such occurrences might be initially perceived as positive and welcome; others could be viewed as negative and to be avoided. With eyes of faith, however, we can hopefully see such encounters as manifestations of God’s presence in our life and, therefore, epiphanies.
We have all encountered people who have inspired us by their lives of faith. Sometimes, we are so powerfully struck that we wish to follow the individual’s lead. As Jesus, the charismatic figure that he was, called the apostles to leave everything behind and become his followers, so, too, our encounters with others have for many provided a similar reaction. We may have run into a great teacher who inspired us to enter the ministry of education and scholarship. Possibly we met an individual in the hospital or similar medical institution and marveled at that individual’s ability to deal with the pain and suffering of others and bring consolation to them.
All of us have gained inspiration from the work of famous people like St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta. We might not possess the requisite gifts necessary for direct service to the poor and destitute, but no one who hears her story can continue in life without some transformation of one’s heart.
Some people can be inspired by the courage of St. Oscar Romero. His valor to stand up for the basic human rights of his people led to martyrdom. Undoubtedly, he has become an epiphany for many, to take up the cause and be the voice of those society has forgotten, the ones to whom few if any will listen.
The positive epiphanies of our lives are many, but while, hopefully, we live our lives in the light of Christ, we know that certain darkness periodically occludes our vision, affecting our ministerial lives. Physical illnesses or injuries can be epiphany events. Quite obviously, God does not desire anything that is negative for any of us; God wants what is good for us. However, as the Book of Wisdom says, “Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, / because God tried them / and found them worthy of himself” (Wis 3:5).
Tested in Fire
Yes, we are tested in the fire and honed to make us purer and, thereby, better vehicles and providers of God’s love to others. Stories abound of individuals who, due to physical or even mental difficulties, have shifted direction in life, only to find a new path that will allow them to serve God and his people in different and positive ways.
Personal failures of many natures also lead one to new vistas. At the time, the change that life necessitates may be very painful, but again, when we review the story of our life, can we see that such events truly were epiphanies, manifestations of God’s action in our lives? Ministerial disappointments themselves can be epiphanies. If we come to the realization that a particular way to minister to others in Christ’s name is not efficacious, then, despite the disappointment and possible sense of loss, we must see in such events the hand of the Lord.
The positives and negatives, those more profound events in our lives, can, with the eyes of faith, be seen as epiphanies, but so must the routine and ordinary changes that all priests and religious experience. Change is part and parcel of the path we have chosen. We may be primarily educators, parochial ministers, hospital chaplains, missionaries or social workers, but while a basic ministerial orientation may be consistent, the places we minister, the people to whom we minister and the method we use in ministry will certainly change over time.
Each of these changes, whether a physical location, the people whom we serve, or even how we serve them, will indeed create a shift. While generally not dramatic, nonetheless, these mini-epiphanies allow us to see the hand of God once again. Change is endemic not only to ministry but to life. Variety and diversity can be challenges, but they can also be great opportunities for grace; as the expression says, “Variety is the spice of life.”
The Church’s annual celebration of Epiphany, marking the Magi’s recognition of Jesus as lord and king, can be for priests and religious a special opportunity to consider the many epiphanies of our lives and to offer thanks to God for these encounters. We may not have recognized them initially, but hindsight provides the clarity of vision we often need. Biblical examples of both theophanies and epiphanies abound, and we can see in them how such encounters with God transformed lives in positive ways.
At this time of year, we can take the opportunity provided to review our lives, looking at the routine, even mundane, changes, as well as those more profound positive and negative events of our life, viewing them as epiphanies, manifestations of how God has come to us. Hopefully, our review can help us to never shy away from any of the events of our life, but, with the eyes of faith, to view God’s presence in all that we do, continuing our quest for the Beatific Vision and eternal life.
FATHER RICHARD GRIBBLE, CSC, is a priest of the Congregation of Holy Cross and presently serves as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts.
Catechism Expounds on Ephiphany
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 528, says the following on the Ephiphany: “The Epiphany is the manifestation of Jesus as Messiah of Israel, Son of God and Savior of the world. The great feast of Epiphany celebrates the adoration of Jesus by the wise men (magi) from the East, together with his baptism in the Jordan and the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee. In the magi, representatives of the neighboring pagan religions, the Gospel sees the first-fruits of the nations, who welcome the good news of salvation through the Incarnation. The magi’s coming to Jerusalem in order to pay homage to the king of the Jews shows that they seek in Israel, in the messianic light of the star of David, the one who will be king of the nations. Their coming means that pagans can discover Jesus and worship him as Son of God and Savior of the world only by turning towards the Jews and receiving from them the messianic promise as contained in the Old Testament. The Epiphany shows that ‘the full number of the nations’ now takes its ‘place in the family of the patriarchs,’ and acquires Israelitica dignitas (‘the dignity of Israel’s birthright’).”