In secular usage the word ‘epiphany’ means a sudden realisation of the true meaning of something. This is because our common usage comes from the religious meaning of Epiphany as the human experience of waking up to a previously hidden significance of something or some one. In this first Epiphany, through the insight of the Magi, the ultimate divine manifestation is made known to the world.
The world that was in darkness, has now seen the light. The irresistable attraction to the light is a natural and enduring drive. It is in life’s darkest moments that we are most aware of our need for light. As Leonard Cohen sang: “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”
A Christian accepts that we are invited to share this divine light eternally after our death, but how does this help us in the midst of today’s burdens?
The key is reality. Faith leads me to reality, both the reality of God and the reality of my own life. We begin every Mass with the invitation “brothers and sisters, let us acknowledge our sins, and so prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.” In other words, let us wake up to our personal and communal reality, that we might know our capacity for the reality of God to enter us in this Mass.
Let’s be honest about this reality. While I am attracted to the light of truth, there are many times when the reality which highlights every speck of dust and stain of sin is too much for me. Like Adam and Eve in the garden I head for the shelter of the shade. At times I even prefer darkness, but my attraction to the light remains.
Humans can survive darkness. We can exist in the gloom. But only the light provides an environment of growth and life, We much prefer the freedom of openness and honesty to the fear of secrets and deception. This fact is the heart of the feast of the Epiphany.
T.S. Eliot has the Magi returning “to our places, these Kingdoms, but no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.” This is the effect on the one who has encountered the person of Jesus. We are never again fully at home on earth, even in the fulness of all that our world has to offer. We are drawn to a greater light – and this is a sign that we are healthy.
We can never be happier in this world than when we are following THE light. In the midst of the reality of human suffering, we delight in the presence of the one one who transforms our days of darkness into an eternal life of light.
A few sentences from Pope Francis’ homily on this feast of the Epiphany last year:
“We often make do with looking at the ground: it’s enough to have our health, a little money and a bit of entertainment. I wonder if we still know how to look up at the sky. Do we know how to dream, to long for God, to expect the newness he brings, or do we let ourselves be swept along by life, like dry branches before the wind? The Magi were not content with just getting by, with keeping afloat. They understood that to truly live, we need a lofty goal and we need to keep looking up.
“We may ask ourselves what star we have chosen to follow in our lives. Some stars may be bright, but they do not point the way. So it is with success, money, career, honours and pleasures when these become our life. They are meteors: they blaze momentarily, but then quickly burn out and their brilliance fades. They are shooting stars that mislead rather than lead. The Lord’s star, however, may not always overwhelm by its brightness, but it is always there, ever kindly: it takes you by the hand in life and accompanies you. It does not promise material reward, but ensures peace and grants, as it did to the Magi, “exceedingly great joy” (Mt 2:10). But it also tells us to set out.
“Setting out, the second thing the Magi do, is essential if we are to find Jesus. His star demands a decision to take up the journey and to advance tirelessly on our way. It demands that we free ourselves from useless burdens and unnecessary extras that only prove a hindrance, and accept unforeseen obstacles along the map of life. Jesus allows himself to be found by those who seek him, but to find him we need to get up and go, not sit around but take risks, not stand still, but set out. Jesus makes demands: he tells those who seek him to leave behind the armchair of worldly comforts and the reassuring warmth of hearth and home. Following Jesus is not a polite etiquette to be observed, but a journey to be undertaken. God, who set his people free in the exodus and called new peoples to follow his star, grants freedom and joy always and only in the course of a journey. In other words, if we want to find Jesus, we have to overcome our fear of taking risks, our self-satisfaction and our indolent refusal to ask anything more of life. We need to take risks simply to meet a Child. Yet those risks are immensely worth the effort, since in finding that Child, in discovering his tenderness and love, we rediscover ourselves.