An Epiphany Miscellany, 2024

An Epiphany Miscellany, 2024 January 8, 2024

The epiphany of the star; the epiphany of the incarnation; a literary epiphany; and a political epiphany.

The Epiphany of the Star

Saturday was Epiphany, marking the revelation of the Christ child to the Magi, beginning the season of Epiphany, which marks a series of other revelations about the identity of Jesus (His baptism with the voice from Heaven proclaiming who He is; His first miracle; and other revelatory events in His life, culminating with the Transfiguration and another voice from Heaven), which leads into Lent, commemorating when Jesus set aside His glory to suffer and die for our redemption.

Spencer Klavan has written a lyrical meditation on the Star in the East.  He reflects on what the magi must have seen, raising an issue I had never thought about:  If they saw His star “in the East,” they mustn’t have been following it as such, since they would have been traveling West.  But they were following the star in the sense of being guided by what it communicated.  And the meaning is reflected in their gifts:

I can read in the heavens no information so precise as to communicate, in one speck of bright light, an entire Gospel’s worth of prophecy. We decode the astral language differently now, parsing the grammar of brightness and motion into data regarding distance and chemical composition. To a modern, a bright star might mean combustion, or proximity to earth.

Ancient astronomers could read the heavens physically, too. But they also had a richer lexicon, subtler and more allusive, which invested the celestial movements with legends and mythic whispers. And in that language the star, somehow, told the wise men many things. They translated what they read there into another ancient and wordless tongue, the language of stones and plants. They had seen that the child of Judah would be a king (gold). That he would be holy (incense). And that he would suffer (myrrh).

The Epiphany of the Incarnation

An “epiphany” means “the light comes on.”  It is a revelation and a realization.  Bishop Robert Barron of the Catholic evangelistic organization Word on Fire, has published a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) entitled The Incarnation Changes Even Nonbelievers.  He argues that simply hearing the Christian teaching that God became a man, that Jesus is none other than God in the flesh, has to change the way people think about God, whether they believe in Him or not.

If you have taken in the story of the baby who is God, you simply aren’t the same person you were before.

First, your understanding of God will be revolutionized. The God who can become a creature without ceasing to be God and without compromising the integrity of the creature he becomes stands in a fundamentally noncompetitive relationship with the world. In most non-Christian theologies and religious philosophies, God is typically understood as set over and against the universe: a supreme being in sharp contrast with the finite beings of the created order. But the God capable of the Incarnation, though certainly distinct from the world, is noncontrastively other. He isn’t competing with creatures for dominance on the same playing field. To shift the metaphor, he isn’t so much the most impressive character in the novel as he is the author, responsible for every character in the story, yet never jostling for position among them.

This is an epiphany indeed.  So many people assume that God is just a being that looks down from afar upon the world and does nothing about the evil that He sees, which becomes a reason to either be angry at God or not believe in Him at all.  Whereas the God Christians believe in is one who comes into the world to take that evil into Himself to save us from it.  I can see not believing in that, but so many conversations about God leave out the Incarnation, which is the whole point for Christians.

Bishop Barron sees in the Incarnation another epiphany:

The unnerving doctrine of the Incarnation also tells us a great deal about ourselves. If God has stooped low to join himself to the human race, then we have a purpose and destiny infinitely beyond anything proposed by even the most extravagant humanisms of antiquity or modernity. In the light of Christmas, we see that the goal of human life isn’t simply to be ethically upright, politically powerful, aesthetically accomplished or autonomous. Rather, it is to be a sharer in the divine nature.

A Literary Epiphany

There can, of course, be other kinds of epiphanies.  The word also is a term used in literary analysis.  Here is the explanation from a site called Literary Terms:

Epiphany is an “Aha!” moment. As a literary device, epiphany (pronounced ih-pifuh-nee) is the moment when a character is suddenly struck with a life-changing realization which changes the rest of the story.

We can read that back into the Epiphany of Christ.  The revelation of Christ–which, for us, is through the Word and Sacraments–and our response of faith is indeed “a life-changing realization.”  It indeed “changes the rest of the story” of our lives.

I received another epiphany from that literary discussion. The term derives from its religious meaning, and the authors cannot even talk about it without bringing in other religious words, pulled from their original theological context to describe literary experiences (my bolds):

Epiphanies provide narratives with some of the most exciting and compelling events, pulled out of ordinary moments. Epiphanies are rare occurrences marked by great philosophical, spiritual, or personal insight. Because epiphanies often occur in real life at such typical and everyday moments, they provide plays, poems, prose, and film with realistic yet inspiring instances of revelation. Epiphanies also provide readers and audiences with hope, as the ability to see things in a new way and to change our lives is inspiring and redeeming, especially for people who have struggled to succeed or to find higher meaning in life. As a plot device, epiphany often marks a turning point in the character’s psyche which leads to the eventual conclusion of the story.

Such terms can work metaphorically to describe literature, but they point to our deep-seated need for the realities of inspiration, revelation, hope, the meaning of life, and redemption.

My epiphany is that many of my fellow literary scholars are looking to literature for what only Christianity can give.  But they can’t shake their need for such things.

A Political Epiphany

Here is an example of a non-religious, non-literary epiphany that I had the other day.

I read that the great former infielder for the Dodgers, Steve Garvey, he of the Popeye-like arms, is running for the Senate in California.  I don’t know how he’d be in that non-baseball role, but something he said was a political epiphany for me:

“I always say I never played for Democrats or Republicans or independents or libertarians. I played for all the fans, and I’m playing right now,” he said.

“I’m running for all the people, and my opponents can’t say that. They’re only running for half the people.

Exactly!  Our politicians are running for their base (not in the baseball sense).  They are trying to attract a particular faction of the American people, whether conservatives or progressives.  To motivate their base, they demonize the opposing faction.  If their faction is in the majority and they win the election, they carry out their office by implementing their faction’s favored policies while thwarting what the other side wants.

This is perhaps understandable in today’s climate, but it not only perpetuates but feeds on our polarization and disunity.

There is another model, though.  “Running for all the people.”  Working for the common good–what everyone needs–rather than the good of one side or the other.  There will be differences and disagreements, of course, about what that common good is and what the entire country needs.  This is why we have elections.  But the goal and the value behind it of representing “all the people” is a worthy one.  I think some of the politicians of the past of both parties–Washington and the founding presidents; more recently, Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Reagan–thought in these terms.  From what I can see, our politicians today aren’t even trying to consider the nation as a whole.

Thanks for the epiphany, Steve.

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