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Finding Epiphany in the "Ah Ha!" Moments of Life

Yes, I know it's a little late to be blogging about the festival of Epiphany, but honestly I'm not liturgical enough to really notice when these "minor" festivals take place. I do know that Epiphany falls between Christmas and Easter, and that the interim period between the two major holidays is called the "Epiphany Season." And in a way, my negligence in observing the festival this year actually ties right into the topic of this post, which has to do with celebrating "epiphany" every day.

The word "epiphany" comes from the Greek word for "appearance" or "manifestation," and the holiday typically falls twelve days after Christmas in the Western Church (which shows how late this post actually is!). It commemorates the visit of the three magi to the manger, where they experienced the direct recognition of God in the infant Christ. Hence, "epiphany" has to do with seeing and recognizing the divine as it comes to us in Jesus.

An epiphany is essentially an "ah ha!" moment, when we look up and suddenly see God standing in our midst. The epiphany may come through some direct manifestation of God, or through our own recognition that God has been standing among us all along. For the three magi of the New Testament, it was no doubt a combination of both of these elements that led to their dramatic realization of God in their midst. We know from the Biblical narrative that the magi already had some awareness of Christ's presence in Bethlehem - they had "seen his star" in the East and had gone off on a journey to see him. But I believe that the real "epiphany" took place not with the initial recognition of the star or with the decision to set out on the journey, but in the moment they knelt beside the manger and said "ah ha! Here is the something - or the Someone - we have been searching for all along!"

In many respects, the story of the three magi is typical of our own spiritual quest. Within each of us, there is an innate longing for the origin and source of our being that St. Augustine referred to as a God-shaped hole in the human heart. At times, we catch glimpses of this numinous "something" in moments of sheer beauty that stir our hearts towards a longing for something even deeper - for Beauty itself. For others the desire springs up in a moment of crisis, when all the pretenses that we have built around ourselves are stripped away and we are left naked before the divine. These are those "magical moments" of life that can be described but never really conveyed in words; they must be experienced. For me, many of these moments came during a time of personal crisis several years ago, that also proved to be one of the most spiritually active times of my life.

These "magical moments" are the lodestars of our desire, the magis' star in the east that propels us to seek and search for that "Something" that we desire above all else. The Christian writer C.S. Lewis understood this concept and wrote about it in several of his books. In "Till We Have Faces," Lewis writes: "It was when I was happiest that I longed most...The sweetest thing in all my life has been the find the place where all the beauty came from." For Lewis, those moments came through experiences of beauty and childhood memories, behind which they seemed to be something greater, of which his deepest experiences of happiness were merely shadows - he called this something "Joy" with a capital J. At times (at least in my experience), it seems that here and there we catch glimpses Lewis' Joy, and it's almost as if they are suddenly reminders of something that we once knew, but have forgotten about or shuffled off to the deepest recesses of memory. It's like driving by a childhood home and suddenly remembering all of the rooms and doors and the games you played in them, and suddenly you say to yourself "I remember that! Now where's the key to get back inside?" It is this innate yearning that beckons us, like the Magi, to leave our native land (whether that be physical, spiritual, or intellectual) and venture into parts unknown, always following that elusive star that shines in our hearts. As C.S. Lewis said: "All joy...emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire. Our best havings are wantings."

For the magi, the moment of realization came in the recognition that in Christ, that "something" they had been searching for was there before them, embodied in physical form. 1 John 4: 15-16 tells us: "If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him." If God is love, then to say that Jesus is "God among us" is to say that Jesus is "Love among us." It was this Love which called the wisemen away from home and which they found embodied there in the manger.

The challenge for us, then, is to capture the message of epiphany each day by recognizing God here in our midst. It's an interesting point of Biblical theology that although Jesus is no longer physically present among us at this present time, in a very real sense he is perhaps more present than he was in his historical ministry, his Spirit now embodied in the lives of believers all throughout the world. There is a sense in which Jesus, removed from the limitations of any one geographic location, now pervades the world. Since the incarnation, we can never again look at the world as "common" or "mundane," because it has the indelible stamp of the creator upon it. It is this very idea that there, in the manger, God and flesh are conjoined, that once and for all overturns and destroys the false dichotomy between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane, for in Christ, the natural becomes supernatural, and the merely physical becomes divine.

A friend of mine once told me: "The life of a true mystic is not characterized by divine experiences, but by the ability to recognize the divine in every day life." In Hinduism, there is a word for this recognition - "darshan" or "darsana." The word "darshan" literally means "seeing," and refers to the sudden experience of seeing God in a person, place, or situation. I can't help but wonder if Christians would benefit from a re-emphasis on precisely this concept in our own tradition, where it is embodied in the term "epiphany." Where do we see God working in our midst? What rare moments have you had when you suddenly blinked and said "ah ha! There it is!"? Please share your experiences of "epiphany" in the comment section, and may we all spend this new year with our eyes peeled for God's footprints in our daily lives.

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