January 2003

Personal Epiphanies ©

This story is about a friend’s sister. It took place several years ago when she, her husband and two young children moved to a new city. Her husband travelled frequently. She often felt overwhelmed by her new surroundings, the distance from friends and family and the demands of her role as mother to her two children, the youngest of whom was just a baby.

One day near Christmas she visited a local shopping mall. She was feeling particularly frazzled around the preparations for the holidays, and her kids were acting up as she tried to negotiate doing her Christmas shopping amidst the crowds. She decided to stop and let her elder daughter loose in a play area where they had rides and diversions for the children. She used the time to try to calm her jangled nerves.

After a few minutes, as she was preparing to leave, an older man approached her. He said he owned a small booth nearby that sold candles and had been watching her interact with her children as they played. He said he felt he wanted to tell her what a wonderful mother she was, so full of patience and love for her kids. He then handed her a beautiful candle and wished her a “Merry Christmas”. Overwhelmed by the man’s kindness, all she could manage was a brief but heartfelt ‘thank you.’

She really could not explain why that gentleman had decided to show that act of kindness to her on that day. It affected her deeply and reminded her that despite her struggles, she was a good Mom.

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On the Feast of the Epiphany, the Church invites us to recall the story of three men who found God in surprising circumstances – an unexpected manifestation of divinity. These men are understood to have travelled long distances, guided by a bright star. We are told that they bowed before a small, helpless child. They brought gifts to signify their great joy. Finally, we discover, they took a different way home. What do all of these details tell us about their discovery of God’s greatest gift to humanity, the saviour of the world? Five details really stand out.

First, the distance they travelled is a measure of how much they had to change their routine in order to catch a glimpse of God’s magnificence. Aside from the sheer distance they had to cover, such a journey would also have taken a great deal of time.

Second, the star represents the sign that directed them. It might have been an outer sign, such as a person, an object or an event. It might have also been an inner light …an insight.

Third, the reverence to a child born in humble conditions is an unbelievable act of substitution of the other for the self: a regal self displaced in favour of a seemly insignificant other.

Fourth, the act of giving is a symbol for the act of love—as distinct from its sentiment. The giving here is of the self — not in a spirit of grudging resignation, but in great joy. Love that is not active and not joyful is not love. Love -active and joy-filled- is transforming. That transformation was so great that the paths of these wise men were forever changed, and that is our fifth shining detail of epiphany. They chose a different way to go home — a different route to signify the fundamental change that had come over them.

What is an epiphany? Simply put, it is a discovery of God in some unexpected corner of our world or of our life. One dictionary calls it the ‘sudden appearance or manifestation of the essential nature of something.’

Epiphanies are compelling evidence that the Incarnation is real …that God lives among us, and sometimes in forms we do not easily associate with divinity. Just as Jews in the time of Jesus did not expect the Messiah to take the form of a helpless child, we today do not expect to find our Saviour in the less religious aspects of daily life. Yet we learn from the spiritual lives of the saints that we should be able to find Jesus even in the routineness of our daily lives.

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Sometimes God is revealed as the unexpected healing of body and soul. An acquaintance of mine had a falling out with her sister some years ago and each resolved never to speak to the other again. Twelve years later, my friend’s brother advised her that her sister had developed breast cancer. She had undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. Should she reach out? What would the reaction be? She finally steeled herself and made her move: to her surprise, her sister responded with open arms. After the initial flush, however, the gap of the years could not be filled, and each accepted that they must ‘move on.’

Time passed. One day – and following her sister’s cancer treatments — a routine examination revealed that a fresh tumour had developed on her right ovary. She was utterly devastated and even thought about suicide. After her first ordeal, she refused any more surgery and vowed that she would rather die than suffer through all that chemo and radiation again! Her desperate husband called her sister asking for prayers: things had gone from bad to worse — she was neither eating nor sleeping. Worst of all, he feared she had given up all hope.

“I hadn’t been to her home in Chambly for those 12 years and when I crossed the Champlain Bridge into Chambly I no longer recognized any of the landmarks that were etched in my mind. It was a miserable day with pouring rain and gale-force winds and not a soul in sight to stop and ask for directions. The local gas bar was closed as it was a statutory holiday and my street maps had gone missing. I found myself driving in circles and crying because of all the time I was wasting trying to locate her street instead of being there with her.

“I pulled off to the side of the road at the end of a construction sight, closed my eyes, cried, prayed and pleaded for Divine intervention. I was on a deserted dead-end road with no idea what direction to take when suddenly out of nowhere a woman appeared, smiled and asked, “Are you lost”? In shock I replied that I was and gave her the name of the street I needed to find. She smiled and said she would take me there, as it was only minutes from her destination.

“Within several minutes I was parking my car in front of my sister’s house and thanking my female passenger for her kindness, offering to take her to wherever she was going as the weather outside was not fit for man nor beast. She took my hand, thanked me and said she enjoyed walking in the rain as it made her feel closer to God. With that she opened the car door and walked away. I bent down to grab my purse from the back seat. When I looked up, she had vanished!

“Puzzled, I walked to my sister’s front door and rang the bell. She opened the door and stood there in shock and amazement. As the tears poured down our faces we hugged for what seemed a long time (12 years’ worth). We spent the day praying and talking together.

“She finally agreed to have the surgery to remove the tumour on her ovary. Within several weeks the news came that it was not malignant, at the same time as her oncologist announced that she appeared to be in remission from her breast cancer!

“All is still well with my sister and I am quite convinced that my guide that day was sent by God as she literally appeared out of nowhere.”

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Sometimes, our Epiphany comes from hearing of another’s encounter with Christ. I received this story from a friend about a Franciscan chaplain who works in a Chicago hospital: “While making the rounds at the hospital: Elasha Green, 106 years old from Jackson, Mississippi, was standing at the doorway of her room as I was walking by: ‘I can tell by the tag you are wearing that you are a man of the cloth and read the Bible. I have a story to tell you. It’s about my friend, the man no one can see. You know who I mean don’t you. My friend’s name is Jesus. He’s been my friend all my life. We grew up together and we are always talking to one another.

“Eight years ago I was very sick and was laid up in bed for six weeks. One morning my friend came to visit me. He sat by my side and told me, ‘Elasha, I want you to get up now and start walking.’ At first I thought it was the devil who is always busy trying to tell me not to what my friend tells me to do. But I knew by the sound of the voice that it was the man who no one can see talking to me. And I always try to be obedient to him. So I put on my clothes and walked all the way to the dining room. I’ve been walking ever since.’”

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Sometimes Divinity visits us as a voice …a simple prayer of the Holy Spirit. A friend recalls: “I overhead the most private prayer of a very physically handicapped woman. Sometimes elderly people are very deaf and don’t realize they are talking out loud. It was THE most beautiful prayer I have ever heard. It was right out of her heart, in her own words. Looking at her was looking at the face of God Himself.”

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God so loves the world that he gave us his Son. His Son so loved us that he gave us his Life. This love is so great that, if we truly understood it, we would overflow all year round with the real gifts of Christmas — Peace and Joy; Wisdom and Love. Yes, love is a most priceless gift, and it often comes in the most unexpected wrapping. To discover its true value for living in the Light of Christ throughout the new year is to experience an Epiphany.