Surprised By Joy (January 2000)

January 2000
Surprised By Joy ©

Have you ever tried to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the Nativity scene? I have, and I’ve imagined myself to be everything from Joseph through a shepherd to a donkey, with which I am told I share more than a few characteristics.

On the Feast of the Epiphany, the Church invites us to see ourselves as one of the so-called wise men. Let’s recall the story of these three people presumed in some biblical readings to be kings of far-off lands. In others, we see them as astrologers or Persian priests known as magi.

These men are understood to have traveled long distances. They are said to have been guided by a bright star. We are told that they bowed before a small, helpless child. And that 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?

First, the distance is a measure of how much they had to change their routine in order to catch a glimpse of God’s magnificence. Aside from covering a lot of ground, given the means of transportation at their disposal, this would have also taken a great deal of time.

Second, the star represents the sign that directed them. It may have been an outer sign – a way for Creation to counsel them how to act in accordance with God’s plan. It may have also been an inner light. St. John of the Cross wrote poetically about the inner light that shines most brightly in the darkest night.

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.

Our joy is in Love

Fourth, the act of giving is a symbol for the act of love. The act, not the sentiment: the giving of self to another. Not in a spirit of grudging resignation, but in great joy. Love that is neither active nor joyful is not really love; it is something else.

Love that is active and joy-filled is transforming.

So naturally, these wise men chose a different way to go home. Arguably they did not return to the same home.

Our fifth detail, therefore, is that they used a different route to protect the tiny child from the vengeance and jealousy of a misguided ruler. After all, Jesus would later counsel that we be cunning as foxes and not throw our pearls to the swine.

And they used a different route to signify the fundamental change that had come over them.

In trying to imagine what it must have been like to

be one of these men, it is not necessary to imagine ourselves physically traveling to Bethlehem. No. In fact, there are many other kinds of epiphanies. You may have had such an experience yourself.

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 or meaning of something. For us, that something is the nature and meaning of Jesus in our lives. Most particular, it is the sudden realisation of what it means to find in a weak and poor infant, the very being of our infinitely loving God.

Personal epiphanies

Epiphany is sometimes seen as a celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles. Another way of saying this is that it is the celebration of the manifestation of Christ to those who are not expecting his arrival, those who are not expecting him to transform their lives so radically that they cannot take the same way home.

Epiphanies are compelling evidence that the Incarnation is real. That God lives among us, 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 the spirituality of most saints we can think of say that we should be able to find Jesus in our daily routine.

An American author recently pointed out that we are called by the Church to find a spirituality in places where we might doubt that God can be found. If we knew and believed what the Church teaches, we would meet the living God in places like politics, business, sports, entertainment and the like. Saints are called to walk in these domains – to be salt, light and leaven for the world.

“What would St. Francis do in which circumstances? He found God immanent in everything. Perhaps he would compose a Canticle to the Culture, helping us to see the good and Godly in Brother Boeing and Sister IBM, Brother Republican and Sister Democrat, Brother Michael and Sister Madonna. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to start finding God in every aspect of our lives in the world and to stop being spiritual schizophrenics.”

Another way of saying spiritual schizophrenics is Gnostic duellists. Gnosticism and dualism have been the bane of Christianity from the very beginning. Yet, we either believe in the Incarnation or we don’t. And if we don’t, we miss the point of Jesus’ life among us.

So, as people of God striving to return to where we are meant to be, let’s learn the lessons the magi wished to teach us. We need to be attentive in ways that we are not usually in order to notice the presence of God in daily life. We need to look at Creation, particularly our brothers and sisters, in a different way in order to notice the presence of God in daily life. We need to let that encounter transform us and to express the joy of that transformation by generous acts of self-giving. And, above all, we must ensure the continuance of that transformation by choosing a different way home, a new way of living and loving.

God so loved the world that he gave it 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 with the gifts of Christmas, namely Peace and Joy; Wisdom and Love. Yes, love is a most priceless gift in a most unassuming wrapping. To discover its true value is to experience an Epiphany.



A Franciscan Epiphany

The Nativity scene we assemble each year was first reconstructed in 1223 in the Italian town of Greccio by St. Francis of Assisi. It consisted of a live ox and donkey and a child doll placed in a manager. This was for Francis and his companions, as well as for the people of the small community, an occasion of great joy and festive singing.

Already by this time, Francis was seen as a man of great holiness. This holiness came about as a result of a continuous process of conversion, marked by poignant epiphany experiences.

One such event was his encounter with a leper, as recounted in a biography prepared by St. Bonaventure:

One day he was riding on the plain below Assisi, he met a leper. The encounter was completely without warning and Francis felt sick at the sight of him. Then he remembered his resolve to be perfect and the need to overcome himself first, if he wanted to be a knight of Christ. He immediately dismounted and ran up to kiss the poor man. The leper stretched our his hand, hoping to get something, and Francis put some money in it and kissed it. The he mounted his horse and looked this way and that about the plain with a clear view in all directions, but there was no sign of the leper. He was thunderstruck but his heart was filled with joy and he sang God’s praises in a loud voice, resolving to do even more in the future.