It’s one of our stained-glass words that catches lots of light. Perhaps because it’s not one we use that much, or at least it doesn’t always have to do with church when we use it. The dictionary gives us a few options:
1. a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi; Twelfth-day.
2. an appearance or manifestation, esp. of a deity.
The Magi are some of the characters in the story that catch my imagination in particular for a couple of reasons. One, they don’t make it on opening night. Two, nobody knows they’re coming, or that they were even invited. And, three, somehow they know exactly on Whom the star they’ve been following is shining. We say there were three because there were three gifts, but we don’t know much about them at all other than they were from out of town, rather extravagant shoppers, a little uninformed on the local political scene, and didn’t really fit in the Nativity scene for several reasons.
And somehow they knew when they found Jesus that they could stop looking.
As the church turned story into ritual, their coming on the twelfth day of Christmas symbolized God’s manifestation to the Gentiles: here’s the Messiah you didn’t even know you were looking for, other than that existential longing you carry around inside. There’s a third definition in the dictionary that seems to fit them better than the liturgical one:
3. a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
Who knows how long they walked – weeks, months. Yet, for some reason, they stopped at Mary and Joseph’s house, came up to the baby, who could have been close to toddling by then, and had the eyes of their hearts open enough to look at him and say, “It’s you!.”
The night I gave Ginger her engagement ring, I had a mix tape my friend Billy and I had meticulously planned for the evening, which was quite a production timed right down to Stephen Bishop singing, “It Might Be You” when I put the ring on her finger. Finding Ginger was a pivotal epiphany in my life, though there was nothing simple, homely, or commonplace about it. What it felt like that night was a feeling I never imagined I would get to feel. I didn’t know how to imagine it. It was beyond me, which is where I find the parallel to the peripatetic princes who finally stumbled into their own ecstasy.
If the parallel is indulgent, forgive me. Still, it seems to me good news that we think of epiphanies in the plural, particularly in a spiritual sense: we belong to a God who delights in surprise and paradox. We do well to keep asking one of the questions Stephen Bishop asks in his song:
if I found the place
would I recognize the face?
The history of all creation distills in the Incarnation and the Word becomes flesh in the person of a peasant boy born into a working-poor family in a region of no real consequence internationally, and he grows up and roams around the country side without much of an apparent plan other than to love and heal people and tell stories. The God who could imagine and breathe into being everything from helium isotopes to hippopotami, supernovas to centipedes, constellations to Cherokee purple heirloom tomatoes became human without fanfare or, for that matter, much efficiency. Though God would never have passed my church growth class in seminary, it was not a mistake. God inhabits the simple, the homely, or the commonplace waiting for those who know how to recognize the face, who can look and say, “It’s you.”
P. S. – I can’t pass up the song, man. She still catches me by surprise.