Epiphanies by Wayne A. Danielson  1991

Fellowship Class

Tarrytown United Methodist Church

Jan. 20, 1991

Wayne Danielson


This is the season of epiphany.

The word epiphany comes from the Greek.  The "epi" part means around.  And the "phan" part means an "appearance" -- as in "phantom" or "fantasy."

Put together, epiphany means an "appearing around us" of the deity,  an appearing around us of God.

The word is used throughout the Christian church to refer to the New Testament text in Matthew concerning the visit of the wise men to Judea to see the one who was born king of the Jews.  The wise men were aware that God had revealed himself in the world.  They had seen a star -- a light in the darkness -- and they were following that light hoping to discover the manifestation of God.

What they found, eventually, of course, was not a very impressive manifestation.  They found an ordinary-looking mother and father and  an ordinary-looking baby in -- of all places -- a manger

behind an inn.  This baby, it turned out, was the cause of all

the uproar -- the star, the long journey, the agitated king and his counselors, the weird dreams they had had -- everything.  This baby in the manger was the manifestation -- the appearance of God, the epiphany.

The wise men did what they had come to do -- they fell down and worshipped.  They gave their gifts,  and then they headed for home. 

But they left behind an altered and enriched definition of what an epiphany was.  An epiphany -- a manifestation of God -- did not necessarily have to be something magnificent, with singing and blaring trumpets, and gold and scarlet robes.  An epiphany could be something that appears to be quite ordinary, but is, in fact, profound.

That's the kind of epiphany I like.  And that's why this season is one of my favorite seasons of the church year.  The season of epiphany invites us, like the wise men, to find God in the mangers of our lives.

To understand Epiphany, we need to understand that God chooses hoEw, and in whom and to whom, he reveals himself.  And God's epiphanies -- his manifestations of his presence -- may go quite unnoticed by others.

The great French novelist, Marcel Proust, was dining one day at an outdoor cafe.  He tasted a piece of cake -- a rather unremarkable cake called a madeleine.  In the instant of that tasting, he found himself transported in time to his youth, and he remembered -- everything -- about a day, years before, when he had tasted that same kind of cake.

Has this ever happened to you -- the sudden and complete recall of the past, triggered by something inconsequential like a whiff of perfume or the taste of a drink or the sight of a woman standing in a certain way on her doorstep?

Suddenly there you are!  Back in time.

My mother, on a cold Iowa day, used to go out to the mailbox with her èarms crossed on her chest, as if she were hugging the warm air of the house to herself.  To this day, if I see a woman with her arms hugged to her chest like that, I have my mother again, complete, in all details, her voice, her figure, her attitude.

An epiphany occurs  when something ordinary triggers something extraordinary.  The event has transforming power.  We know it is significant.  We  may not know what it means at first.  But we know it means something.  If we pursue it, if we think about it, we may come to understand it.  And if we act on our understanding we can be changed.

Marcel Proust was so changed by his taste of the madeleine that he retired to his room and wrote for the rest of his life. He wrote about the world of the past, his past.  His novel -- more than 2,000 pages of it in four volumes -- he called A la Recherche du Temps Perdue, which might be translated more or less dire„ctly as -- In Search of Lost Time -- or, as it is usually translated in English, Remembrance of Things Past.

Proust finally came to understand his revelation -- the epiphany that began when he tasted the cake.  His understanding was simply this, as the Britannica biographer expresses it -- he finds that "all the beauty he has experienced in the past is eternally alive."   All the beauty he has experienced in the past is eternally alive.

Now that's a real revelation, isn't it?  I believe that it's true. I think it is an epiphany that comes to all of us, sooner or later.  As we live out our normal, everyday lives, here inside, in our memory, is every beautiful thing that has ever happened to us.  No matter what darkness we may be in at this moment, we still have inside us the dawning of every beautiful day we ever lived.  It's there for us to recapture if we open ourselves to ourselves and to God.

Almost all Biblical texts are, of course, filled with epiphanies, manifestations of the presence of God.

I have chosen three of the most famous for us to consider today -- one from the Old Testament, one from the Book of Luke, and one from the Acts of the Apostles.

The Book of Genesis is now thought to have in it contributions from at least three authors and an editor.  The first author is called J, or the Jahwehist, because this writer always refers to God as Jahweh or Jehovah.  The second author is called E, for Elohim or "the Lord, because he always refers to God in this way.  The third author is called P, or the Priestly author, because he writes mainly about the laws of God, how to perform a sacrifice, and so forth. 

Most of the really good stories in Genesis are told by J.  J tells the Adam and Eve story and most of the stories about Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph and Moses that are familiar to us.  A recent book I like, written by Harold Bloom, is called The Book of J.

It contains only the J texts in a new translation by David Rosenberg.  An interesting aâside is that Bloom is convinced that these powerful stories were written by a woman.

The J story that I have chosen is that of Abraham and Isaac.  Jahweh, who is a pretty unpredictable God in most of J's accounts, suddenly asks Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.   Abraham doesn't hesitate.  He gets some firewood and loads it on a donkey and, accompanied by two servants and the unsuspecting Isaac, starts climbing a holy mountain.

Let's pick up J's words right here:

Genesis 22:9-14.  When they arrived at the place God had pointed out to him, Abraham built an altar there, and arranged the wood.  Then he bound his son Isaac and put him on the altar on top of the wood.  Abraham stretched out his hand and seized the knife to kill his son.

But the angel of Yahweh called to him from heaven.  "Abraham, Abraham," he said.  "I am here," he replied.  "Do not raise your hand against the boy," the Íangel said.  "Do not harm him, for now I know you fear God.  You have not refused me your son, your only son."  Then looking up, Abraham saw a ram caught by its horns in a bush.  Abraham took the ram and offered it as a burnt-offering in place of his son.  Abraham called this place "Yahweh provides," and hence the saying today: On the mountain Yahweh provides.

What is the epiphany here?

The normative interpretation, of course, is that the text shows Abraham's faithfulness to God.  He is so faithful that he is ready to sacrifice his own son -- slit his throat with a knife and commit his body to the fire.  God rewards his faithfulness by sparing the boy's life and, through him, creating the Jewish nation.  That interpretation is certainly appropriate, and I have nothing against it.  However, I hear something else in J's words.  I hear the echo of a primitive time when the dieties of the region did indeed demand human sacrifice.  And Abraham, or someone very like him, one day bound his s¶on and placed him on the piled wood and prepared to sacrifice him and raised the knife and suddenly found himself surrounded by light.  He experienced an epiphany, a manifestation.  Suddenly he was sure of something.    God doesn't really want this.  God doesn't need this.   God doesn't really demand human sacrifice.  God, my God, the real God, the God of Abraham, will be satisfied with a faithful and righteous life.

A change occurred.  A blessing was given.  In that humble instant, in that refusal to sacrifice a human being, an epiphany occurred, a covenant was made, a new and higher conception of the Deity was formed.  The important thing to note is that Abraham understood that God was present, and he acted on that understanding.

The second text I want to consider comes from Luke.  The story is a major climax in the book.  It occurs just before Jesus, against all advice, decides to go to Jerusalem to observe that laÛst fateful passover.  Before he makes this decision, however, he decides, like Abraham, to go on a religious journey up into the mountains, and something happens.

Luke 9:28-36.  Now about eight days after this had been said, he took with him Peter and John and James and went up the mountain to pray.  As he prayed, the aspect of his face was changed and his clothing became brilliant as lightning.  Suddenly there were two men there talking to him; they were Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, and they were speaking of his passing which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem.  Peter and his companions were heavy with sleep, but they kept awake and saw his glory and the two men standing with him.  As these were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is wonderful for us to be here; so let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah."  He did not know what he was saying.  As he spoke, a cloud came and covered them with shadow; and when they went into the cloud the disciples« were afraid.  And a voice came from the cloud saying, "This is my Son, the Chosen One.  Listen to him."  And after the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.  The disciples kept silence and, at that time, told no one what they had seen.

This epiphany is called the transfiguration.  It is the moment in Luke when the key disciples -- Peter and James and John -- and Jesus come to an understanding.  They realize that Jesus is not merely a prophet.  He is something more.  The day they spent together in the mountain was a turning point.  Something happened there.  They didn't know exactly what it meant at the time.  But later, thinking about it, they must have said to one another, "When we went up the mountain to pray with the master,  do you remember how he looked? How the light came upon his face?  It all changed then, didn't it?  And do you remember those voices we heard?  And those figures?  And how Peter --  good-hearted Peter -- wanted to put up teÀnts?  Do you remember that?  We should have known then. I think we did know, but we were afraid to say.  We were afraid to talk.  We were afraid to act.  But that's when we finally knew, deep inside, just who Jesus was."

It was a moment of epiphany for Peter and James and John, and, for Jesus too, in a different way.   We give it the grand name now of the transfiguration.  But then, that day, on that mountain, it may have been something quite different that came to be understood only with the passage of time.

Have you ever seen a transfiguration?

I have, once. It was in my undergraduate days at the University of Iowa.  A bunch of us were hanging around the news room of The Daily Iowan when a funny looking kid came in with a bunch of papers under his arm.

"What have you got?"  someone asked.

"Just some drawings," he said, nervously.  "A few cartoons I thought you might want to look at."

He looked as if he wanted to turn tail and run out the door.

"WaiÓt a minute," someone said.  "Let's have a look."

And the kid took out his drawings and began to hand them around.

"Hey, these are good!" someone said. "Don't let him leave."

And, indeed, we didn't.  He stayed.  And the next morning our paper carried the first of many of his drawings.  He was to become one of the country's top cartoonists.  His name was Frank Interlandi.  I saw him at the moment of his transfiguration.  I saw him change as we, and he, discovered who he was, and as we acted on that understanding.

The final epiphany I want to consider is, perhaps, the most famous and most important of all.  It concerns a pious young man much offended by the behavior of the off-beat followers of the crucified Galileean.  He had been present at the stoning of one of them, a man named Stephen.  Our young man thought the stoning of Stephen had been entirely justified.  Or did he?  God was about to pay him a visit.

Luke, writing in the Book of Acts, tells us:

Acts 9:1-10.  Meanwhile Saul was” still breathing threats to slaughter the Lord's disciples.   He had gone to the high priest and asked for letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, that would authorise him to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way, men or women, that he could find.

Suddenly, while he was travelling to Damascus and just before he reached the city, there came a light from heaven all round him.  He fell to the ground, and then he heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  "Who are you, Lord?" he asked, and the voice answered, "I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.  Get up now and go into the city, and you will be told what you have to do."  The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless, for though they heard the voice they could see no one.  Saul got up from the ground, but even with his eyes wide open he could see nothing at all, and they had to lead him into Damascus by the hand.   For three days he was without his sight, and to}ok neither food nor drink.

What happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus?  The scripture tells us that he saw the light and heard the Lord.  In an instant he was transformed from being an opponent of the Christians to being on the way to becoming their greatest missionary.

I accept that.  That's the scripture. 

The light that Saul saw -- the manifestation of God that he experienced -- was undoubtedly the world's most important epiphany.  Yet, what was it really?

What do you think happened to Paul as he hurried down that road, bent on stoning a few more of the followers of Jesus? What do you think happened as he hurried along, still -- as Luke says -- "breathing threats to slaughter the Lord's disciples"?

I think his conscience caught up with him.  I think he realized what he had done and what he was about to do.  I think he realized the enormous wrong he had done.  It was Ùa blinding shock.  It knocked him down on the road.  In the searing  light of that revelation, he heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?"  and he knew that he would never be the same person again.  Blinded by grief, changed so completely that he even changed his name, he had to be led the rest of the way down the road to Damascus and his future.

The moment on the road to Damascus never left Paul.  He told and retold the story of his extraordinary encounter with the risen Christ.  It was a true epiphany for him, a manifestation of God.  And he acted upon it.

Can it happen that way for us?

Indeed it can.  We all remember instances, brief moments of ordinary time in which our lives forever change.  Someone asks us a significant question and we say "yes" or we say "no."  And nothing is ever the same again.  In a bleak hospital room,  someone says, "It's a boy!" or "It's a girl!" and our lives forever change.  We're different from then on.  These to me, are mome—nts of epiphany, moments when God comes walking by in our daily lives.  The saddest thing, I suppose, is when God comes to us -- when epiphanies happen -- and although we understand that something important is happening, we fail to act on the knowledge we have.  We let the moment pass.

And when we do, instead of experiencing a blessing, an abundant life, an enlarged life, the life that God promises us, we experience the opposite.  We shrivel.  We contract.  Our lives and our spirits diminish.   We see the star, but we don't follow it.  We taste the cake, but we don't pursue the memory.  We raise the knife, but we don't notice the ram caught in the bush.  We see the light, but we don't fall down on the road thinking, "My God, my God, what have I done?"  The kings come riding by on the way to Bethlehem,  but we fail to follow them to find the Christ child in the manger.

I'd like to close with a poem by Phyllis McGinley, which expresses exactly the point of epiphany and how we should respond to it:


Befana the Housewife, scrubbing her pane,

Saw three old sages ride down the lane,

Saw three gray travelers pass her door --

Gaspar, Balthazar, Melchior.

"Where journey you, sirs?" she asked of them.

Balthazar answered, "To Bethlehem.

"For we have news of a marvelous thing.

Born in a stable is Christ the King."

"Give him my welcolme!"

Then Gaspar smiled,

"Come with us, mistress, to greet the Child."

"Oh, happily, happily would I fare,

Were my dusting through and I'd polished

            the stair."

Old Melchior leaned on his saddle horn.

"Then send but a gift to the small Newborn."

"Oh, gladly, gladly I'd send Him one,

Were the hearthstone swept and my weaving done.

As soon as ever I've baked my bread,

I'll fetch Him a pillow for His head,

And a coverlet too," Befana said.

"When the rooms are aired and the linen dry,

I'll look at the Babe."

But the Three rode by.

She worked for a day and a night and a day,

Then, gifts in her hands, took up her way.

But she never could find where the Christ Child lay.

And still she wanders at Christmastide,

Homeless, whose house was all her pride,

Whose heart was tardy, whose gifts were late;

Wanders, and knocks at every gate,

Crying, "Good people, the bells begin!

Put off your toiling and let love in