The tree is down, the lights have been put away, the kings have gone to the stable and left their gifts, and here we are. But just because we celebrated Epiphany on January 6, it doesn’t mean that we can now forget about it. We’re in a whole season called Epiphany, and sometimes we forget just what that means.
An epiphany, per the dictionary, is more than just a day or a season on the liturgical calendar. It also represents a manifestation, like the manifestation of Jesus being born in human form. It can mean a kind of insight or realization that sometimes seems to come out of nowhere but that clarifies a thought or series of thoughts or beliefs that have been running through the brain consciously or unconsciously. It’s like a little lightbulb going off in the head, one that says, “Aha!” And here we have a whole season before us where we are encouraged to look for these little epiphanies, these little manifestations, these insights.
Years ago, the writing bug bit me badly. I wrote a letter to God nearly every day, and I talk I just talked about what I was thinking or feeling. I often found myself describing a thought or a phrase or a situation, then exploring it in terms of what the world would think if what I thought were plastered on the front of the newspaper, or what the Bible, the lives of the saints, and tradition Christian tradition would say about such thoughts. I also thought about where I stood in relation to that thought or belief, and finally what I was motivated to do because of the insight that I gained from this exercise. Come to find out, there was a name for this process, and that was theological reflection, or TR.
I heard the term first in a group called Education for Ministry (EfM). It took me a long time to figure out what a TR with all about, but after years of reading everything I could find, and struggling to understand what this process was all about, I had an insight. I already knew how to do a TR, because I had been doing it when I was writing. I got insights, and I explored different aspects of this nebulous thing that was running through my mind. I didn’t need books, I just needed to know that these insights that I worked to get were the result of a very definite process, and a very useful one too.
Insights are an important thing in life. Most often we don’t really think about them. Suddenly though, something happens, or someone says something, or something in a book strikes us as something we’d never considered before, and suddenly that little lightbulb goes off. Instead of a dark spot, there’s a pool of light surrounding whatever it was that we, until a few minutes ago, hadn’t had a clue about.
The story of Jesus, the stories of the Old Testament, stories of the saints, hymns, theological writers, all are part of expanding our world and allowing us to see with different eyes. It was rather insightful for me to find out that Old Testament shepherds lead their sheep rather than going behind them and driving them. I found biblical social science and it made so many things so much easier and so much more sense. I could read the Bible with more clarity as to what the people hearing these stories for the first time would have found familiar instead of trying to place them over 2000 years later in a culture very far different. Those insights have been both interesting and educational.
Insights can come because of just being aware. I remember one evening, standing outside my office while across the street a homeless man was pushing his worldly goods in a grocery cart. He came out of the darkness walked across a pool of light and then disappeared in the darkness on the other side. I only saw him for a second or two, but in that second or two I learned to see him in a different way. He was no longer a nuisance, a panhandler, perhaps a criminal. He became a child of God to me and in that flash of an instant, I loved that man with my whole heart, without knowing a single thing about him except that he was walking in a pool of light, pushing his cart, and was beloved of God despite what problems he had had or caused or been the victim of. It became easier for me to realize that God loved me too. After years of my childhood church teaching me that I was a miserable sinner and that God hated sinners, I suddenly believed God still loved me, a concept I found extremely hard to understand, but in that one instant I knew and believed it. That insight was a great new understanding for me.
So, to celebrate the Epiphany season, I think I’ll go back to that practice of looking at something and trying to see what kind of insight I can gain from it. Whether it’s an advertisement in a magazine, a video on the computer, an encounter on the street, a sentence or paragraph out of a book, or a conversation with a neighbor, insights can come from anywhere, but I must be aware that it is often a fleeting thing. Like a firefly, a brief flash of light goes out all too quickly and doesn’t reappear in the same spot again. I must go looking for another elsewhere.
I haven’t seen fireflies in years, but I think it’s a good symbol for me to consider this Epiphany. I need to learn to find the little flash that can produce an insight that can change a great many things or even just a small change. Insights don’t have to be huge to be helpful. I will also think of that firefly in terms of how my culture with see that little insect and its bioluminescence, how tradition could be illustrated by that flash of light all of a sudden. I can also think of what that little flash of light tells me and means to me, as well as what action it can spark in my way of doing things that would make them more in line with what God wants me to do.
I think this Epiphany is going to be a firefly season. It’s going to be beautiful, and is going to be interesting. I think it may also be very productive.