The “Aaa” and the “Ha” in “Aaa-Ha”
In the gospels throughout the Christmas season, there seems to be lots going on that catches people unawares. It all started when the young girl Mary of Nazareth is surprised by the angel announcing that she would have a son. She is doubly surprised to hear of her older cousin’s pregnancy, so she goes to spend time with her. Elizabeth is surprised that “the mother of my Lord should come to me.” Joseph is taken aback that Mary is with child, and a little disappointed that he was willing to divorce her quietly. Then an angel visits him in a dream, and the truth of Mary’s child is revealed. After the child is born, shepherds watching their flocks are greeted by angels announcing the birth of a savior in Bethlehem. They in turn surprise Mary and Joseph when they tell of the angelic vision out in the fields. Then in today’s gospel the wise men surprise Herod when they stopped in Jerusalem to ask for directions. The child’s parents are amazed when they showed up at their door bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And lastly, the wise men are instructed in a dream to return home by a different way.
Lots of surprises in the Christmas season, and each of them reveals something wonderful that God is doing. The feast of Epiphany we celebrate today is really just the last in a series of revelations that marks this joyful season. That is not news to us since even the secular celebration of Christmas often sets us up for surprises, although it’s quite different when you’re conditioned to expect something. I have come to call an epiphany an “A-Ha!” moment. I like to describe an epiphany as some sort of wonderful revelation, like when you arrive at the realization that everything that has happened in your life so far is just preparation for what will take place today and everyday hereafter. That isn’t a really big “Aaa …” until you give it some serious thought. Then when you realize that even the not so pleasant twists and turns of your life actually do contribute to who you are today, making you the wiser, more seasoned, more courageous, and more awesome person that you have become, despite what your freshman homeroom teacher may have thought, then the “Ha!” in “A-Ha!” sounds more like a punch line.
The unpleasantness of being surprised by life’s many twists and turns is that it can all seem so random, like we are just all at the mercy of forces beyond us—irrational, uncaring, arbitrary forces. The difference between optimists and pessimists is only what makes sense to them. But it doesn’t alter the unpleasant reality reminding us we are not in the driver’s seat. Worse still, no one is in the driver’s seat. So what?—you say. It’s just like a roller coaster ride. Actually, I find that image even more terrifying still, because although the ride brings everyone back safely to the loading platform, I am sure some of us would never have gotten on in the first place. That means whoever laid out the track must get a kick out of watching us dig our nails into the padded handlebars, scream like a bunch of little girls, and inelegantly lose our lunch, to say nothing of all the other unpleasant consequences we would never mention. So when people blame God for life’s tragedies, they just want things to make sense. And a God who knows what’s going on and does nothing to stop bad things from happening just makes sense.
But the entire mystery of the Incarnation, the wonderful truth of God become “one-of-us,” runs contrary to that line of thinking. The reason life often seems random, irrational, uncaring, and arbitrary is that people are random, irrational, uncaring, and arbitrary. And whether we like it or not, that means us, too. We try to be consistent, to live in the manner we know to be true and good, but we know every now and again we slip. We make bad choices. We behave out of character. We act rashly, on impulse, out of emotion, out of passion. We call it temporary insanity. We call it flaking, as in “I don’t know what came over me. I flaked!” Even we don’t know why we do what we do sometimes. But when other people do it, we assume malicious intent. It’s just neater that way. We feel justified to just write them off. Then we slowly give in to cynicism, our hearts hardened and closed off to the world. A generation ago, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang about this sad reality. “And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries.” And when we shut out the world, we shut God out who is at work in the world.
The revelation of the Holy Child of Bethlehem to the nations is not really all that surprising, come to think of it. The prophet Isaiah spoke of God’s plan from the start that salvation is intended for all people. Speaking to Jerusalem, he announces “Upon you the LORD shines, and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.” I once spoke about this at length in a homily at Epiphany some years ago. A gentleman approached me after mass and reprimanded me for telling him something he never heard of. He claimed to have been taught by the good sisters in Catholic school many years ago, but this idea that God wants all people to be saved was simply confusing and irresponsible. “That would make the Catholic church completely unnecessary, and all Christianity for that matter! Why do we even bother if God will just save us all anyway?” Knowing him, I wasn’t surprised he didn’t think this was such a good idea. He thought he had to understand everything God was doing, and if he didn’t, then God wouldn’t dare.
St. Paul puts it out there in even more explicit terms. We have to remember that the people of Israel believed forever that they were favored by God above all others. He wasn’t denying that belief. Instead, he wants us to understand that God is doing something new and wonderful, that “the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” However way you look at it, there is a beautiful truth that God is doing something amazing. For Israel’s sake, God is not taking away his favor. And for Christianity’s sake, God is extending something wonderful to us at no one else’s expense. The catch is there is no catch. If we were expecting one, it is because we are programmed to doubt and suspect malicious intent. And in some twisted people’s minds, the idea that God can love more than one people is simply inconceivable. Surprise!
The beauty of this feast is in its simplicity. There is no other shoe about to drop, so we can breathe easy. And in this Jubilee year of Mercy, it is a gentle reminder that God is already hard at work, and has been for some time in the world and in our lives, bringing about wonderful things, if only we take time to notice. The feast of Epiphany sends us into the new year with hearts and minds eager and receptive for many more epiphanies. And when we do stop to reflect on our daily journey, we might catch both the “Aaah!” and the “Ha!” of what God is doing. Be amazed. Be wonderfully amazed.
Rolo B Castillo © 2016