Four Kinds of Epiphany
(Is.60:1-6; Eph.3:2-3, 5-6; Mt.2:1-12)
What does it mean when someone says ‘I’ve had an epiphany’?
It means that in a sudden flash, a veil was lifted and something profound was revealed to them. And that experience has changed the way they live.
Today, on the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, we celebrate the different ways in which Jesus reveals himself to the world.
We begin by remembering the Wise Men who discovered the child Jesus in Bethlehem, and worshipped him as the Messiah who has come to save us all. This is the original epiphany we celebrate at this time.
But there are other ways in which Jesus’ divine identity and mission have been revealed to us. At his Baptism, God the Father announces that Jesus is his beloved Son (Mk.1:9-11), and at Cana Jesus performs his first miracle (Jn.2:1-11). Each of these events is an epiphany.
But how does Jesus reveal himself to us today?
Let’s go back to the Middle Ages, when St Aelred of Rievaulx [i] was the wise and well-loved abbot of a Yorkshire monastery. He taught that there are four ways to experience an epiphany that could lead us closer to Jesus. [ii]
The first is when we find ourselves mystically touched by God. This is a deeply spiritual moment which can happen anytime and anywhere. We might sense God’s presence while taking in the beauty of art or nature, or recognising a fundamental truth or witnessing some profound goodness and love. Our hearts get a strong sense of God’s presence and we find ourselves drawn to him.
This happened to me once, as a boy. I’d been praying, asking God to prove his existence to me. Rather cheekily, I’d said, ‘If you really exist, then prove it to me by putting two dollars here on my bedside table.’
Now, I know that no-one should ever test God (Deut.6:16), but childishly then I did. Nothing happened for several days, and I wasn’t surprised, because I sensed that maybe I’d done something wrong. Then one day, walking home from school, a two-dollar note came fluttering towards me in the wind. [iii]
I was utterly amazed. Deep in my heart I knew that God had been listening and wanted me to know it.
A second type of epiphany occurs when we hear or read a memorable word or phrase. This, too, can happen anytime and anywhere, but that word or phrase touches us deeply and we find ourselves inspired to do something that brings us closer to God.
This is what happens to the two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. When Jesus starts reading Scripture, their spiritual hearts burn inside them (Lk.24:32).
The third kind of epiphany is when we find our faith sparked by the example of someone else’s life. We might encounter them personally, or read or hear about them, but their holy life inspires us to do something similar and this has the effect of drawing us closer to Jesus.
This happened to St Anthony of Padua in Lisbon. When he heard about the 5 missionary martyrs of Morocco, he was inspired to become a Franciscan missionary, too, and he went on to do remarkable things in Italy and France.
St Aelred’s fourth kind of epiphany can occur when a major disaster leaves someone’s life in ruins. It’s only at this point that they discover the possibility of living differently. They’ve lost all their cherished projects, and they discover something new about themselves.
What at first seemed like disaster turns out to be grace, and what seemed to be the end becomes the beginning, as they find themselves turning to Jesus and starting a new life filled with faith and hope.
These are St Aelred’s four kinds of epiphany, in which Jesus reveals himself to us and draws us closer to him. Have you experienced any of them?
Have you found yourself mystically touched by God, and got a strong sense of his presence?
Have you heard a word or phrase that inspires you to do something which draws you closer to Jesus?
Have you been inspired by the life of a holy person, and wanted to do something similar?
Or have you experienced a disaster that brought you closer to God?
At some stage in our spiritual journey through life, Jesus will approach us and perhaps even appear to us, calling us to him. This can happen anytime and anywhere, and he may appear in a way that makes us wonder.
But if our hearts are open to it, that epiphany will fill us with energy and delight.
And it will change the course of our life.
[i] Rievaulx is pronounced “REE-voh”
[ii] Michael Casey, Balaam’s Donkey, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2019:144.
[iii] This occurred just before Australian two-dollar notes were replaced by coins.