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Epiphanies, Seasons, and Life Lessons

We are in the season of Epiphany. While we already celebrated the holy “day” back in January, we remain in this season often associated as light amidst darkness. I like that we have “seasons” and not just holy days in the Christian calendar. Advent is a season. Christmas, to the consternation of many, is not just one day but a 12 day “season.” Lent, Easter, and Pentecost too are all seasons.

Each of these seasons has their special function – to get us to think about the meanings of not only religious events that happened a long time ago, but also about the meanings that they have for us today.

As I’ve aged, I appreciate the “seasons” of my life. They remind me that “whatever” is going on in my life at any given time is only for a season. Whether it be things that bring me joy, or things that bring me sadness, or pretty much any other emotion, it is temporary. This is comforting – especially when things are not going as one would most want them to go. But even when things are going wonderfully, remembering that even that is just for a season keeps one humble and mindful of the need to be grateful.

The seasons of the Christian year especially remind us of themes that resonate deeply within us: things we hope for, strive for, are thankful for, and so on. Epiphany has many meanings. In Christian circles it is the revealing of Christ to the Gentiles – and for those of us who look at this mytho-poetically and not simply literally, this denotation means much more than the infant Jesus being seen by the magi long ago. It could mean that we, too, need to reveal Christ-consciousness to the rest of the world. It could mean that the star the wise ones followed is more than literal, signifying that we each, if we would be wise, are to be guided by the lights in our life and world. It could mean that we ourselves are to be lights to the world, following in the footsteps of Jesus as he called us to do. And, of course, it could mean many other things. Who knows what epiphanies might follow if we discipline ourselves to consider multiple meanings?

Epiphany also has more secular, though to my mind no less sacred, meanings. We are said to have an epiphany when we have an “aha!” moment – a sudden and often life-changing realization of something that we have been searching for spiritually, emotionally, or in other ways. Epiphanies may carry with them the idea that the divine presence, or that which is sacred, has entered into our lives in a way we did not expect; or perhaps in a way we prayed for fervently but were uncertain as to the outcome. If one is less religious or spiritual, epiphanies still carry with them a sense of something almost outside oneself, or perhaps deep within oneself, instantaneously and serendipitously captivating one’s consciousness – a solution of genius to that which has puzzled one for a long time, or maybe a striking insight into life’s meaning and purpose. To say the least, these experiences can be very transforming.

Some say that epiphanies are rare -- perhaps a once in a lifetime event. But I have found them to be more frequent than this, not simply for myself, but for those who dedicate their lives to delving deeply into the human spirit and heart. Granted, some epiphanies are more transforming than others. But I would feel a bit empty if I did not experience some form of an epiphany on a routine basis. Maybe that is part of being a pastor. Pastors are “supposed” to have epiphanies so that they can help others have them. Inspiring epiphanies in others is fundamental to the sense of calling that many pastors feel.

When I read a book, a good book, I find myself having epiphanies regularly. I’ve just finished a short novel by Mitch Albom entitled, For One More Day. It is the story of man who went through life with an absent father whose love and attention he wanted more than anything else in the world, and his guilt in ending up in many ways like that father by how he took the love of his mother, wife, and daughter for granted. In failing to kill himself, he comes to have a rather unusual epiphany – a protracted one that, though it lasts only a day, takes him through the course of his entire life and gives him a new perspective, along with a reason and purpose for living.

I found myself disliking this character at times, indifferent to him at others, and more frequently sympathizing with him. What I didn’t expect is that portions of this story would bring me to tears. It was more than just feeling sorry for him. In a way it was feeling sorry for anyone and everyone who has ever felt like him. But it also hit home: I found myself pondering my own hurts, my own missed opportunities, and my own feelings that I could have been more than I am.

In some ways I could not relate to this character who had squandered much of his life drunk, angry, and acting in ways in which he did not take into consideration the feelings of others. And yet, what he went through, as I came to understand, is what we all go through. In our quest to be loved, we are pained, beyond words to even explain it, when we do not feel love sufficiently enough. This can leave us disillusioned, if not worse.

The character, earlier in his life, did not think deeply about things. He was led by instinct to follow in his father’s path, even when he couldn’t respect him. He could see that he hurt those around him; but, often at their expense, he felt compelled to win the approval of the one person he never could seem to win over. When his mother died, he turned to alcohol to numb his pain, shame, guilt, and felt worthlessness. His wife and daughter could no longer stand the person he was becoming, and he couldn’t blame them. He couldn’t even respect himself. He felt he didn’t deserve their love, nor anyone else’s. His life was filled with a darkness in which no light seemed to be able to penetrate.

In the aftermath of his botched suicide attempt, he experiences a number of epiphanies that help him see what he had missed. Part of this was learning another person’s side of the story, and part of it was experiencing the unconditional love of his mother for him in spite of how messed up his life had gotten.

We have all messed up at times. True, some more than others. But we all know what it is to desire the affection and warmth of another’s unconditional love for us in spite of our mistakes. We are blessed if we experienced that often. And we surely cherish those moments we felt this love if these were less frequent for us than for others. Love may not fix our messes, but it does have the power to transform our experience of them.

The man in the story took for granted his mother’s unfailing love, in part because he longed that his father might show him the same sort of love. And in this quest, he ended up doing to the women that he loved what he loathed in his father. It is a reckoning of self-awareness when we see that we have become that which we don’t like in others. We can either let shame and guilt drown us in our disappointments and frustrations, or we can have an epiphany that helps us to transform our lives.

In the story, the man is helped by his mother, her friends, and finally by his own outpouring of honesty to his mother about who he had become. Her unconditional love was his stronghold. When he learned some “family” secrets, it was again his mother who taught him about forgiveness. He also came to recognize that there are times when our anger at the horrible thing that another did, when seen through their eyes, is not only understandable but was what we would have done ourselves. Forgiveness comes more easily when we can see things from the other’s point of view; when we can see ourselves as them. Even still, it is necessary if we are going to get on with our lives in way that honors our own spirit as well as those of others.

In a final epiphany, he learned that there was one person whom he loved very much, and thought he had lost forever, who is able to get beyond her own sadness and bitterness at how he had abandoned her and made her ashamed of him. This led to a reconciliation that somehow affirms that the goodness of life and love for each other can wipe away all the tears of the past, and reconfigure the meaning and purpose of not just our own life, but of those whom we love.

Epiphanies are wonderful things. Whether they are foisted on us, or we work toward them, they can transform our spirit. And in transforming us, they help transform those whom love us – and whom we love.

I love Epiphany. It is always the season for an epiphany. What epiphanies have you had? What ones do you most need to have?

May the meaning of this season be experienced in each of our spirits that we may bring meaning, purpose, and light to ourselves, and our relationships. God will be with us – if only we’ll be there for one another.

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