Tuesday, January 8, 2013


I've known the word "Epiphany" (Capital E) since I was a little kid; I was brought up in the proudly liturgical (but not too high-church) Swedish Lutheran tradition, and we had Sunday School books that actually taught not just Bible stories, but what every part of the liturgy meant.

Epiphany:  the end of Christmas, the coming of the Three Kings, the season between Christmas and Lent.  There is something to do with light here.

Then, on the first year of my senior year of High School, my English Literature teacher taught us the meaning of the word "epiphany" (small e).

She taught us by telling us a story.

She told us that when she first went to school, she did not learn to read.  She just did not "get" reading. She didn't understand the connection between all the marks in the books and the words she was hearing.  She actually memorized the lessons every night, with her mother reading to her, and her learning the pages, but not comprehending the connection.

Every day she would get up for her turn, and all she would do is recite.  She was not reading.

Then, suddenly, one day, she said, it all came together.  She was reciting in front of the class, the way she always did, when, instead, she was reading.  She didn't "figure it out".  She didn't logically work through the steps.  It just suddenly occurred to her.

That's an "epiphany", she said.  It's when suddenly, everything comes together, the lightbulb comes on in your head, and you say, "aha!  that's what it is.  that's what it means."

She said that the author James Joyce used the word "epiphany" in this way.

She said that she hoped we would all have plenty of "epiphanies" in her class.

I'm not sure that she meant to, but her class also changed the way I look at scripture, even the way I study scripture.  Reading scripture isn't just (or even primarily) about 'figuring out what it means'.  It's letting the words get down into the soul, the heart, the guts.  Sometimes, I'll be reading along, not even knowing how much I really don't know what I'm reading, or hearing, when a phrase I hear will suddenly shine a light into places I didn't know existed.


Old Simeon comes to the temple every day.  He reads the Bible, and he even thinks he knows what it means.  He is waiting for the Messiah.

Then one day a young couple walks in, carrying a child.  Suddenly he sees.  He doesn't figure it out.  He doesn't travel from A to B to C to D in his mind.

"My eyes have seen my salvation," he says, in a flash, in an instant, in an epiphany.

We hold a baby in our arms, or we catch the eye of the widower who sits alone in the back of the church, or we see a woman sit down on the bus, and not get up.  And there is this flash when we see:  the face of God, our mission in the world, the work of justice.

In the darkness, the light shines.  In a flash, for an instant, but again and again.

And I am so grateful that this is so.

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