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Epiphany: A Radiant Reality

Epiphany. What a strange word to our ears. It sounds as awkward as a hippopotamus walking through a gift shop. Epiphany: a manifestation of God's presence in the world. The word has been taken over by secular literary critics, particularly from the work of the Irish novelist James Joyce, who "defined it as `a sudden spiritual manifestation' in which the `whatness' of a common object or gesture appears radiant to the observer."1
What is the "whatness" of our world? What is it that is really going on, not just the passing fashion but the enduring reality, the truth we can bank our lives on?
I drive down a city street, and I see the cameras and roving broadcasting truck of a local television station. Are they video taping an epiphany, an event that expresses the true "whatness" of our world? Its violence? Tragedy? Irredeemable sorrow? A bitter confrontation between opposing groups that have vowed to fight each other forever?
If that is the "whatness" of our world today, it also appeared as the "whatness" of the ancient world. The multiple writers of the book of Isaiah knew about the heartache of the destroyed holy land, the pain of exile, the defeat of all that was sacred and decent in their people's eyes.
The apostle Paul and the evangelist Matthew would later find the same disillusion replaying itself in their own generations. The church at Corinth broke into arrogant and exclusive factions, the community of Matthew floundered when Christ did not return and persecutions taunted their savior's proclamations that the reign of God was breaking in upon human affairs.
All of them—Isaiah, Paul and Matthew—might have succumbed to despair. They could have said this is the "whatness" of our age: destruction, alienation, disillusionment. But instead, each of them saw a deeper epiphany, an intrusion of grace, a disruption of hope, a resilience of light, a breaking of all the boundaries of conventional consciousness that opened them to the manifestation of the persistent Spirit of redemption who refuses to abandon the world. This is the One who comes with a gentleness that will not quench "a dimply burning wick" (Isaiah), who stumps the wisdom of our world (1 Corinthians), and who surprises even the most far sighted prophets with a willingness to be baptized, to be immersed in the same muddy stream of life as the rest of us (Matthew).
To receive this epiphany, to be open to this manifestation of the divine is to realize that the "whatness" of the world is not as closed and self-apparent as the media and the pundits would have us believe. There is some irrepressible power of light and grace that will not be conquered, and when this truth drives our preaching then our sermons become epiphanies: The truth of God is manifest through us. Audacious claim but true!
Thomas H. Troeger Iliff School of Theology Denver, CO
1. Chris Baldick, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), p. 72.