Luke’s family existed like a village built on a flood plane, or a city sprawled out over the top of shifting geological fault lines. In his family of origin, everyone conducts business with one another as if you could count on a shared, solid and dry foundation. But for anyone in that family with a long enough memory…and almost everyone in Luke’s family has an excruciatingly long memory…he or she knew that everything solid and stable could get whisked instantly away in a Jerry Springer-like vortex.
In retrospect, it seemed almost ironic that the flooding would come on a night that seemed so unusually clear and cloudless for his family. As his brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews gathered, no sign of the coming storm could be detected. In fact, slowly, slowly, a ten-year-wide chasm between Luke’s two sisters and his mother was just now bridging. For the first time in nearly a decade, there was a sense of ease as this family, that had so often gone nuclear with one another, was now taking positions around the folding chairs of a common circle.
With lap-plates full of holiday cookies and hors d’oeuvres, the conversation brought forth warm laughter and recollections. Sitting in that circle reminiscing, Luke was reminded of a Christmas story narrated by his brother decades earlier in a grade school auditorium. In that one-act tale, an impoverished little girl stood discretely on the cold, snowy side of a plate glass window. She stood staring in wonder at the well-to-do family feasting on the other side of those panes of glass. On this night, as a full-grown adult, Luke felt like he and his family had finally made it to the warm side of the window. After years and years, Luke’s family had finally figured out how to gather for a celebration in the way that he imagined other families gathered on the holidays.
The flood that would transport Luke back to the frosty, familiar side of the looking glass began during the reminiscing. Luke’s oldest brother remembered the facts of a story one way. His dad remembered them another way. Old family fault lines began to move and shift in a well-rehearsed, reactive dance. Explosive words deployed by years of unhealed wounds exposed this cozy little gathering to the familiar cold winter winds of family division. As the awkward silence descended, Luke couldn’t help but acknowledge the familiarity of the scene that had just unfolded. Those twisted ropes in his stomach…the words frozen in his throat…was it 2007 or 1977?
This Sunday, Christendom celebrated the Feast of the Epiphany. In common parlance, the word “epiphany,” is applied to one of those golden moments in life when something that was previously all tangled up and indecipherable suddenly straightens out and becomes crystal clear. These are the, “Ah! Hah!” moments of life.
In this Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 2: 1-12), just like this time last year, we, once again, met the cast of characters that populate the stage during Epiphany. This year, I was struck by how the same set of circumstances led some characters (the Magi) to an “Ah! Hah!” moment of the first order. While at the same time, other characters (Herod and his court), when presented with the same circumstances, were left in fear and confusion. I was also struck by how the magi were willing to leave the comfort of their own palaces and courtiers on a sojourn to discover the full meaning of a stray star.
You and I live in a unique period of human history. We are situated between the incarnation (which inaugurated the Kingdom of God) and the Parousia (the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God). That means that each of us enjoys the indwelling presence of divine life. It also means that until the Kingdom arrives in its fullness, the hidden fault lines of human imperfection will still touch each of our lives. In this unique time of human history, everything has the potential to point, like the epiphany star, to God’s indwelling and unfolding grace-even the circumstances of a family gathering gone haywire.
The grace of an epiphany rarely presents itself to those unwilling to sojourn. When a painful family misunderstanding has caused emotional flooding, it is easy to retreat into the familiar old patterns of fear and defensiveness like King Herod in this Sunday’s Gospel passage. It is much more difficult to behave like the magi-to launch a journey of humble self-discovery. The pilgrimage that leads to an epiphany is often long and hard. Sometimes it requires the use of an expert guide like a spiritual director or counselor. It always begins with honest, and courageous self-reflection. For Luke to unpack the epiphany buried within that painful night’s circumstances, he had to humbly and intelligently ask himself some questions. “What is it in me that allows my father to punch my buttons so easily?” “How can I open myself to Christ’s peace, and sooth my heart down when a family member gets emotionally flooded?” “Even if family healing is not fully possible, how can a family blow-up lead me to deeper levels of emotional and spiritual maturity?” “How can I establish firm boundaries that prevent myself from being re-traumatized by familiar childhood wounds?” “How can I maintain these boundaries without aggressively wounding someone else in the process?” “How can I nurture and parent myself when confronted with a family member who is limited in his or her ability to love me maturely and deeply?” “How can I accept others in their limitations?”
As the Christmas season wanes, can you search the horizon of your life to see if there is a stray star out there somewhere inviting you on a journey toward your own personal epiphany?