“And then, something happened.” It is a phrase I suspect anyone who has been a priest for very long has heard multiple times. In my experience, the lead-up usually looks something like this: A parishioner visits my office with alternating facial expressions of wonder, confusion, and sheepish embarrassment. He begins to talk without pause, covering every mundane topic of the day to avoid the real reason for the visit. Then, almost on a dime, he shifts gears and says, apropos of nothing, “You probably won’t believe this.” And his real story begins.
That story may focus on a desperate illness, or a major change in life, or on nothing remarkable at all. It may involve a late night panic attack, or the emergence from a hazy cloud of drink, or a reflective moment of meditation or prayer. But regardless, the denouement virtually always includes a pregnant pause, a quizzical look, and those words, “And then, something happened.”
And I believe him. And I believed the man who visited before him, and I’ll believe the woman who visits after him. I believe them all, because of their very inability adequately to put into words what the “something” is, because of their frustration at being unable to convey to me how profound the encounter was for them, and because, in the end, the quizzical look gives way to one of benign acceptance and sometimes even bliss, which tells me that the fact of the something is more than enough, that its sui generis nature is a gift, and that it will in some way define them for the remainder of their days.
What has happened? These many parishioners, and many of you, and I, and Jesus this very day, have encountered God. There was before, and there is after, and in between, if but for a moment, we have had an epiphany.
The very first epiphany, the very first encounter with God, was at the first moment of creation, when God determined that there would be a moment at all, and a creation with which to have an encounter. Though time did not yet exist, we temporal creatures only know how to conceive through sequences, and so we nevertheless say there was a before—formless and void, Genesis calls it—and there was an after, and in between something happened. That something was God’s declaration, “Let it be!” which changed everything.
At the outset of Mark’s Gospel today, Jesus travels to see John the Baptist in the wilderness, goes down into the Jordan and comes up from the water, and then, something happens. The early church recognized that this experience was momentous, so much so that some of the earliest Christian writings believed Jesus was adopted as God’s son at this moment.[i] That doctrine didn’t ultimately find purchase with the church, but many orthodox theologians argue at least that Jesus first became aware at this moment that he had a unique role to play. For Jesus himself, there was a before, and there was an after, and in between, at the River Jordan, something happened. As with us, normal language can’t adequately describe what Jesus encounters. Instead, Mark fumblingly tells us, it is as if the very heavens are torn open, and a dove descends, and the same voice that once said at the dawn of creation, “Let it be” now says, “You are beloved.”
These utterances of God are, it is my experience and conviction, the same truths that the vast majority of epiphanies seek to convey. Though each of the somethings people experience is uniquely profound and ineffable, their distillation still bears the essential character of 1.) creation and 2.) baptism. In the truth of creation, God says to us collectively and to each one of us individually, “The fact of you is good. Your mere presence in this world, or, for those who have already come and gone, your legacy and your enduring spirit, is good.” I am glad, God says, that you are.
As deeply affirming as this is, it is still potentially impersonal. It grants us strength and endurance but not necessarily comfort. And so, to and through baptism, beginning with Jesus’ own, God adds, “You are not only good; you are beloved. You, more than anything else in this world, always have been and always will be cherished.”
It must be said, these truths of goodness and love hold regardless of whether or not one has had a singular experience such as those that bring parishioners to my office. Hearing the words of scripture, passed down to us from the Gospels and, before that, from the mists of time, can itself be an epiphany. Taking into ourselves the body and blood of Christ at the altar rail can itself be an epiphany. Whatever the medium, the truths hold: You are good, and you are loved.
It is also worth noting that the grand epiphanies are accompanied by smaller ones—what I call occasions of grace—every day. Sunlight, a smile, a good word well meant, a memory of joy: Each of these is God breaking through into our world and our lives. Each of these is God’s whispered reminder. “Let it be,” God says, “You are beloved.”
What are any of us to do with that? What is Jesus to do with that? Well, for Jesus, all four Gospels agree[ii] that this moment, this something, redirects Jesus’ life and initiates his ministry. It moves him from the life of a rural village carpenter’s son on a trajectory that will result in the Passion. Jesus cannot but share these truths of God with anyone who has ears to hear, even when those who cannot bear these truths kill him.
What are we to do? For starters, I can say with confidence what we cannot do: We cannot pretend that epiphanies have not happened. We cannot act as though we are still in the before when, in fact, we are in the after. I have yet to have anyone visit me and share an epiphany who later was able—or desirous—to forget or disregard it. When the heavens open, whatever that is for any of us, they will not be easily closed.
What living in the after will mean for each of us is as different as our epiphanies themselves. What changes in your life upon the deep recognition that the fact of you is good, and that you are beloved? Will you pray in thanksgiving rather than petition? Will you choose differently in the world? Will you see your fellow human beings anew? Will your goals change and your horizons alter? Will mine?
This is the season of Epiphany. More than any other time during the year, we are invited and encouraged to be attuned and aware. There is before, and there is after, and in between, something happens. When you visit my office with that look on your face, I promise I’ll believe you.
[i] See especially the Shepherd of Hermas.
[ii] For doctrinal reasons, John’s Gospel avoids mention of Jesus’ baptism itself, but John the Baptist nevertheless makes oblique reference to Jesus’ epiphany at John 1:32.