an epiphany


Cyprian Consiglio 


I’ve been sort of fascinated with this Greek concept of telos, for some time now, especially in my study of other religious traditions. The telos, as I understand it, means the ultimate end, the farthest goal, even beyond the proximate goal: what’s the ultimate end of life? What is the whole purpose of this thing? I always wind up back using the same examples: that the most popular forms of Hinduism, for example, say that the end of our life is for our selves to disappear into the great Self like a drop disappears into the ocean. And Buddhism shifts that a little bit and teaches that there is no self; not only does a human being have no self, there is also no Self of God either. There is just impermanence, just change, and the great release (nirvana) happens when we realize that. That’s the epiphany, you might say, that the Buddha had under the bodhi tree.

So how do Christians describe the telos? I think normally Christians would say that at the end of life our body dies and our souls go to heaven. We’ve been having a series of lectures from a wonderful scripture scholar Scott Sinclair lately, and he has been addressing just that–-heaven and hell, “the last things.” Scott has mentioned this famous scripture scholar N.T. Wright several times, and Wright says a rather shocking thing. This has a kind of complicated anthropological argument around it that I won’t get into, but Wright says that this talk about a soul needing to be saved so as to go to heaven is hopelessly misleading: the end of Christian life is not for the soul to go to heaven, but for body and soul to be raised together in an eschatological reintegration––that’s what scriptures teach is our share in the resurrection. Or more broadly put, the end of life for the Christian is a new heaven and a new earth. Now, that’s shocking enough, but I think the Fathers of the church put it plainer yet, easier to understand but even more mind-blowing. St Augustine and St Basil, for example, say that the end of Christian life is for us to become God. Somehow even my soul going to heaven pales in comparison. We have an antiphon that we sing every day at evening prayer, which is just a reiteration of St Augustine’s own words––“God became a human child so that every child of Eve might become God…”––, and I always think our guests are either not listening, or they are taking notes down to report us to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, because this is mind-blowing stuff that I never heard the priest in my parish say when I was growing up. But St Basil’s words are just as strong: “Through the Spirit we acquire a likeness to God; indeed, we attain what is beyond our most sublime aspirations––we become God.” I like to quote that while holding the Office of Readings in my hand, the official prayer book of the Church, to make sure people know that I am not making this up. And I also hasten to add two things: first, to keep us humble about this, there is a whole lotta emptying and dying thats gotta go on in order for us to realize this; and secondly, I have no idea what this means––to become God––, I’m just a parrot echoing words I’ve read. But that may be the real epiphany. Maybe that’s the realization that struck St Thomas Aquinas dumb at the end of his life, or that led St Teresa into ecstasy, our participation in divinity. And I think that’s the epiphany that is supposed to dawn on us in the feast of the Epiphany, too. This feast isn’t just about Jesus. It’s unpacking that for us and showing us a little bit more about it.

The strongest image of this feast is the three wise men coming to visit this child bearing their gifts. They are symbols, of course, of the rest of the world, of spiritual seekers outside of the Hebrew covenant entering the promise, and of the Jewish revelation breaking out of its container. But the uniqueness of this event is not just in their visit. It’s also in the fact that they had their gifts to bring too, and that their gifts were received and accepted. This was an important detail for Abhishiktananda, by the way, in his dealing with Indian spirituality.) They came bringing their treasures and their treasures were received, along with their uncircumcised flesh. And just so, when people come to Christ or come to the church, they don’t have to leave everything of themselves behind nor the treasures that they have found in far-flung lands. Who they are, what they have to offer is welcome, because (as St Thomas Aquinas taught) grace builds on nature.

On the other side of it, in spite of the Christmas card images we have of a halo around Jesus’ head, and maybe angels still hovering about, taking naps in the corner, what these men have come to see is nothing that special in one sense––a child, a boy, maybe by this time playing with his toys and making his first words. But this boy, for the moment at least, is a symbol of all of humanity. It’s like when you put an ordinary object in an extraordinary surrounding––like a painting in a frame, or an earthenware vessel in display case in a museum, or Abraham Lincoln’s hat on display, or someone we know performing on stage in front of 10,000 people, or St Paul’s letters about leaving his cloak behind somewhere read in the context of a liturgy, or bread and wine placed on an altar––then the epiphany dawns on us: it’s just something normal but it is carrying an extraordinary weight of glory: those swatches of color on a page are a groundbreaking work of art; that clay jar is a pristine example of a breakthrough in function and design; that piece of clothing rested on the body of someone who changed the world; that child I heard practicing the violin for years is able to capture sublime sounds and captivate a huge crowd with them; these letters contain sublime wisdom about the meaning of revelation; this ordinary bread and wine are our link to Jesus who is our link to the Godhead. But the other epiphany about that bread and wine is that before they are symbols of the real presence of Christ, they are supposed to be symbols of the real presence of me, of us. Our ordinary lives are what gets lifted up and accepted––like the gifts of those visitors from the east––and consecrated and divinized and made into the body of Christ, so that “we may share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” And this child: the fullness of divinity dwells in him, this little seemingly ordinary boy.

The Fathers of the church, especially Peter Chrysologus, tie together three epiphanies, the three times Jesus is revealed (and the Eastern church still celebrates it this way), again as we sing in an antiphon: this visit of the magi, the Baptism in the Jordan, and the wedding feast at Cana. The other two both have water in them, and the wedding adds wine, too. I feel a little neglected that we don’t have any liquids in this feast, but we actually do, as at every Mass. First of all there are the waters of baptism; and then (again!) that moment when the priest pours the water into the wine to prepare the gifts for our Eucharist. As if it weren’t enough that these are ordinary gifts from our field and vine, to ensure that we remember we are part of what gets lifted up, pouring that drop of water into the wine: “… may we come to share the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” May we pour the drop of water that is our humanity into the ocean of divinity that is Christ, but my drop of water doesn’t disappear––I become the wine and the whole ocean of divinity is somehow contained in each drop, just as our St Peter Damian taught that the whole church is contained in each member. Just as Paul says the fullness of divinity dwelt in Jesus bodily, in the next breath he promises, that you may come to fullness in him, and as John says in his Prologue we receive from his fullness life upon life. That is the whole point of the Word becoming flesh.


Cyprian Consiglio  (click on name for profile)


Make a free website with Yola