Epiphany/Tsunami: Fr. Alex Manville, OFM

Epiphany/Tsunami: Fr. Alex Manville, OFM

Our story is dominated by a star that has risen out of the East, the mysterious East, the realm of the unknown.

Some fifty years ago I stood in the Arizona desert on a clear, moonless night and looked up into a pitch-black sky filled with a million stars. At first it was the big, bright, showy ones that grabbed me. But then I was drawn to the wee, faint pin-pricks that were the most distant. Tiny as they were, some of them, I knew, were suns hundreds and thousands of times larger than our own, and that the light I was seeing had left them not only before I was born, but before the human race was born, and probably even earlier. Their light had been traveling through intergalactic space for eons, and I was there that night to catch it.

The epiphany of that night gave me a whole new way of looking at myself and everything else, because that’s what epiphanies do; we know things, something happens, and suddenly we REALLY know them because our frame of understanding has been enlarged. Since that night, life has made me increasingly aware that I exist in context and ONLY in context. And my context is vast-for all practical purposes, infinite. And that context is incredibly dangerous: massive galaxies spinning madly, stars dying and stars being born, huge bodies colliding, columns of flaming gases shooting thousands of miles from molten surfaces that would melt our earth in seconds. And so much more.Terrifying beyond ultimate terror. And yet…

And yet, if anything were different, if, for instance, one of those massive stars I glimpsed that night didn’t exist, the entire universe would have to reconfigure itself, and in that reconfiguration would there still be an Earth, let alone an Earth with the very narrow, precise and delicate conditions necessary to sustain life as we know it? Sweet chance! In other words, either this insanely dangerous universe that has room for you and me, or a different, saner, safe universe without us. Take your choice.

The star triggers our story, but center stage belongs to the Magi. These are the “nations [that] shall walk by the light…the kings {who} shall walk in the shining radiance” that Isaiah describes in our first reading, they are “the Gentiles {who} are our co-heirs, members of the same body and [our] co-partners in the promise of Jesus Christ” that Paul celebrates in Ephesians.

If my physical context is a wild, bucking, exploding universe traveling at breakneck speed toward god-knows-where, then my human content is every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth, past and present. Thanks to breakthroughs in DNA, we now know that every human being, past and present, has descended from a dozen or so mothers, and thus, no matter the nationality, ethnic make-up, or race—white, black, yellow, red, whatever- all, ALL of us, are ONE PEOPLE, ONE family with only incidental differences. The millions whom the tsunami in a matter of minutes turned into the mourned or the mourning are my sisters and brothers and cousins, the children are my nephews and nieces. The solidarity of all peoples is not just a nice idea; it has a solid foundation in fact.

The other dominant figure in the story is poor, pathetic Herod, who thought he could manipulate history, fortress himself against life.

For over one-hundred years the U.S. Corps of Army engineers worked to control the recalcitrant Mississippi. And when one flood or another outsmarted them, it was back to the drawing boards, still confident some tweaking would do it. But after the massive floods of the 1990s, when, among other things, the Missouri decided to return to one of its earlier beds (from which the engineers reportedly had diverted it), causing death, suffering and billions of dollars in damage, the government finally came clean with the people along the river and told them, if they didn’t want to get flooded out again, they’d have to move to higher ground.

Yes, we have to take reasonable precautions against the vagaries of nature (usually in how we build and where we build), but do we really think that we can keep the universe from being the universe, or the earth from being the earth? Or do we, like silly ol” Herod, think we can save ourselves from the way things are? This earth is going to go on coughing and sneezing and stretching and yawning whether you and I like it or not. Like our own bodies, it ceaselessly adjusts to maintain homeostasis, an equilibrium between forces within and without.

In the last few days, many of us have wondered how we can get our minds around the enormity of what has happened. We can’t. Nor should we feel guilty on that account.

Like you, I’ve also asked myself what I can do.

I can mourn. I can mourn with empathy and compassion. But, if I’m honest, I won’t push myself to mourn beyond the limits of my experience. Beyond that lies sentimentality, that is, feeling for feeling’s sake; a popular but numbing indulgence.

I can also join, in my own way, the relief effort to help the survivors find a way to go on. I can deepen my solidarity with those distant people by admitting and up-rooting the vestiges of bias and discrimination in my attitude towards those close at hand.

As a human being with intellect and will and memory and emotions, I can learn, and I learn by taking time beyond the bright lights and noise and quick fixes to ponder-ponder the mystery that is life and is death, that is my significance and insignificance. I can grow beyond myself toward the dimensions of the mystery. In short, I can become wise, prizing the always--challenging important over the always--easy unimportant, largeness of soul over pettiness.

I can also become a better person to be around, because we never know how long we’re going to have one another.

It’s a story with a star, mysterious wise men, and a really dumb king. But first and foremost, it’s a God-story. A God-story against the backdrop of Christmas. It’s part of a story about a God who so loved his creation, especially his human creation, that he chose to become part of it, to know helplessness and confusion and total dependence on others. It’s a story finally of love and hope and people coping because they have one another.

I don’t pretend to know God’s over-all plan, or even whether he has one. In the meantime, I walk in wonder at the largeness and weirdness and unpredictability of it all. And I thank God every day that he’s invited me along for the ride.

*Epiphany appears here with two meanings. Originally it meant the sudden appearance of a god or goddess which gave special meaning to the event that triggered the appearance. The Church took this over to name God’s appearance in the infant Jesus to the non-Jews, the nations, the world-at-large. The second meaning, used and defined above, originated with James Joyce and is now commonplace among literary critics and other snobs.
Fr. Alexander G. Manville, OFM