THE EPIPHANY OF SUFFERING
© Rev. Dr. Gary Blaine
University Congregational Church
January 6, 2008
Reading: “The Evacuee” by R. S. Thomas
She woke up under a loose quilt
Of leaf patterns, woven by the light
At the small window, busy with the boughs
Of a young cherry; but wearily she lay,
Waiting for the siren, slow to trust
Nature’s deceptive peace, and then afraid
Of the long silence, she would have crept
Uneasily from the bedroom with its frieze
Of fresh sunlight, had not a cock crowed,
Shattering the surface of that limpid pool
Of stillness, and before the ripples died
One by one in the field’s shallows
The farm awoke with uninhibited din.
And now the noise and not the silence drew her
Down the bare stairs at great speed.
The sounds and voices were a rough sheet
Waiting to catch her, as though she leaped
From a scorched story to the charred past.
And there the table and the gallery
Of farm faces trying to be kind
Beckoned her nearer, and she sat down
Under the awning of salt hams.
And so she grew, a shy bird in the nest
Of welcome that was built around her,
Home now after so long away
In the flowerless streets of the drab town.
The men watched her busy with the hens,
The soft flesh ripening warm as corn
On the sticks of limbs, the grey eyes clear,
Rinsed with dew of their long dread,
The men watched her, and nodding, smiled
With earth’s charity, patient and strong.
The story is told of a young soldier who was fighting in Italy during World War II. He jumped into a foxhole as machine gun fire burst around his feet. He immediately tried to deepen the hole for more protection, and was frantically scraping away the dirt with his hands. He unearthed something metallic and brought up a silver crucifix, left by a former resident of the foxhole.
A moment later another leaping figure landed beside him as shells screamed overhead. When the soldier got a chance to look, he saw that his new companion was an army chaplain. Holding out the crucifix the soldier yelled, “Boy am I glad to see you! How do you work this thing?”
In the midst of death, despair, and rampant evil we all want to know if God is still with us. Is there any movement of providence in the battlefield of life? Is there any hope in the valley of the shadow of death? This is the fundamental question of Epiphany. How do we respond to suffering as women and men of faith?
Let us begin with the meaning of the word epiphany. It is from the ancient Greek, epiphaneia. Simply defined, epiphany is the personal appearance of the divine, and is experienced in the extraordinary events which reveal the power and providence of God. Epiphaneia was a phenomenon often associated with the birth stories of Greek and Roman deities. In the Old Testament Yahweh’s marvelous rescue and the redemptive vindication of the people of Israel were epiphanies. Intervention on behalf of Israel by God was understood as the personal appearance and presentation of God’s saving power. In the New Testament epiphany is the revelation of God in the persona and ministry of Jesus.
Epiphany gained importance, not so much from its Biblical association, as from its ecclesiastical and liturgical function. Epiphany was the first Christian festival commemorating the appearance of God on earth. Late in the third and early in the fourth century Epiphany was celebrated by the Eastern Church on January 6th as the birth and baptism of Jesus. This celebration included the Adoration of the Magi. But why did the church need to create such a celebration?
The answer lies in the dire historical context of the church’s early history. The Christian church suffered horrendous persecution during the first five centuries of the Common Era. The first massive persecution began with Nero in 67. Nero illuminated his garden parties with Christians burning at the stake. The cruel suffering of Christians marked the reign of emperors Domitian, Trajan, Marcus Aurelius, Severus, Decius, Valerian, and Aurelian. Epiphany emerged in the liturgy of the church in the time of Diocletian and Galerius, whose practice was to throw Christians into the sea with stones tied around their necks.
It is not difficult for us to imagine that the church of the fourth century would search for and cling to some ray of hope in the shadow of death. Like the soldier in the foxhole, the church would ask of its Savior, “Is there some way out of this immense pain and destruction? And if there is no way out, what hope is there to strengthen and encourage us?” Is there a word of comfort which enables us to hold fast to whatsoever is “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and worthy of praise?” (Philippians 4: 8) If God would not or could not rescue them from the fell clutches of the violent Roman Empire, what hope would sustain the faithful Jesus community?
Words of hope came to the Christian church through stories. In the midst of a violent and oppressive Roman occupation the church told stories. She sang the psalms, broke bread and drank wine against the landscape of fear. She
told the story of the Christ child born in the crèche of poverty, hunted down by Herod the Great. There were no legions of soldiers to defend the innocent Lamb of God, only angels and shepherds who were frightened out of their minds. There were no great heroic figures to turn the tide of malice or advance his cause, only astrologers who had enough wisdom to evade the paranoia of government. A birth story was told in the midst of death, and the major characters were a tiny family of questionable origins. In the teeth of the Roman Empire this impotent little trio offered a new vision of hope and grace. And in time Rome would fall before the manger.
This was the Epiphany that kept hope alive for the mauled and bereaved Christians of the fourth century. Understand that we are not talking about history. The issues are not factual. The issue is how we live in such times as these. The stories are told to call us to relationships of gentle love, even the tender love a mother gives to her first newborn. The stories are told to call us to front the realities of life with dignity and poise. The stories are told to remind the church that its ministry is not one of power and dominion, but of compassion and justice. The stories invite us to encounter the living God in human history, even at its most horrific.
Epiphany is the revelation of God in the midst of deep suffering. I see it constantly in the common affairs of human relationships. I see it in the gentle courage of kindness and patience. Epiphany is as frequent as a farming community that patiently nurses a young woman back to health in R. S. Thomas’ poem, “Evacuee.” Epiphany is a divine lesson told in the compassionate actions of men and women like you and me.
Andrew C. Davison wrote about a visit he had with Dr. Albert Schweitzer, then 85 years of age. The visit took place at Schweitzer’s hospital at Lambarene on the banks of the Ogowe River. Davison wrote:
“It was about eleven in the morning. The equatorial sun was beating down mercilessly, and we were walking up a hill with Dr. Schweitzer. Suddenly he left us and strode across the slope of the hill to a place where an African woman was struggling upward with a huge armload of wood for the cook fires.
I watched with both admiration and concern as the 85 year old man took the entire load of wood and carried it up the hill for the relieved woman. When we all reached the top of the hill one of the members of our group asked Dr. Schweitzer why he did things like that, implying that in such heat at such an age he should not.
Albert Schweitzer, looking right at all of us and pointing to the woman simply said, ‘No one should ever have to carry a burden like that alone.’”
That was an epiphany! Lifting the burden of another human being is the telling of God’s love. In the act and the telling of the story God is revealed. It is an epiphany story that also reminds us of how we ought to be in relationship with our neighbors. It calls us to compassion when the world teaches us to compete and win at all costs. Consider this poem by John Guzlowski, “What My Father Believed:”
He didn’t know about the Rock of Ages
or bringing in the sheaves or Jacob’s ladder
or gathering at the beautiful river
that flows beneath the throne of God.
He’d never heard of the Baltimore Catechism
either, and didn’t know the purpose of life
was to love and honor and serve God.
He’d been to the village church as a boy
in Poland, and knew he was Catholic
because his mother and father were buried
in a cemetery under wooden crosses.
His sister Catherine was buried there too.
The day their mother died Catherine took
to the kitchen corner where the stove sat,
and cried. She wouldn’t eat or drink, just cried
until she died there, died of a broken heart.
She was three or four years old, he was five.
What he knew about the nature of God
and religion came from the sermons
the priests told at mass, and this got mixed up
with his own life. He knew living was hard,
and that even children were meant to suffer.
Sometimes, when he was drinking he’d ask,
“Didn’t God send his own son here to suffer?”
My father believed we are here to lift logs
that can’t be lifted, to hammer steel nails
so bent they crack when we hit them.
In the slave labor camps in Germany,
he’d seen men try the impossible and fail.
He believed life is hard, and we should
help each other. If you see someone
on a cross, his weight pulling him down
and breaking his muscles, you should try
to lift him, even if only for a minute,
even though you know lifting won’t save him.
Epiphany is that moment, even if only one moment, when we lift someone off the cross of pain. That moment of gesture is a moment when God has broken into the history of suffering and offered hope. It is a moment that hope reminds us that suffering is not forever. We can never underestimate the power of a simple gesture, a moment of time and attention given to another person. The hand of eternity can be played in a moment of grace.
Epiphany emerges out of pain when the hands of compassion reach out to lift the burden of a sister or brother. Rev. Donald L. Anderson recounts a similar story during a visit he made to Hillhaven Hospice. If you have ever visited a hospice facility you know that staff and patients bond very quickly. One weekend eight of the 35 patients died at Hillhaven. Anderson relates the story of one of those patients:
“On Saturday this middle aged patient, who had been in hospice for several months, had a visit from her teenaged son. The staff noted that it must have been a great visit because there were laughs and loud jovial conversation. At noon the boy left to join his friends from school for lunch and a movie.
A short time after he left the patient called her nurse and said, “I think this may be it. I think I may be dying.”
The nurse checked her vital signs and replied, “Yes, it’s possible that you are.”
The patient said to her nurse – a friend – “Will you help me? I think if you hold me I can do this well.”
The nurse climbed up onto the bed and cradled the woman’s emaciated little body in her arms – and held her into eternity.”
That is epiphany. It is so very simple and profoundly righteous. This moment of grace was an eloquent expression of God’s love, brilliantly illuminating the shadow of death. Like a peasant couple shivering in a stable in Bethlehem two thousand years ago it seems almost too simple, too human, perhaps even insignificant. But like the gospel story of old, it is the little fissures of love that crack and then break open the empires of death.
When we are hunkered down in foxholes and trenches; when death and brutality are dancing all around us we will not find hope in the relics and jewelry of religion, be they cross, crucifix, or crystal. No chaplain, shaman, or therapist can work some magic on them. Our hope pumps in the hearts of compassion and the hands of mercy. They are your hearts and your hands! God moves through us to reveal the hope that sustains us through the ages.
 R. S. Thomas, “The Evacuee,” R. S. Thomas: Poems (London: Phoenix, 2002), pp. 19-20.
 John Guzlowski, “What My Father Believed,” Lightning and Ashes (Steel: 2007)