To see clearly. To see what is really there. To see what we have not yet seen.
For a long time, almost 1700 years in fact, Christian people have remembered January 6 as the day of epiphany. The 4th-century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus was the first to mark the day as a holy day, the last day of Christmas, honoring the Magi who came with gifts for the Christ Child. They saw clearly, reading the sky and its stars, even through a glass darkly. They saw the king of kings, somehow strangely also the baby in Bethlehem, and worshipped him. They saw what had never been seen before, wondering as they wandered over the miles of the Middle East, sure that something of cosmic importance was just about to happen.
I thought of all this last night as we sat around the living room, our Christmas tree still in its glory, the fireplace blazing, reading “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” Do you know the story? As a boy I remember watching it on television, an opera of some sort, it seemed. But over the last years one of the books I have most loved is a beautifully-imagined version of the classic story of the Magi on their way to Bethlehem who stopped at the little house of Amahl and his mother.
Written by Gian Carlo Menotti and illustrated by Michele Lemieux, we are drawn into the life of a poor woman and her crippled son, who open their home to the Magi. Like all good stories, there is complexity in the hearts of all— the mother, the child, the Magi, and their servant —and before the night is over, with loves and longings that we all recognize, Amahl’s legs are surprisingly and miraculously healed, and he joins the Magi as they make their way to Bethlehem.
Written into the meaning of the healing of his legs is the healing of his heart. Slowly, very slowly, Amahl begins to understand that he too is implicated in the pilgrimage of the Magi, that he too can give a gift to the Christ Child. Not the gold, frankincense or myrrh of the wise men, not even their magic stones, precious beads and even more precious licorice, but he chooses to give his crutch, sure that the baby will find a way to use it, somehow, someway.
It was his most precious possession. Unable to walk without it, he offers his crutch, with gladness and singleness of heart. And in the telling of the tale, poetic and poignant as it is, he steps forward into his future, and walks.
The story is sweet and tender, but what it addresses is one of the deepest yearnings of every heart. We all want to see clearly. We all want to see what is really there. We all want to see what we have not yet seen. In the pantheist East, Buddhists call it “enlightenment,” promising that the final end is that we will see. In the materialist West, we have named our modern world “the age of the Enlightenment,” sure that we now see what is really there to be seen, that we see what has never yet been seen.
I suppose we are all longing for “epiphany,” aren’t we? We know that we are missing something. We know that our vision is flawed. We know that for some reason we just don’t see what we should be seeing.
The reality is that for everyone everywhere, our seeing is rooted in our deepest beliefs about what is real and true and right, about what matters and what doesn’t matter, about what is important and what isn’t important. These are our pre-theoretic commitments. We decide first how we want to live, what will matter most to us. Before we even begin to theorize about what is there to be seen, we have already committed ourselves, and our commitments are heart-formed— because when all is said and done, we see out of our hearts because we live out of our hearts.
On this day of Epiphany, I am drawn to Amahl, and the simplicity of his seeing. That night, that very strange night, hearing the stories of the Magi, he had an epiphany, seeing that what mattered most to him, the crutch, the symbol of his defining weakness and his most precious possession, should be given to the Christ Child. For a moment, he stumbles, unsure of his steps, but then, wonder of wonders, he sees that he can walk… that in offering his weakness, he is healed.
We call it an epiphany.