Catholic Homily/Reflection
Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord

In most parts of the world, Christmas began with hordes of seekers. They went in droves and waves, as early as the day after Thanksgiving (or September in the Philippines) seeking for the best bargains, seeking for the best gifts to give both themselves and others they care for. Christmas – or at least the commercialized kind propagated by the “malling culture” of consumerism – also closed with even more hordes of seekers searching for even better bargains for items “previously owned” – and returned – by “unsatisfied” consumers (at least in America).

In the aftermath of the horrendous tsunami that killed possibly more than 150,000 thousand people in nine different countries two years ago, a tragedy that happened just the day after Christmas, just when the whole Christian world ought to have been immersed deeply in the heart of the mystery of Christmas, the number of seekers swelled even more, as reports and images of 60 foot high tidal waves filled people’s TV screens all over the world. In the days that followed the tragedy, people have been, and still are, in search, not so much for answers, as for the ability to live with the baffling questions that fill their hearts and minds in the face of such a numbing natural calamity.

My reflection for today, the solemnity of the Epiphany, has to do with all the seekers and searchers that we all are, in good times and bad times. In these most difficult times when we all have to grapple with a reality that is bigger than life, it appears to me that the mystery of the epiphany, at bottom, has to do with God revealing Himself to people who are willing to “rise up in splendor,” to “see” despite “darkness” and “thick clouds” the “glory” of the Lord. At a time when the whole world saw more than just thick clouds, when darkness covers a big part of southeast Asia, when questions about whether a similar tragedy of such magnitude could happen elsewhere, perhaps closer to where my readers are, today’s liturgy warms up the hearts of people like us who are in search, in awe, and even in grief at the unfathomable mystery of God’s will and the power of nature gone berserk.

Isaiah’s “hopeful imagination” serves us in good stead today, as we face the many questions that befuddle us, the mysteries that elude us, and the inscrutable ways of God that confound us – a God who came to be like us, who became one with us, and who lived, died, and rose for us.

Recently, I had an “epiphany” experience that I would like to share in connection with today’s feast. This powerful experience of a God who shows Himself behind “thick clouds” and “darkness,” ironically, was mediated for me (and many others) by a 13 year old boy who recently died of a rare muscular dystrophic disease, a disease that also killed three other older siblings, a disease that is also slowly killing the four kids’ mother. Matthew Joseph Stepanek began writing poetry at age 3. Mattie, as he was fondly called, who wanted to be able to ride a fire truck, through his mystical poems, through his absolute passion for life, his resolute commitment to joy and optimism despite the constant pain and the debilitating sickness, became for me an impersonation and an icon of what Isaiah’s hopeful imagination was speaking about. When he died at 13 last June 2003, in the arms of a mother who is also dying of the same disease, Mattie had already published at least six books. But more than his material achievements, Mattie had succeeded to become God’s answer, God’s revelation to people out in search for the ability to live despite so many nagging questions. Mattie’s life – and death – had become for me and many others all over the world, one big “why” that should make it possible for people “to live with just about any how.” As I was eating my early dinner in preparation for school, the haunting and moving image of his mother cradling Mattie in her equally emaciated lap was an actual epiphany for me of a mother suffering along with her son, a mother offering her young son’s life as she had done three times before, a mother just about ready also to offer her own life. It was to me a powerful epiphany of the mystery of Michelangelo’s world famous La Pieta!

On the occasion of the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, I shared with you the reality of life as not providing easy answers to our mostly undeserved painful experiences, and a whole lot of even angry questions directed at God, others, and the world in general. I reflected with you on the fact that what we need is not so much answers as the reassuring presence of one who came to dwell in our midst, one who chose to walk with us as we journey through this “valley of tears.”

Isaiah, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, the thousands of saints and martyrs – including Mattie Stepanek – whose lives were all inundated with copious suffering each in his or her own way, show us in concrete what faith is all about. They show us that even without getting satisfactory answers, there is a way of living alongside the questions, and, in the words of Rilke, “love the very questions themselves.”

Mattie, for one, shows us how everything boils down to a matter of perspective – a way of looking at things in the light of something else that goes beyond flimsy answers. When the whole world was wringing its hands at the collapse of the twin towers owing to sinful man’s machinations, Mattie saw an opportunity to speak of peace, to dream of peace, and to be a feeble channel towards mutual understanding between peoples. When everyone dreamed of toy trucks alone, Mattie dreamt of being one of those he saw as heroes who risked their lives to be able to help others in imminent danger of fiery deaths. When most everyone sang of hopelessness and despair, Mattie heard what he call “heartsongs” and saw different possibilities beyond his own pain and suffering. Mattie had an eminently Christian faith-perspective. He saw and heard what others did not. And like John, he shared what, in his faith, he saw. “This is what we proclaim to you: what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, and our hands have touched – we speak of the word of life” (1 Jn 1:1).

Mattie, among other things, dreamt of unity and harmony: “Our differences are unique treasures. We have, we are a mosaic of gifts. To nurture, to offer, to accept. We need to be. Just be. And now let us pray, differently, yet together.” Mattie saw epiphanies of God in the most mundane things one could imagine: “When the trees sing, it doesn’t really matter if you know the song, or if you know the words, or even if you know the tune. What really matters is knowing that the trees are singing at all.”

Moses was a leader during his people’s own “valley of tears” in the desert. But in his attachment of faith to a God who showed His presence as cloud by day and fire by night, a God who showed His love in and through so many trials for His pilgrim people, Moses saw visions of a reality he never got around to seeing for himself. He heard his own “heartsongs” from God. He saw more than just flames in the burning bush. He saw the glory of God!

The American journalist Kathy Coffey shares with us a snippet of her own “heartsongs” in the midst of a jaded, rather confused people with teen-age children who don’t seem to care about God and faith anymore. After enumerating what she calls ten good reasons to be catholic in America, she gives ten good reasons to raise children catholic. The first states: “so that they will have rules to reject when they’re teen-agers.” The second is: “so that they’ll have some rules to reconsider when they have kids of their own.”

Perhaps the problem of the world in search is not about a God who is silent and indifferent to people’s pain. Perhaps the problem of the world is all about the gross inability to hear the “heartsongs” from above. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it so vividly, “the world is filled with the glory of God, and every bush is aflame with his love. But only he who sees takes off his shoes and worships. All the rest sit around, and pluck blackberries.”

Isaiah, Jeremiah, Paul, John, Jesus Christ, the saints, Barrett-Browning, Mattie Stepanek … they saw questions alright. They may not have provided answers to our liking, but they sure show us how marvelous and wonderful it is to see little epiphanies of God taking place in daily events, including painful, tragic events of untold and unimaginable proportions. They lead to questions, and questions lead us to seek, search, and long ultimately for God who may just be hiding behind the temporary thick clouds and the temporary darkness. Blessedness lies in the searching and the seeking, “for he who seeks, finds.”