Epiphany Means Showing Up
January 6, 2021 – David R. Weiss
Today is Epiphany. Among Western Christians it marks the twelfth day of Christmas (for those keeping count), the day we remember the visit of the Magi. In Eastern Christianity Epiphany practically is Christmas: it’s the day when Eastern Christians commemorate both the birthday of the baby Jesus and the baptism of the adult Jesus.
Tonight I’m mostly interested in the word itself. Epiphany means “to manifest” or “to reveal,” but I like the rendition I heard in an adult forum tonight: Epiphany means “showing up.” Whether you view it through the visit of the Magi, the birth of the baby, or the moment of his baptism, Epiphany is when God shows up.
But stay with me for one more bit of theology. In Eastern Christianity (more so than in its Western expression) Epiphany also introduces the notion that it’s our vocation to show up, too. As Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (298-373 CE) wrote about the incarnation, “The Son of God became human, that we might become god,” [intentionally leaving the second g in lowercase because he did not mean to suggest that we can become like God]. Rather, he explained, we are “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
That’s a higher calling than we usually entertain for ourselves. We reserve it for saints and heroes. But Athanasius and his Eastern Christian siblings were not so stingy. Epiphany means showing up in the fashion of godly grace—even in the little moments.
“So … are we married?” This is becoming my mom’s question to my dad at bedtime. It is not a playful query. I’ll grant you, sixty-three years is a long time to remember most things. But who she said “I do” to? She was clear on that until just recently.
Mom’s memories are falling away day by day. From the details of her distant childhood to church friends she knew just a few years ago, everything is covered by dense fog these days. She began “misplacing” her beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren a year or more ago. She still remembers her children (most days)—though the pandemic has made us far less present in her life. And she finds phone calls too disorienting to follow, so a three-sentence conversation is a long one.
But because she lives 24/7 at home with my dad, he is her everything. Cribbage partner, chauffer for drives past the lakefront, short order cook, housekeeper, and—of course—husband. They have so much together time that it’s probably rare for even an hour to pass without them moving past each other in their small home. Not a lot of time to forget the man she married. But she does.
“So … are we married?” Mom doesn’t ask the question with anxiety. It’s like she still assumes the answer must be Yes, but she needs it confirmed by someone more sure than she is. I think it’s her way of tidying up her world at the end of the day. Pajamas on, teeth brushed, slippers at the bedside —and that man … “husband”? Then, with everything in its place—however much just barely in place —she closes her eyes.
But, Epiphany: that’s my dad saying, “Yes, Carol, we are married.” He says it most days patiently. Some days wistfully. Others sorrowfully. And sometimes, no doubt, with weariness in his soul. But with that Yes, he shows up. Bearing grace. What’s more, with that Yes, he invites my mom to show up, too. Allowing her to once again find her place in a world that’s becoming less familiar by the day.
Athanasius said God became human so that we might become god. We might well grant that for saints and heroes. But moving into dementia while married—incarnation happens there, too. My parents’ journey is hardly uncommon. And there’s not one of us who doesn’t face other challenges, perhaps equally pressing. But for me (and Athanasius, too) that’s kind of the point. Epiphany is God’s invitation to each of us to show up. Bearing as much grace as we’ve got. And with the promise that God’s grace has our back.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.
David, wonderful incarnational story about your parents. So now your dad has to do the remembering and the reassuring for your mom. Some people call what your dad is doing by “showing up” the thirty six hour day for caregivers. You are blessed to still have such people — ”icons” — in your life without even having to go to an Eastern Orthodox Church.
Thanks, Glen. And how true. Blessed to have icons so near to my heart.
Dear David, the tears are still in my eyes as I write this thinking about my parents in the same situation. Dad said he prayed every day that God would let him live long enough to take care of Mom as long as she lived. God granted that prayer. I’m sure your Dad watched that dedication and may have been inspired by their talks too. I bless their love and pray that God will grant Fred that same wish. Love and Blessings, Paul Fischer
Thanks for these words, Paul. I appreciate hearing when my writings resonate — as this piece clearly did. All the more when they elicit other stories that amplify the message, as both you and Glen have done here.
David, one more response to your wonderful story about your parents that makes epiphany come alive. I met professor Terry Fretheim at the Wartburg Academy of the Rockies in 1981. His parents joined Bethel Lutheran Church for a brief time before my retirement. I took communion to his mother at a memory care unit in Plymouth. During the entire time that we shared communion she said not a single word. But as I stood at her door ready to leave, she suddenly started speaking, “The lord bless you and keep you. The Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” How appropriate that a revered OT professor’s mom would give me the Aaronic blessing as the last words she ever spoke to me.
What a rich addendum to my reflection. Thanks for sharing this!