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Unexpected Epiphanies

Our God is indeed a playful Father who is full of surprises for his children, in whom he delights. Such was the case in all three of the “epiphany” stories: the visitation of the Magi, the Baptism of Jesus, and the wedding feast at Cana.

In all three stories, God shows up in utterly unexpected fashion, with playful surprise that yields immense joy.

The wise men are already receptive and vulnerable – discerning enough to read the signs of the times and courageous enough to leave behind their comforts and proceed to an unknown destination.

In Jesus’ baptism, God shows himself like never before: openly revealing his beloved Son and the delight he takes in him, and visibly anointing him with the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit.

At Cana, we gain a glimpse of “the woman” (already promised amidst the shame of Genesis 3:15). Jesus gives her to us as a mother when he lays down his life on Good Friday. She is tenderly welcoming and attuning, yet fiercely committed to righteousness and to our flourishing. Even when it comes to something so simple as wedding wine (120 to 180 gallons’ worth of wine!), she notices and responds. She and Jesus both know that this, the first of his signs, will start the countdown to his “hour,” which will invite both of them into the depths of human agony as they offer all to the Father. They say “yes.”

These epiphanies (moments of manifestation or “shining upon”) are not just events of the past for those particular people. They are invitations to every beloved disciple to be vulnerable and receive. They are reminders that God wishes to show up playfully to surprise us as well.

I am astounded at the epiphanies God has worked in my own life, sometimes at exactly this time of year. My birthday always falls on or around the Baptism of the Lord, which is sometimes on the weekend and sometimes on a Monday. It’s a liturgical calculation so confusing that the artificial intelligence at Google couldn’t quite figure it out – which didn’t stop it from confidently proclaiming the wrong date when I asked last week. But I digress. AI is another topic for another time.

I remember, in particular, what happened in January 2018. It was one year into my healing journey. One month earlier, a wise woman had suggested to me the possibility of flying to Florida and participating in the “Holy Desire” priest retreat at the John Paul II Healing Center. After inwardly mocking the idea, I followed up on the promise that I had dismissively offered – that I would take it to prayer. I looked at my calendar, eager to prove to her that it wouldn’t work. Then God showed up. Less than an hour later, I was ready to buy my plane ticket.

Following an Advent that was full of comforting promises from the Lord, not to mention a Hope that  I painfully felt amidst awakening desire, I flew out on New Year’s Eve.

I do not recommend flying on Spirit Airlines. We sat on the runway for four hours before deplaning and waiting another three, without any information. It was definitely a “spirited” flight, between the booze and the anger of the passengers, who rung in 2018 at an unknown moment as we crossed into the Eastern Time Zone at cruising altitude.

I began the flight with panic and anxiety – not over the delays or the rage around me, but because of the unknowns of the retreat itself. Kim Glass (then the program director) reached out to me to see if I had a new ETA. I told her I would be getting my rental car around 3:30am and rolling in at the break of dawn. Prompted to vulnerability, I named to her my fears and asked her intercession. Instant and abiding peace washed over me. I suddenly found it easy to pray during that three-hour flight, even as I witnessed the flight attendants very skillfully cut off an inebriated and belligerent passenger.

I still struggled at moments on the retreat. Each of us received two extended prayer sessions for inner healing. I was paired with Sister Miriam, who has since become one of my absolute favorite people. The first time around, I was flooded with fear and resistance – believing lies about God the Father and myself. Much shifted that Wednesday – including an unexpected 9-minute blizzard in Tallahassee. That is connected to another totally unexpected epiphany that I will share more fully in future writing.

When I prayed the second time around with Sister Miriam, it was simple and peaceful, and I was ready to receive. She and I both received imagery about me receiving a crown and growing into kingly identity. She suggested that I just go into the chapel and pray more about that. I did.

It was as though I was noticing the movement of the star, and being invited to follow. The terrain was shifting under my feet. I was both afraid and eager. There is so much joy when the Lord is undoubtedly present. But like the Magi, following a star into the unexpected and unknown is disconcerting. It includes leaving behind much that is comfortable and familiar. It requires ongoing trust and surrender. None of those things come easily to me!

I returned home, already feeling much peace and joy. The moment I walked in the door I saw a painting of a snowman looking up into the sky amidst big blotchy snowflakes – a scene painted at a party a few weeks previously by my undainty fingers. The snowflakes (at first my least favorite part of the painting) looked just like the ones in Florida. I laughed and cried and praised God all at once. But he was just getting started.

A few days later, the Kindergarten class surprised me, coming over to my office and singing “Happy Birthday”– while placing a paper crown on my head. I felt the Father’s delight and their delight, not unlike Jesus in the Jordan. After they left, I wept tears of awe and gratitude. Then looked more closely at the crown. There in front of me was a star, winking at me.

God is indeed a playful Father. He keeps reminding me that he delights in me. He keeps leading me forward into the unknown. Now he has even placed me in a position of inviting others to follow the star into the unknown. Sometimes that star moves, and I feel “overjoyed with joy” like the Magi. Sometimes I feel lost and stuck. Sometimes I’m even humble and wise enough to reach out and ask for companions or for guidance (sometimes not). I still feel the ambivalence: an intensely felt longing for more which sometimes gets constricted by a panicked urge to go back to what is small and familiar.

Meanwhile, God keeps showing up – often when I am least looking for him. He is ever a strong and playful Father who delights in his children. The more I allow myself to receive and be transformed by these epiphanies, the more the Father’s gaze shines through me upon others who need it.

Amidst the darkness of a world that cannot give what we truly desire, may we be comforted by the fact that our Father will keep showing up and keep surprising. Even when we know that Jesus is the answer to every question and every longing, we still tend to be narrow-minded in how we expect him to save us. Thank God for playful surprises. Thank God for unexpected epiphanies.

Categories: Apprenticeship / Mentoring The Crib Theology

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Fr. Derek Sakowski

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