An epiphany is a manifestation of God, and in the pagan, pre-Christian world, of a god. The idea of epiphany was well known in the ancient world; the notion was actually commonplace that one could encounter a god, and we have ancient testimony of such occurrences.
Within Christian tradition we have the counsel of the scriptures to offer hospitality to strangers because one might unknowingly entertain angels. (Hebrews 13.2) An angelic visitation, such as Our Lady received, is a species of epiphany.
So, encounter with the divine was regarded by almost every ancient person, Jew and Gentile, Christian and pagan, as well within the realm of possibility.
While today we celebrate in the Epiphany, Christ our God made manifest, we must acknowledge that for many others, their gods have manifested themselves in this world and given evidence of their reality.
That may strike many Christians as outrageous, but I would recall to you St. Paul’s admonition toward his fellow believers with respect to pagan gods and the avoidance of eating meat that had been sacrificed to them (1 Corinthians 8): we may know they’re not real, but for a great many people they are. Christians don’t acknowledge their reality but we often appear to do so, and we must be careful in that—we are to recognize the phenomenon of belief in their reality, and then be wary of its hold on others, and ourselves.
The more current, and therefore relevant examples of gods made manifest lays in the realm of politics. The “Trudeaumania” of the late 60s is a minor example. More recently we have seen in the USA, Obama as “light-bringer” and Trump as the embodiment of a disenfranchised and forgotten middle America. These are examples within Western democracy of individuals being regarded, and indeed sold to a voting public as more than mere mortals, but indeed as manifestations of their “gods”—these gods being the values, vision and vain self-conceits of their respective supporters. Watch a political rally, and it is akin to, if not actually, worship.
There is nothing new in any of this.
We are coming to the close of the Christmas season, and we know that our Jewish friends have lately celebrated Hannukah. That festival marks the successful overthrow of an odious regime that was headed by a Greek ruler who thought of himself as a manifestation of the gods. Such was his conviction that upon his coronation he took as his royal name, Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
Antiochus was just the latest ruler in a succession of foreign rulers through three imperial regimes that counted Judea as a province. Through long centuries Judeans had struggled to maintain their culture and keep the faith. Under the Babylonians they were threatened with assimilation, under the more tolerant Persians they struggled for accommodation, under the Greeks it was the very temptation of Hellenistic culture that proved the greatest threat.
Antiochus, as a beneficent ruler was sure to lavish upon his subjects gymnasia, public baths, organized games and cultural festivals (which were understood and celebrated within a pagan religious context). This split the Judean community, and there were many who took Greek names, and advocated for compromise, and incorporation of many aspects of Greek culture, philosophy, but more troubling, its moral outlook, into the sacred patrimony handed down from Abraham and Moses.
This resulted in rebellion; and that must have puzzled Antiochus. Had he not embodied the generosity of the gods to his people, even those of Judea? Had he not given support and encouragement of the values and vision of the most supreme Greek culture? Had many in Judea not seen the light of Hellenistic philosophy and culture and embraced it? This king had done his duty, and lived up to his name: he had made the gods manifest to the Judeans, and yet they rejected both them and him!
As Christians today, we should not be surprised at how some of our leadership will regard our moral and spiritual outlook as incomprehensible, even as they might claim to be Christian themselves. This only reflects the split, the deepening divide between those in the thrall of the secular culture and those whose eyes have been opened to its degenerative and destructive nature.
Lest anyone think it is a matter of politics alone, that one must choose the right party, be the good globalist, or conversely, the patriotic populist, that could not be more mistaken. Each in their secular expression are to us as alien gods; made manifest in a culture, a politics, and an economy, that attempts to present a confident visage, but increasingly fails to mask the obvious crises: the loss of shared meaning, faltering political processes and fiscal dissolution.
The new saviour “god” is the “reset”, the mantra is “buildbackbetter.”
The growing skepticism toward these is incomprehensible to our elites. Indeed, it seems to infuriate some of them.
I shouldn’t worry about their disapproval.
For us, the Epiphany was not in the form of a magnificent imperial potentate, but in the humbleness of a human child prepared to learn, and grow amongst His people.
For us the “reset” is Christ, and nothing else. A commitment to Him, made first in baptism and confirmation, is to be renewed—for it is by the Holy Spirit that the world is renewed.
Today’s gods are an unconvincing lot, their shabbiness coming to light on the internet, though their emptiness should be apparent to those who center their mind upon the Word of God; they trip over their feet of clay.
Let us, each sequestered as we are, kept apart by edict, nonetheless find time to pay homage to the God who comes among us bringing not culture, nor political program, nor balance sheet, but rather truth, love and generosity.