Epiphany: A Feast of Light

Several years ago, I had a student in my English class who was blind from birth—Charlie had lost his eyesight due to oxygenation at his premature delivery, weighing less than two pounds when he came into the world. We were reading Shakespeare’s King Lear that day. Not an easy thing to do with a class of twenty high school juniors, but there I was, looking for meaning, for some insight that would pull the Elizabethan syntax and vocabulary into focus for my students.

We discussed Gloucester’s vicious blinding by one of Lear’s unfaithful daughters, and his later puzzling statement upon finding out that he had mistaken his innocent son for a betrayer, that it was his son Edmund, previously thought innocent, who had delivered him into the hands of the harpy-like daughters of the king. Gloucester says, with rueful intensity, a bloodied rag covering his wounds, “I stumbled when I saw.”

After asking a few questions, I could see my students were having trouble with the text, and we only had a few minutes of class left. I said, “Well, I think Gloucester is telling us that there are worse types of blindness than lack of physical eyesight.” Suddenly, Charlie’s face lit up, he smiled, and gently rocking his head back and forth, said in a soft voice, “Yes, that’s right, that’s very right.”

For a moment—a precious one, dear to every teacher and parent who cares—the room become silent, and in this stillness, was a pondering, a focus, courtesy of Shakespeare, and Charlie. I told everyone to read act four for tomorrow, and dismissed the class. I grasped Charlie’s hand before he went out, thanking him for his remark, telling him that it had made my class, made my day, in fact.

What does this have to do with the Feast of the Epiphany, which traditionally always falls on January 6th? Well, quite a lot. For in this politically fractured culture, coming off a divisive election year, it surely can’t hurt to reflect a moment on the way religious faith in general, and Christianity in particular, can give insight into how we should do politics.

These insights won’t be policy solutions. They won’t be derived from meta-data’s linear mathematics. They won’t be tactically precise or useful in the pitched battle that local or national politics can sometimes be. But they are, nevertheless, essential. And like most essential things, they are simple.

Here’s one: the Feast of the Epiphany is a feast of light because it reminds us that God is not an inert philosophical argument, but the truth. And the truth is light to see God and the world as they truly are, unclouded by delusion or desire. Reality, in short, cannot be seen or fully understood without God.

To live, to campaign, to plot policy, to fundraise, to canvas, to do anything of these things without regard for the truth is to embark on a fool’s errand. Like Gloucester, we stumble when we see with out eyes, perhaps because, tragically, we don’t want to see the truth with our mind and heart. The whirlwind we reap, however, is division, cynicism, debased public discourse, a feeling that the whole game is mendacious, even rigged. Maybe it’s time, when our own world dims with loss of hope, to look to a brighter light, from something other than ourselves. An Epiphany, in fact.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in 2013, commented on this feast with this singular insight:

The wise men followed the star. Through the language of creation, they discovered the God of history. To be sure—the language of creation alone is not enough. Only God’s word, which we encounter in sacred Scripture, was able to mark out their path definitively.

Thus the light of faith should not lead believers to dismiss unbelievers as “blind,” for they have the language of creation to read with their own eyes, even as that very creation gives silent witness to its metaphysical dependency, its radical rootedness in something beyond itself. Likewise, those without faith should be unafraid of listening to the witness of faith, especially when that witness has given rise to many of the humane institutions of our time, such as universities, hospitals, and a compassionate hand for the poor, never mind most of the world’s great art.

Even as some voices in our Church are attempting to overthrow core moral teachings of the Faith, we must remember that truth is not the enemy of our happiness. Quite the contrary. As well, given the Christian roots of the West, attempts to form a humanism without God and in direct contradiction to the moral teachings of Christianity will not succeed. T.S. Eliot, in an often-quoted passage, puts it bluntly: “The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail…” Which is precisely why the luminous teaching of St. John Paul II in Veritatis Splendor on the nature of the moral act is such a gift to the Church and to the world, as much as the Sistine Chapel, or Mozart’s Requiem. Efforts, pastoral or political, that treat the truth as a burden are destined for catastrophe, personal and cultural.

This is why I remember, on this Christian feast of the Three Kings, that day in class with Charlie who reminded us all of the worst darkness that can befall any of us. Charlie, I’m told, came home to his family, after numerous surgeries, on Mother’s Day. Any home that welcomes such a little one must be a place of light, a sturdy harbor where the least among us is respected and protected. Let’s wish no less for our country this coming year. For as this feast reminds us, the world will only be remade in the light of truth.

Michael J. Ortiz

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Michael J. Ortiz is the author of Swan Town: the Secret Journal of Susanna Shakespeare (HarperCollins 2006), and, most recently, Like the First Morning: The Morning offering as Daily Renewal (Ave Maria Press, 2015). He teaches English and Religion at The Heights School, in Potomac, Maryland.

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