I happen to live in one of the few places in our country where Epiphany is really celebrated. Here in south Louisiana, January 6th begins the Carnival season, which means that even if you don’t go in for elaborate costumes, floats, and parades, you are sure to find excellent King Cakes available everywhere in a variety of flavors ranging from cinnamon to amaretto to lemon to cream cheese — always lots of cream cheese.
But aside from its cultural expressions, what continues to draw me to the story of Epiphany is the idea of light, the light of God, going out to bless the entire world, breaking down humanly-constructed barriers between “us” and “them.” Our students need this message now more than ever before: that God and God’s kingdom has no barriers, no dividing lines, no fences, no walls.
But further, they need to know that Epiphany also helps us to see beyond even the borders around which we place our neat and tidy conceptions of God. One of my fellow chaplains, Connor Gwin, recently pointed me to an article by Josh Retterer about Sister Wendy Beckett, an art historian who also became a BBC celebrity. In her book Sister Wendy on Prayer, she pegs the modern condition that many of our students find themselves in. They have become young atheists or agnostics because of the “cruel, suspicious, punitive and watchful” images of God that they have been taught. Their God is too small and enclosed; as Sister Wendy says, “anybody who truly understands what God is cannot but believe and love.”
Our strength as Episcopal schools lies in our ability to help students see beyond these images, to see that God is more welcoming and loving than any of us could possibly imagine. Epiphany is the manifestation of that particular message, beautifully put in this poetic interpretation of Meister Eckhart (taken from the recent publication Book of the Heart: Meditations for the Restless Soul by Jon Sweeney and Mark Burrows):
Beyond All Names
We speak of You in many names,
You who are beyond all naming.
So take our words and bathe them
in Your radiant silence, so that
we might learn to praise You
beyond our words in every way
we can and in all that is.
Our entire lives are meant to be spiritually charged, pregnant with the possibility of divine events, or the divine life, or divine meaning, shining through. The beautiful and the miraculous exist all around us, if only we take the time and the care to listen, to see, to consider.
How we help our students to do this kind of spiritual work in our Episcopal schools encompasses a great opportunity and a great challenge. Yet if we can enable our students to achieve these kinds of epiphanies, to tune out the background noise of our lives that is always present — our devices, our incessant need to fill any aural or visual space with noise — and truly listen to what is around us and within us, we have helped them with the deeply countercultural, difficult, and worthy work that will help them to be more fully human.
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