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With epiphany, the work begins

Published Aug. 24, 2005

(ran East edition)

Everyone's life has a turning point, a bend in the road where everything changes.

For some, it is the moment when they say, "I do" at the altar; for others, the moment when they first hold their baby in their arms; for others, it might be a conversion experience.

Epiphany, coming on the heels of New Year's Day, celebrates a sudden manifestation or revelation and is associated with the arrival of the three wise men bearing gifts for the Christ child.

Still, the day isn't just about the Magi giving gifts to the baby; it is instead about a turning point in their lives once they realize who this baby is.

As T.S. Eliot so nicely put it in his poem The Journey of the Magi, when the wise men see Jesus, they are not sure if they have witnessed a birth or a death. They know it is a birth, of course, but when they look into the baby's eyes, they realize their old ways of living will have to die.

Epiphany beckons each of us to ask: What ways of living would have to die in our own lives if we gazed into the eyes of the Christ child?

Would we continue down the same path, working at well-paying jobs that we hate and idolizing the almighty dollar?

Would we go on worrying about the future and doing everything in our power to lock in our own security _ instead of trusting in God's providence?

And would we cling to the cozy belief that an hour in church each week means we've done our Christian duty?

Or would we have a complete change of heart?

The Story of the Other Wise Man, a work of fiction by Henry Van Dyke, offers some insight.

The fourth wise man is eager to join the other three as they journey to see the wondrous baby born in Bethlehem. He is so enthusiastic that he sells everything he owns to buy jewels to give the newborn king.

But along the way, the other wise man gets distracted from his goal. He stops to help a dying man, saves a baby's life and helps a girl escape from slavery.

Thirty years pass _ and the man never meets Jesus. He thinks of himself as a failure because he sold the gifts he was saving for Jesus to help people he encountered on his journey.

As he is dying, the man confesses to God: "Three and thirty years have I looked for thee; but I have never seen thy face, nor ministered to thee, my King."

And then comes the voice in reply: "Inasmuch as thou has done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, thou hast done it unto me."

The story brings home the point that the things we do for human beings are our gifts to God. We do not encounter God face to face in our everyday life, but we do have the chance to console, clothe and feed our brothers and sisters, who are his children.

This wise man never looked into the eyes of the Christ child, but the turning point for him came as he died, when he realized that he had been walking with Jesus all along.

On the Epiphany, we can take a cue from the wisdom of this simple tale.

We can look long and hard at ourselves in the mirror and ask whether we are using our God-given gifts to help the suffering people we meet.

And we can remind ourselves that, whenever we comfort someone who is in despair, minister to the dying or share our bounty with the needy, we tiptoe close to the manger. And look into the eyes of the newborn king.

Lorraine V. Murray is the author of two books: Grace Notes, a collection of stories about her faith journey; and Why Me? Why Now? a Christ-centered guide for women with cancer. She works in the Pitts Theology Library at Emory University.