I’m trying something new today–a dear friend of mine reached out with some words he wanted to share, and I’m honored to get to use this space for that purpose.
You may remember Knox from his interview a few years ago. He now teaches at an Episcopal boarding school for boys, where students and faculty have the opportunity to share reflections with the whole school community during morning chapel services. Knox gave a “Chapel talk” last week about applying the idea of Epiphany to our lives in a time of national transition marred by division, and I think it’s especially applicable this week as we hurtle toward a new presidency. I deeply enjoyed reading Knox’s thoughtful and illuminating speech and hope you all get as much out of it as I did.
“Chapel Talk” given at Trinity-Pawling School on January 9, 2017
by Knox Sutterfield
While going for a run on New Year’s Eve, I found myself thinking about the etymology of January. Because, yes, I am a huge nerd. Somewhere in my six years of Latin, I assume, I picked up the fact that January gets its name from the Roman god Janus. Janus was the god of beginnings and endings, of transitions, of gates and passages. And he was depicted with two faces, one looking back, the other looking forward. It’s an evocative representation and one full of meaning, especially at the turn of a new year.
The church has its own calendar, and in January, we celebrate Epiphany, or the visit of the three wise men (or kings or Magi). The word Epiphany comes from Greek, and it means a manifestation or appearance. It’s a word we sometimes use outside of church too. If you’ve had an epiphany, you’ve had a light bulb moment, an “aha!”—the sudden realization of some truth or insight.
As the Epiphany story goes, three mysterious foreigners study ancient prophecies and look to the stars for signs of hope. Following these, they, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, discover something a bit unexpected: a little boy from a small town. Not some conqueror to deliver Israel from centuries of political and military oppression. Not some fully-formed sage descending from the clouds with all the answers. But God made manifest in the most vulnerable, human way, as a little brown-skinned boy from a poor family. Yet a child who would grow up to share Truth with those around him and with us today as we look both back and forward. A child who brought light to a dark world and whose words and deeds still bring light to our world.
And I don’t know about you, but I think we need Epiphany right now. I think we need some light and truth.
This January is a time of considerable transition, as a new Congress and a new President are sworn in. It comes on the coattails of a Presidential campaign full of negativity, mistrust, polemic, and the vilification not just of the candidates but also of their supporters. And let’s be clear: there’s plenty of blame to cover the whole political spectrum.
We are walking through darkness, my friends: the darkness of division, the darkness of hateful rhetoric that alienates us from our fellow citizens—conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between. Rather than feeling like “one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” it feels like we live in a country that is fractured and fractious.
I suppose elections are divisive by nature. We’re asked to choose between options, and the choice to vote for something always carries the implication of voting against something else. But division and enmity hasn’t ended with the election. Oh no, if you’re like me, it crept even into family gatherings over the holidays. Nor is it likely to end anytime soon unless there is some epiphany, some inrushing of light into this darkness. I don’t mean some earth-shattering miracle (though we can always hope for one). No, it begins with something small, and humble, and powerfully simple—but not easy.
And it can begin right here, in our daily lives.
It is up to you and me to engage each other with empathy: to listen to the hurts and needs of those who are less privileged than we are; to listen to the fears of those whose world and way of life are changing faster than they’re prepared to handle; to seek to understand people with different backgrounds and beliefs and identities, not to change their minds but simply to better know the rich tapestry of human diversity; and to speak words of kindness and inclusion when we talk with one another here and with others wherever we may go, rather than belittling and excluding those who are different or with whom we disagree.
If we do these things, we will have begun our own epiphany.
So, in this time of transition, as we, like Janus, stand looking both backward and forward, let us inhabit the threshold intentionally and encourage one another to bring light to the world in this new year.