Sophie's Gift

"When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage." (Matthew 2:10-11a NRSV)

The story of the three wise men coming to honor the Christ Child with gifts is a well-known part of the Christmas story. Its remembrance is a staple of the Christmas season, and is marked—at least in many nations where there is a large population of Christians—by decorations, ornaments, and store displays. The Church celebrates the visit of the wise men to Jesus and his mother on the Twelfth Day following Christmas. This day is called The Feast of the Epiphany.

If you look up the word "epiphany" in the dictionary, you will find at least three major definitions for it. One definition of "epiphany" is "an appearance or manifestation of a divine being" or deity. A second definition will usually refer quite specifically to the Christian celebration of The Feast of Epiphany and define Epiphany as "a church festival in commemoration of the coming of the Magi as the first manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles . . ." A third definition of the word "epiphany" is something similar to what we might call an "a-ha moment." This definition will go something like this: "a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature of something . . . an intuitive grasp of reality through something . . . usually simple and striking . . . an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure." []

And, if you will permit me, just a few more scholarly notes here, for those who like these things. The origin of the word "epiphany" is via Church Latin from the Greek "epiphaneia" meaning "an appearing" and comes from "epi" plus ""phainein" meaning, "to show." [] The word "magi" is the plural of "magus" and, although used traditionally to refer to the three wise men in Matthew's Gospel, is a word that can in fact refer more generally to "a member of a hereditary priestly class among the ancient Medes and Persians." []

. . . (And there will be no test on this.) . . .

But in lieu of a test, what I would like for all of us to consider today does connect with all three of these definitions of "epiphany": 1) One definition: the appearance or manifestation of a deity – the Incarnation, the Word made flesh in the Christ Child. 2) The second definition, referring to the coming of the Magi, the three who represented the learned and powerful priestly class of men - they who sought out a sign and found a child of lowly birth, received him with joy, and honored him with their gifts of great worldly value. And lastly, 3) the third definition of epiphany: "a usually sudden manifestation of the essential nature of something . . . an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure."

I think that many of us might be able to identify some "epiphany" in our lives — some moment when things seemed so abundantly clear and obvious, a moment that gave us a sense of peace and of presence—the "incoming"—of God into our lives. We knew it. We couldn't explain it—but we just knew it. And our response indeed to such a moment might have been like that of the wise men: our hearts were humbled, and we were overwhelmed with joy. I'd like to share one such epiphany moment from my life with you. And, though even I found it hard to believe, I know that this story is true.

Sophie was her name. Her name and her picture appeared in the local newspaper last fall. She is 15 pounds of mellow love and devotion. She is a small white and tan dog that my sister Bonnie adopted from the local animal shelter a few months ago. Sophie is ten years old with eyes that, although clouded a bit now by age, are beautiful and convey much expression. My sister kept the name "Sophie" for her new dog, the name that the dog recognized and came with, but also added the middle name "Delores," which was our mother's name, for her new companion animal.

Just a few weeks after Sophie came into our lives, my sister broke some bones in both of her feet and, as a result, was quite incapacitated. Most of Sophie's care then fell to me. I fed Sophie, I walked Sophie, I cleaned up after Sophie, and I took Sophie for her veterinary appointments. At the time I had also managed, at last, to get a part-time teaching job at a local college. My classes met on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I would feed and walk Sophie and then go to my classes, hoping all the while that everything would be quiet at home, at least for the few hours that I was away at the college. And things seemed to be working out pretty well. That is, until one day—one day in Advent—when a series of events took place that lead up to an epiphany moment; a day, although seemingly commonplace, that began for me (like the journey of the Magi) a journey of discovery, insight, and giftedness.

About an hour after I had gone to class one day (having walked Sophie just before I left), my sister noticed that Sophie was becoming very agitated and running back and forth to the door. After several minutes of observing this behavior, my sister Bonnie, with great difficulty, managed to get both herself and her walker, plus Sophie, out the door and down the steps. And while this walk did accomplish its obvious intended purpose, something else also happened then as well.

As Bonnie and Sophie were walking along, a young man came up to them. He said his name was Eric and that he was a friend of one of our neighbors over on the adjacent street. He asked the dog's name and my sister replied "Her name is Sophie Delores and I have just adopted her." Bonnie went on to explain that Delores had been our mother's name. Eric then talked about his hobby of metal detecting and requested permission to go on my sister's property sometime to use his metal detector. Bonnie agreed to this. When she told me about the incident later on that day, what I remembered was just being grateful that neither Bonnie not Sophie had gotten hurt or fallen during their walk. And I forgot all about Eric—at least until the next week.

Again, I was taking Sophie out for a walk. And Sophie saw him before I did. Eric was in the backyard with his metal detector. He looked up and said hello to us, and explained how he had now turned the metal detector off because the hearing of a dog is so much more sensitive than that of a human being. Eric was gone when Sophie and I came back from her walk. I imagined that Eric was finished with his sweep of the backyard and the nearby neighborhood. But I was wrong.

A few days later, I heard a knock at the door. It was Eric. He was holding a tray containing a few small coins, plus another small object, grasped tightly in his hand. "I found something with the name ‘Delores' on it," he said. "And I think that it might have belonged to your mother." He opened his hand and showed me a small silver bracelet. And in that moment, came the insight—the "epiphany"—the moment of sudden perception into the essential meaning of something, the moment of revelation, initiated by a simple, commonplace experience.

I stared at the object in his hand and held my breath. Indeed, the bracelet had belonged to my mother. Both Bonnie and I remembered that she had lost it years earlier on one of her many early morning exercise walks around the neighborhood. Eric said that he had found it, buried a little beneath the surface and not far from the backyard, along a dirt pathway adjoining the next street. I kept staring at the bracelet, unable to speak. "Are you giving this to me?" I finally managed to say, knowing that he could probably charge me any amount for it, and I would somehow manage to scrape together the money to buy it from him. "Is this a Christmas present?" I choked out. "I guess so," he said, and smiled as he handed the bracelet to me and turned away. And then he was gone.

I held the silver bracelet in my hand for a long moment. And then I went inside the house to show it to my sister. We had lost our mother Delores last year—and this was like a Christmas gift from her to us. A gift that was made possible through Eric—and through Sophie, who would be spending her first Christmas with us in just a few days. This indeed was Sophie's gift: one that she had been instrumental in bringing back home. And somehow, just then in that moment, I understood on an even deeper level the Love that came down as Gift, and the joy of the angels of the coming of that Gift to imperfect human beings (even those of seemingly great worldly power) who may themselves be gifted, just for an instant, to have a "window" opened and an insight (an "epiphany") into the presence of the divine.

Gifts, of course, are representative of many things. We even see and read about the "season" of giving, referring to Christmastime—as if giving and gift-ting were limited to only one time of the year. In Sophie's gift, I saw and even felt on a very deep level the affirmation of relationship. I knew that my mother's silver bracelet, lost many years ago and now returned, represented a gift from a source that I could not even fathom—that I could not ever hope to comprehend—but only, like the Magi, could recognize, could experience an overwhelming joy at its presence and its gift to me, and could respond (in fact, feel compelled to respond) by offering my own gift to this great love. I could look more deeply into my own heart to try more rightly to prepare it more to receive this greatest Gift with humility, gratitude, and love—and also to try harder to be a vehicle of that most precious Gift, by my faith and actions in the world.

"When they saw the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage." (Matthew 2:10-11a NRSV)

This was the moment of insight—of epiphany—for the three worldly men of power. It is here that we find all three of the definitions of "epiphany" coming together. It is this insight to this manifestation of the divine that we celebrate on The Feast of the Epiphany. May our hearts be open, not only now and in this year but throughout our lives, to receive and respond to this Gift of Love—a gift beyond measure, beyond our understanding, and beyond anything at all that we could possibly merit.

This is one of my stories of epiphany. I hope, sometime in the future, that you too will share your epiphany stories with me.

O God, we beseech thee mercifully to receive the prayers of thy people who call upon thee; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have the grace and power faithfully to fulfill the same. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God now and forever. Amen