A Personal Epiphany
A few weeks ago, when I finished my workout at the gym, I was pretty hungry and decided to go to Taco Bell. (Yes, I went to Taco Bell after working out at the gym. Please don’t judge me.) It was late at night, maybe 10pm, and only the drive-thru was open. As I waited in line, I was quickly disturbed by the sound of yelling outside my window. A disheveled man, who seemed to be a homeless beggar, was fast approaching my truck. I began to close my window, which caused the man to become apoplectic, screaming at me not to close my window on him. “I’m not a beggar! I’m not asking for money! I have money! Please listen to me! Please don’t close your window!”
I re-opened the window. “Thank you!” he said with great relief. “I have money, but the doors are locked. I’m hungry, but they won’t let me order at the drive-thru because I’m not in a car.” He showed me a few bills in his hand and said, “I can give you the money. I just need someone to order for me. Will you order my food for me?” I asked him his name. “John,” he said. “I’ll get your food for you, John. What do you want?”
John the Baptist was the great prophet who pointed out Christ Jesus to the people. He was the first person to recognize Jesus as the Christ without anyone having to tell him, leaping in the womb at their first encounter! My disheveled friend at Taco Bell was also a prophet named John. Caught up in my own world, my own comfort, my own hungers, and my own prejudices, I failed to see Christ in front of me. “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat” (Matthew 25:42). I was closing the window on Christ, saying, in effect, “Leave me alone. I’m busy.” Worse still, I didn’t see a human person in this man at all. I had dehumanized him and turned him into a label. To me he was not Christ, not a friend, not a brother, not a man. He was a bum, a beggar, a nuisance, an annoying intrusion into my comfort and privacy. There is a word for this way of looking at another person: Sin.
Don’t get me wrong. For someone else, this same situation might have demanded a different response. A woman, a young person, or an elderly person alone in the car at night, for example, might have decided quite prudently to close the window and drive away, sensing a potential threat to personal safety. My situation was different. I was not afraid. I was being selfish and self-centered. I judged him, labeled him, and decided he wasn’t worthy of my time. I sinned.
Contrary to our nativity scenes, it is highly likely that when the magi finally arrived at the manger (assuming with tradition that this was “the place where the child was”), they didn’t see much more than what I saw at Taco Bell. That star must have heightened their expectations. They were looking for “the newborn king of the Jews” after all. What they found was a poor child in the filth and smell of a barn. Despite all outward appearances to the contrary, they recognized the great dignity of this child. “They prostrated themselves and did him homage. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” They saw what God wanted them to see, what I had failed to see in John.
The Epiphany, for all its significance as the great manifestation of the Savior to the nations, was not a grand theophany, but an incredibly humble event that required pureness of heart: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
Last Lent, Pope Francis advised us to always give to those who beg and not to question how they use the money, since God doesn’t question us. Some of the discussion following his comments has been around the wisdom of giving money to those who might be in the throes of addiction. This misses the bigger point that Pope Francis was making, I think. “The way one reaches out to the person asking for help is important, he said, and must be done ‘by looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.’” He worries that by not giving, we avert our gaze and become blind to our brothers and sisters. He worries that we might close our windows on a stranger, failing to see another human person. He worries that we might miss the Epiphany because we turn away from the poor and crying baby in the stench of the stable—or the disheveled man at Taco Bell—going right on by and keeping all our gold, frankincense, and myrrh to ourselves.