By Contributor Ernesto Tinajero
Today is Epiphany, but what is it? It seems the only thing left of Epiphany is the 12 days of Christmas song. It is the last day of Christmas, which few of us even know. The day was meant to commemorate when the three wise men encountered the baby Jesus and presented their gifts. Does it matter today for our sophisticated world? Join me in a thought experiment.
Imagine one person you admire. A person who, though a stranger to you, has accomplished great success that the world also admires, be they a religious leader, celebrity, winner of reality show singing contests, a scientist or a great writer.
Think of a person whose work impresses you, has inspired you or made a difference in your life. For this thought experiment, I imagine Frances Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). I admire him for a variety of reasons. He was the head of the Human Genome Project that mapped the human genome and provided a service to humanity that will be felt for thousands of years. Many ill people will find a song of hope through his work. Collins, a Christian, who sees no conflict between his faith and his profession, embodies a deep compassion with an equal quest for truth. He has taken professional hits. Noted atheist PZ Myers refers to him as a clown and other noted atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne led the charge in opposing his appointment to head the NIH for his Christian faith. (Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens did not join his fellow atheist in questioning Collins’ appointment.) Albert Mohler, mouthpiece for conservative, evangelical Southern Baptists, views him a dangerous figure for believing both in evolution and Jesus. Collins bore their attacks with grace and dignity.
Though, I confess, I most admire him for personal reasons. In his genetics research, he was the first to isolate the gene for the cause of the tumor condition, Neurofibromatosis type I (NF-1), which, in turn, caused an explosion in treatment options. My son suffers from NF-1, and the work of Collins is more than an intellectual accomplishment, it is profoundly personal. I am so very grateful for his influence on my and my son’s life.
Now, imagine this person you admire who does not know you—Collins in my case—calling you. Not only does he call, but for some inexplicable reason he knows and shows great compassion for your life. He understands the fear you have for the future of your toddler with NF-1. He knows and cares about your struggles. Most importantly, he wants to come over and share a meal, and get to know you better. He wants to bounce ideas about his work with you. Indeed, he wants to include you in his work, even knowing you are probably inadequate for the job. His trust pushes you to become better. How would you feel about the encounter with Collins? How would you feel about coming to dinner with him? The dinner would be more than you could hope for. I think about this as I meditate on the nature of the incarnation and what we Christians call Epiphany this Thursday. Being in the presence of God is its own reward, and more than I could ask for.
We have lost that sense of epiphany.
Many times we view God more like a new gadget or a mobile app to get what we really desire, iGod if you will. IGod becomes a way toward success. Use iGod to cheat death. Use iGod to have eternal life. Use iGod to find your purpose. Use iGod to quit drinking. Use iGod to make you life better. And in its most vulgar form, use iGod to get rich. In each case, God becomes a means to an end. While many of the means are good things, like becoming a better person or quitting alcoholic, the making of God into an app has many dangers.
One being, what if we don’t get what we think is promised: success, money or healing? We feel cheated and like a good consumer, want our money back and give iGod a one-star rating. Making God a device for our desires also makes us turn faith traditions into LEGO pieces to create in our own image and liking. Like the mystical tradition of Sufi, the Buddhist tradition of enlightenment, Hindu Karma and Jesus, why not take the functionality of each and make your own version of iGod. Underneath these efforts, one encounters the real God of the iGod app, the most American of Idols: success. Gain success validates your version of iGod the app. Yet, this American idol sings for the judges without any compassion for you or your life. You simply become your resume. And what if you do not meet the standard of success, or shock of shocks, don’t care about success as measured by accomplishments? What if I don’t want to see God (or my neighbors for that matter) as a means to get my success? What if all I need is the presence of God and my fellow, heart pumping, living, breathing human beings?
iGod has the parallel phenomena of making also everyone else an app or device. iFriend, iMom and iDad are used for my needs. I network with others to further myself. I become so mobile, I disappear even to myself.
As a Christian, I understand Jesus, God incarnate, who wants to spend time with me and wants me as a companion, is worth infinitely more than success. Through my encounter, I realize the preciousness of encountering my fellow humans. My son may lose his eye to NF-1, but I know that the God is with my son, even if he never gets better. Being with him as he jumps in his new jumper and he delights in wonder, these are worth all of the struggles. If having Collins out of the blue call would bring a deep joy, how much more the Creator God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit? This transcends my consumerism and gives me more love than I could ever imagine. In here lies the mystery of Epiphany.