This weekend I was blessed to celebrate mass with the deacon aspirants for the Diocese of Knoxville who meet monthly for their formation at a nearby hotel. Deacon Joe Stackhouse delivered an inspiring homily for the feast of the Epiphany. I am happy he has agreed to allow me to post it here.
The feast of Epiphany has a special meaning for me. Many years ago, I was at a low point in my life. In June of 1979, I had no job and no immediate prospects of finding another one. I had very little money in the bank and no assets, except for my car. I was not married at the time and not involved in a serious relationship. My friends and immediate family were close, but I felt alone, depressed and without much hope. As the months dragged on and I did not find another job, my worry and anxiety only increased.
Then, on Epiphany Sunday in January 1980, things began to change. As the lector at Mass on that Sunday, I read the first reading from Isaiah. As soon as I read the words—for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you—the Lord said to me, “I mean this for you.”
As I am standing there reading, I am also arguing with the Lord. I think to myself, you must be kidding; this can’t be for me. I have just lost everything. You can’t mean this for me. But there it was—nothing else—just the simple, unexplained but clear message “I mean this for you.” I finished reading, sat down, and never mentioned this event to anyone. That was January 1980.
Fast forward three years to Epiphany 1983. By this time, I have found another job in a Catholic hospital and very much enjoy my work. I have met and married my wonderful wife of 30 years, Mary Ann. We have one child and live in our first home. In January 1983, we travel to another state for a visit with Mary Ann’s parents. Her father was a deacon in the Catholic Church, by the way, a member of the first deacon class in this country. During this visit, we all go to Mass on Epiphany Sunday.
As I sit in the pew listening to the same readings from three years before, I have completely forgotten about my previous encounter with the Lord. Then all of a sudden, I hear the same words in the reading from Isaiah—for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you. As soon as I hear these words, the Lord said to me, “See what I mean?” Talk about a joyful bolt of lightning!! All of a sudden, I remembered what the Lord had said three years before and I did indeed see what he meant but left unexplained when he said, “I mean this for you.”
From Epiphany 1980 to Epiphany 1983, he led me from feeling sad and lonely to happily married, from being unemployed to enjoyable work, from a sense of poverty to rich in all the important ways. Jesus had literally laid the riches of the world at my feet, just as he had said he would. At that moment, I felt joyful gratitude for all the good the Lord had done for me. That good continues to the present day, and so does my gratitude. This is a major reason why I became a deacon.
Since that Epiphany in 1983, I have come to realize that this story is not only mine. Each of us could tell a similar story because it is a story about Jesus finding us, not about us finding Jesus. It is a story about the hound of heaven, the true Star of Bethlehem, who continually shines his light to show us the way. Each of us has had an unexpected and spontaneous encounter with Jesus that changed our lives. Any encounter with Jesus is life-changing.
Jesus always begins with a gentle call, urging us, imploring us, nagging us, to take a different path. This is often that nagging feeling we have that we should go in a different direction, take another path in life. But Jesus does not lay out all the details with his call. We do not always know where the path will take us, but we follow his call with trust and confidence. We pray that we have made the right decision, but we don’t look back. We go forward with a delightful sense of curiosity about the future, tinged perhaps with the trepidation that always accompanies the unknown. But follow his call we do, and I dare say that none of us has ever regretted it. For, the Lord Jesus always makes good on his end and provides more than we could hope for or even expect. We can trust the Lord.
This is really what the Epiphany story is all about—faith and trust in Jesus who shows us the way. This is what the magi had done. They believed and trusted that the star would show them the way to the newborn king. Although they did not know all the details of the journey beforehand, they went forward with faith and confidence. They never looked back, but surely they felt some trepidation over the unknown. For, they would have to travel far through harsh lands and among people who were not always hospitable to strangers. In the end, the light of the star did not disappoint. The magi safely found their way to the baby Jesus and were elated when they finally saw him with Mary and Joseph. The Holy Spirit then showed them in a dream to go another way home, to follow another path in life to peace and happiness.
In a sense, Epiphany has a special meaning for you at this time in your lives. You are at a crossroads, discerning where Jesus is calling you, in which direction he wants you to go. You may not know which path to take or where it will lead, and you surely do not know all the details of the journey. But, you are going forward with trust and faith in Jesus. At this point, the end of your journey may not be all that clear, but there is no reason to look back. You can trust Jesus to show you the way. His light never fails. For this reason, you can rest assured about the outcome.
(Deacon Joe Stackhouse, Feast of the Epiphany 2012)