In the Christian calendar, today marks the day the wise men came, bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. On the day of the Epiphany the sacred is revealed to the world through the birth of a child. It is the final day of Christmas.
An epiphany can also be of a more personal nature. A sudden revelation, the acknowledgement of an underlying truth, a spritual flash. I had an epiphany once.
I stood on a bridge in the middle of the night. It was cold. The water below me was oily black. Every now and then the bridge groaned, its foundations shifting. The traffic traversing it left a haze above the road – electrons and fuel.
A flock of birds flew above me, painted black by the night, calling to one another, mournful yet with a sense of belonging. If I had been able to fly I would have joined them on their quest to find land or home. I imagined tracing the air with wings, caught up in identical movements, heads turned together; many but one. Maybe that’s what joy is like.
The water split and changed direction like a whirlpool was forming. I imagined tentacles and fangs but it was the wash from a tugboat, light feebly pulsing yellow. I imagined jumping, climbing aboard, begging the captain to take me to a place far away until I realised he was probably only going to the next ferry stop and that it was a very long way down.
I wondered what it would be like, the slam of the body as it hit the water. How far down would the body go before it resurfaced? Would up or down look the same in the black of night? Would there be fear or elation? Or just an endless deepening of silence?
It was only that morning that things had begun to change. My sister had admitted she had been abused as a child by the same man who had abused our cousin, Patrick. Our parish priest believed in keeping it all in the family. The thing that had triggered the memory she had blocked so successfully for over twenty years was an article in the paper outlining this particular priest’s appointment to an important position in the Vatican. She screamed uncontrollably for hours. It was then my sister’s battle with mental illness began in earnest and I began to lose my faith.
Being an onlooker is hard. You are constantly waiting in the wings to see if you are needed. Often your presence is overlooked. People define you as someone who copes and somehow they think that precludes you from feeling any pain. Sometimes the only thing to do is walk. Even if it is in the middle of the night.
I walked for hours that night until my feet felt encased in shackles, the iron digging into my flesh. I had no choice but to stop on the bridge, tucking my hair into my collar, ducking down out of sight, so I wouldn’t be tagged by some well-wishing passer-by as a ‘jumper.’ I’ve never wanted ‘to jump.’ Not so far. But I can understand why some people do.
‘It’s further down than you think,’ said a voice from the shadows. ‘If you fell you’d cut through the water neatly like a knife through cake. You probably wouldn’t make much of a splash, either. There’s a good chance nobody would notice.’ The voice belonged to a boy, not more than 15 or 16.
‘Sounds like you’ve really thought this through,’ I said. The boy nodded. ‘Sometimes it pays to consider every possibility,’ he said.
Turns out the boy, Raphael, slept on the bridge some times when his Dad drank and it got volatile at home. He was comforted by the sounds of the traffic and the calm of the water below. He didn’t plan to jump, either. He just wanted somewhere to think and find a bit of peace. He was in his final year of school and was planning to become a counsellor so he could help kids like himself. ‘Sometimes even a smile from a stranger can make all the difference,’ he said. ‘It reminds us we’re worth something.’
Raphael smiled, took my hand. ‘Whatever it is, it will sort itself out if you give it a chance,’ he said. ‘Don’t give up.’ And I haven’t. Not yet. As well as being surprised by the kindness of strangers, I am often surprised by their wisdom.
So on this day of the Epiphany I remember my own epiphany, that a single act of kindness can make all the difference, as it did for me; and I remember the boy on the bridge with the name of an angel who was the instrument of that revelation. Thank you, Raphael. I’m sure you have saved many souls since then. I’ll never forget you.