Man’s quest and God’s epiphany
THE FEAST of the Epiphany (for this year, this fell on Jan. 3) signals the end of the Christmas season. Contrary to what many Roman Catholics and other non-catholic christians have always held, the feast has little to do with the traditional three “Kings from the Orient” who came bearing gifts for the Christ Child after following a star. Rather, it has more to do with God manifesting Himself to all of mankind as represented by the Magi who were neither kings nor three in number. Also, the message of the Epiphany is more about God’s revelation and response to the burning question at the time the Gospels were written—whether He came only for the Jews, the chosen people, or also for the non-Jews, the gentiles.
The timeliness of this feast and its meaning struck me because of a book given to me last Christmas by a friend who had just read it and had some questions. The book is “The Shack” by William P. Young; it is described by some reviewers as a Christian novel.
The book is actually about God’s epiphany, about God’s manifestation and revelation to Mack, the main character in the story. And God’s epiphany to Mack is a response to Mack’s quest for answers and his search for meaning. Just like God’s epiphany to the Magi who went on a journey to resolve the question of whether the baby born of a virgin in a manger was the true savior or not.
The story’s plot is simple and straightforward. Mack comes from a traditional hardworking Irish-American family that had settled somewhere in the American Midwest where he was born. His father is an odd combination of an externally religious church elder and a closet alcoholic who beats his wife and children when drunk. The beatings the young Mack gets regularly from his father drives Mack to leave home at the early age of 13. But not before he causes the death of his father by poisoning his drinks. He roams the world and ends up studying Philosophy and Theology in a seminary somewhere.
He apparently leaves the seminary before ordination to the ministry, goes back to the United States and marries a wonderful woman named Nan. The union produces five children. At the time of the story, only three are left with him and Nan. The older two have finished college and are out of the family home, either working or in graduate school. Of the three left, two are teenagers while the last one, Missy, a latecomer, is only six years old.
Mack’s ordinary life took a tragic turn when Missy mysteriously disappears while she is with Mack and her two siblings in a summer camp. The search for Missy ends in what is called “the shack” where traces of evidence pointing to Missy’s death are present, but not her body. Missy’s disappearance triggers what Mack describes as “The Great Sadness” in his life that goes on for three years, until he receives, through a note that he finds in his mailbox, an invitation from God to go to “the shack.” He accepts the invitation and for a weekend Mack has the rare chance to meet and converse with God face to face. What happens during that weekend comprises the bulk of the book.
It is interesting to note that the main author (Young) wrote this book only for his children and that the book itself was not meant initially for publication. Encouraged by those who had read it first, Young and his friends rewrote it and even established a private publishing company after the story was rejected by the big publishers. The result? It stayed in the New York Times’ bestseller list for quite some time. It has also spawned some kind of a controversy among Christians and non-Christians alike. Fundamentalist proponents criticize it as deviating widely from orthodoxy, while others hail it as “phenomenal,” “life-changing,” and even describe it as having “the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his.”
I must confess that I do not understand what the big fuss is all about. The theme of God manifesting himself to man has been depicted in a lot of cinematic and literary vehicles in the past. The latest among them I recall now are “Evan Almighty” and “Bruce Almighty.” The Bible itself is filled with stories of God appearing to man in various forms in order to deliver a message or to answer a question.
Thus, I read the book at first mainly out of curiosity and also because I wanted to be able to answer my friend’s questions. But after reading the book, I realized that the book’s message was also meant for me after all. Mostly to affirm what I personally believe in—the universal human desire to experience God’s embrace and God’s willingness to talk to us, to hear God tell us of His fondness for each one of us, and to feel the fatherhood of God and his unconditional love for all of us. The book also speaks of how the absence of true fathering can affect young children, of the healing effect of forgiving and being forgiven, and of the importance of “being” over “doing.”
I also thought that, perhaps, God’s epiphany must be continuing until today. To tell us that He came not only for you and me, but also for those in the margins of society and the Church whom we tend to overlook. And so, we just have to open our eyes of faith to see this. Because, as the late Jesuit priest Horacio dela Costa once said in a homily, the season of Christmas is “the festival of the unexpected and our God is the God of surprises.” Like when He manifested Himself to us on that first Christmas scene, “where we find in the arms of a Mother who is a virgin, a baby who is God.”
Danilo G. Mendiola is retired from corporate work and now serves with his wife in the Marriage Prep Ministry of their parish in Quezon City.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.