I realize this is not going to sound very priestly of me, but one of my favorite films of all time is Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction; I saw the first show on opening day in 1994 and I don’t know how many times after that; it was a hugely important pop cultural moment in my youth. It is not recommended for all audiences—it’s full of violence and profanity.
But one reason I like Pulp Fiction is that it perfectly captures something important about what we mean by an epiphany. It still is Epiphany season, but what does that mean? What is an epiphany anyway?
An epiphany is a revelation of God’s work in the world—it’s the shock of recognition that attends divine intervention. And the season of epiphany is about the revelation of Christ to the Gentiles, the shocking recognition that this man is the Messiah of Israel but not just the Messiah of Israel but also the king of the universe and the savior of the entire world.
Incredibly, Pulp Fiction features a smaller-scale but nevertheless very obvious epiphany. The Pulp Fiction epiphany happens to two characters in the film: Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (played by John Travolta). Jules and Vincent are violent depraved hit men, and on orders from their mob boss they execute three small-time criminals that have ripped off their employer. But Jules and Vincent have been careless—unbeknownst to them there is a fourth criminal hiding in the bathroom, and he bursts out, firing a hall of bullets from a .357 Magnum at point-blank range. To no effect. Defying all logic, Jules and Vincent are totally unharmed by the barrage. The baffled criminal has just long enough to register total incomprehension before Jules and Vincent nonchalantly execute him too, their fourth and final victim. But their reactions to what has happened could not be more different.
Jules immediately insists that what has just taken place is a miracle, but Vincent shrugs it off as just lucky. Jules says no, it wasn’t luck, it was “divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?” “Yeah, I think so,” says Vincent, rather cynically, “That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” Jules is sure, “Yeah, man, that’s what it means. That’s exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets.” But Vincent won’t believe it; he is sure it’s just something that sometimes happens, a lucky break, not a miracle but a big whatever. And indeed nothing about the film so far has even hinted at the presence of God or any openness to the miraculous. Everything about Pulp Fiction suggests a gritty fallen world, so maybe it’s not surprising that Vincent does not believe. But Jules does believe, and because he believes he is transformed, and he forsakes his life of violence.
This is actually an important point about any epiphany. To one person, with the readiness to see, with the eyes of faith, an epiphany is a miraculous and life-changing divine intervention. But to someone else it might look like nothing at all, just an ordinary, everyday happening. Without the eyes of faith, an epiphany will look like a big whatever. An epiphany then isn’t just about revelation. Epiphany is also about division.
Consider today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. The celebration of our Lord’s presentation at the temple is a perfect epiphany passage, because Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles is spelled out plainly by Simeon: Jesus Christ, even as a one-month-old baby, is the glory of Israel and the light for revelation to the Gentiles. Jesus Christ is now proclaimed by Simeon to be the salvation that is meant for “all peoples.”
The presentation though also features not just revelation but division. Because everything about this situation is outwardly ordinary. Mary and Joseph are fulfilling the demands of the law, observing the prescribed ritual sacrifices. Such a thing would have happened every day. That they offer two doves indicates that they don’t have the money for a lamb, so they are poor, ordinary folk. Nothing about the circumstances suggests anything miraculous in the offing.
But here in this mundane setting Jesus’s parents meet two remarkable witnesses to who their infant son is: the saintly Simeon and the prophetess Anna. They are devout people who have something in common. They are waiting and actively looking out for the salvation of Israel. Simeon we are told is “looking for the consolation of Israel,” and Anna is an evangelist to all those who, like herself presumably, were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”
So Simeon and Anna are lookers. They are seers. They are on the lookout so they see the epiphany for what it is. It is none other than the Holy Spirit has led Simeon in to the temple, and Anna too has come “at that very hour” to see here and now God’s revelation of God’s own self in the divine intervention that is the infant Jesus. Because after all this time, after the decades of prayer and self-discipline, for these two elderly holy people, the wait is over. It has been 400 years since Malachi the prophet spoke the words that we read today. Yet Anna is a prophet too, and to her it is given to witness the fulfillment of what Malachi said in his day so long before as we heard today in chapter 3, verse 1: “the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” Anna and Simeon have been seeking the Lord for a long time. And now suddenly he has come to his temple. Here he is. It’s him. The one who has been promised. It’s an epiphany. And they can see it for what it is because they have been faithfully preparing themselves for this moment.
Even when the wait is long and lonely, God gifts us from time to time with just such an epiphany, as long as we are prepared to see it. Simeon has been graced to know that he will live to see the Christ, but now he is an old man. It has been a long time, long enough to lose heart, but still he is faithful and alert, and when the promise is fulfilled he is ready for it. It’s unfortunate perhaps that our translation puts the word “Lord” first in Simeon’s justly famous hymn of praise, which as you know is an unchanging feature of the rite of evening prayer. The first word in Greek is “Now,” as in—“Now Lord lettest thou thy servant depart”—and that is fitting, for now is the lead ideas here, now is the moment that Simeon has been waiting for and for which he is fully prepared. The implication in the Greek term for “depart” is not just to leave but indeed to die, because Simeon is now ready to die in peace, for the one thing in the world worth seeing—Christ’s divine intervention into the world—the one thing in the world worth seeing he has at last seen. Or think of Anna. Her marriage was all too brief, certainly not what she expected from her life. But her many years of widowhood have been spent in worship and spiritual discipline. She too is prepared to give thanks to God and to testify to all the others like her to what she has now at last, at last seen.
I said though that epiphany brings division along with revelation. That this epiphany brings totally divergent reactions is something Simeon himself foretells to Joseph and Mary. This child, your child, he says will provoke wildly different responses. Some will fall, and some will rise. Some will leap for joy at the recognition of who he is; some will be scandalized and recoil from him. Some will fall to the ground in reverence and love and wash his feet with their very tears; some will jeer in hatred and spit in his face.
Some will call him a miracle and some will shrug it off.
And all this Simeon says will wound you too, Mary. What about this terrifying private aside to Our Lord’s blessed mother? What could it mean that a sword will pierce her own soul also? Could it mean that she too will be tempted (as any of us would be) with the thought that it was nothing after all? The angel, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, what if it wasn’t a miracle but just happenstance? Don’t forget that Mary sees her son die alone on the cross.
In that moment, at what looks like the end of the story, could you still believe in the epiphany here at the beginning of the story, or would you be tempted to say it was nothing after all?
This temptation to despair, to fail to see, is built into every epiphany. It is always possible that the miracle will go unnoticed or ignored. An unbelieving witness to the presentation would say that all he sees is an ordinary baby in the arms of his impoverished parents and a pair of delusional old people.
It is the virtue of great artists like Tarantino that they leave the epiphany open to the viewer to decide. Did God really come down from heaven to stop the bullets that should have killed Jules and Vincent? Jules decides “yes,” it’s a miracle, and his life is changed, while Vincent decides “no,” it’s nothing special, and ultimately he is doomed for his lack of vision. We have to decide too, whether as viewers of the film or readers of Luke’s Gospel. No one can be forced to believe in an epiphany; we must either affirm it as a revelation of God or write it off as nothing at all. And these are really the only two choices. The presentation of our Lord in the temple really is an epiphany, and if that’s true then this is not an ordinary baby but the greatest case of divine intervention the world has ever seen. But to see it for ourselves, we will need to be like Simeon and like Anna, ready, waiting, and looking. Amen.