On this day of Epiphany we are reminded of the “unveiling” or the “revelation” of who Jesus is and what he means for the world. Whether it’s the star in the East that attracted some Magi or the epiphany of God’s blessing on Jesus at his baptism, Epiphany shows the world who Jesus is. Of course, as believers today living on the far side of the original Epiphany, one might expect to find lots of mini-epiphanies along the way, little signs and reminders of who Jesus is and what he means. Even so, sometimes I am surprised where these latter-day epiphanies crop up.
Like the other evening, for instance. I was watching a Christmas episode of the outstanding TV series “The West Wing.” My wife had given me a DVD set of Season One for Christmas last month and I have been re-immersing myself into this favorite show ever since. In this episode, the White House Communications Director, Toby Ziegler (played by the wonderful Richard Schiff) is summoned to the National Mall by the D.C. Police. Turns out Toby’s business card had been found in the pocket of a homeless man who died of exposure lying on a park bench two days before Christmas. Toby recognized immediately what had happened: the man was wearing an overcoat Toby had donated to Goodwill and one of his cards had stayed in a pocket. It also turns out the dead man was a Korean War veteran. Before Toby leaves the Mall, he asks the cop why no one had taken the body away yet. “An ambulance will come eventually” the officer replies. “Not a priority.”
Toby becomes stricken with this dead vet and his anonymous death and decides to do something about it. He finds the man’s brother–a mentally challenged man who is also homeless–and uses the President’s name to arrange for a full military funeral at Arlington–flag-draped coffin, honor guard, 21-gun salute, the works. At the service, the honor guard outnumbers the mourners 3 to 1 as only Toby, the brother, and the President’s personal secretary attend (and we learned earlier in the episode that her two sons, twin boys, had been killed working as doctors in Vietnam).
But the kicker of this outstanding episode is that the funeral scenes at Arlington get interspersed with a children’s choir singing to the President and his staff in the Mural Room at the White House. As the choir sings “The Little Drummer Boy” bathed in the soft light of candles, the scene keeps switching back and forth to the cemetery.
And that’s when the epiphany moment hits you: Jesus was born not unlike the homeless veteran Toby helps to honor and bury and what’s more, Jesus was born FOR such a one as that, too. In “The West Wing” Toby plays a Jewish man who works for a Roman Catholic President. But as the choir sings the words of the drummer boy (not my favorite Christmas song but . . . ) and the wonderings of what such a little one can offer to the King of the cosmos, you realize that Toby’s small gift to the homeless veteran is also a common grace gift befitting the Christ whose Epiphany as Savior and Lord we remember on January 6 each year.
I guess this is a small thing and maybe by now you wonder why you are reading this at all but . . . it was one of those moments when a secular TV show reframed my vision once again and reminded me what is what and who is who (and Who is What) in this still-fallen, tragic world of ours–a world that we nonetheless believe has been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a fitting reminder for this day or any time.
And oh yes one more thing: the title of this “West Wing” episode makes best sense to you at the very end as the children’s choir sings the homeless man to his rest: the episode’s title is “In Excelsis Deo.”