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Jan. 08, 2012

by: Father Jim Chern
Montclair State University

On Friday, 12 January, 2007, a young man entered the Metro station in the heart of Washington, DC shortly before 8am.  Casually dressed and carrying a violin case, he stopped took out his violin, threw a dollar into his opened case, and started playing classical music.  He began with six very difficult, yet beautiful, pieces by J.S. Bach.  On a normal weekday, approximately 2000 people pass through that station between 8-9am, most on their way to work.  It took three minutes before anyone even noticed him.    A middle-aged man stopped briefly and hurried on.   4 minutes after that a woman threw a dollar into the carrying case, but didn’t stop.   Ten minutes after that a three year old boy tried to stop and listen but was dragged away by his mother.   

After 45 minutes of playing, a total of six people had stopped and listened but only for a brief time.  The young musician collected a total of $32.  After he had been playing continuously for an hour, in which easily over 1000 people had passed by,  he stopped playing.  No one noticed, no one applauded and none gave any form of recognition or appreciation.

This mysterious street musician actually turned out to be a world renown concert violinist named Joshua Bell and the Bach pieces he played are some of the most intricate pieces of music ever written.  He played his Metro “concert” on a Stradivarius violin which is worth $3.5 million dollars.  Amazingly, three days prior, he had played a sold out concert at Boston’s Symphony Hall where the average ticket price was $100. 

Bell’s gig as a street musician was part of a social experiment about concept, perception and priorities conducted and videotaped by The Washington Post.  The following three questions were at the heart of the study:  In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?;  Do we stop to appreciate it?;  Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?  The results of that study were published by the Post in an article entitled Pearls Before Breakfast.

Today we celebrate one the last feasts of the Christmas season.   It’s ironic that most of the world has already moved on and “dropped”  Christmas.  Yet, today’s feast is an essential part of this season (and in some parts of the world is celebrated even greater than Christmas day itself) - the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.  The very word epiphany in Greek means appearance or manifestation and refers to the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the wise-men we just heard about in the Gospel.  Guided by the appearance of a star,  these Magi traveled a great distance in search of the newborn baby who was foretold to be the King of the Jews.  And as we just heard, after asking for King Herod’s help, they found the baby Jesus in that lowly stable with his parents.  They bowed to pay Him homage and offered Him three precious gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 

In some ways you can see some parallels between the Feast of the Epiphany and that that social experiment in the train station.  In a common stable, at an unexpected time and in an unexpected context, Jesus Christ was born.   The Word of God was made flesh, – God, the very source of all that is Good, True and Beautiful, was made manifest.  And yet, very few took notice of it, let alone appreciated it.  Not just in his birth and infancy, but throughout Jesus’ life.  The Gospels show throughout Jesus’ ministry and teaching, even in the face of spectacular miracles how the Scribes and Pharisees along with a vast majority of people of that time and era would miss this, miss Him.    In the Christmas commemorations we know that that there were some who “got it”:  certainly Mary and Joseph did; the shepherds got it, as did these Wisemen.  Even Herod got it to a certain extent, sadly not with appreciation but rather with fear and jealousy.   But for the many, this “Glory of the Lord” that was shining was missed.   Which is surprising.  In the first reading we heard how Isaiah had predicted this dawn of light a few hundred years earlier, so the people should have been looking for it, expecting it, anticipating it… But for the most part, people were simply focused on their own concerns and the usual tasks of everyday life to take notice of the true beauty that was radiating right there in their midst.   Kind of like thousands of people missing a world renowned musician playing beautiful music as they race to catch a subway train on a typical Friday morning.
In our celebration of the Epiphany today we are reminded of the need to seek Christ.  To not take it for granted that our being here means we’ve “found him.”  Because too often we can fall into that mind set and limit Jesus’ presence and activity.  We can ignore His presence right here in our midst, in our own lives.    We come together at Mass and know that He continues to make Himself manifest to us in the Eucharist,  through the transformation of a small wafer of bread and a bit of wine into His own Body and Blood.   That’s a miraculous, difficult to comprehend mystery for us to fully take in.   And sadly, sometimes we don’t even fully appreciate the radiance of this beauty that we receive on a regular basis. 

But what about beyond these walls, beyond this Eucharist?  How often do we recognize how Jesus continues to make Himself manifest in our daily lives?  In our world that’s strangely become closer in terms of communication, we’re becoming more isolated.  And lump people into these categories that allows us to remain indifferent to one another.  Yet what if we stopped and thought for a moment that all the people I encounter, all of the different relationships, situations and experiences are ways that Jesus is revealing his presence to us?   Calling us out of ourselves, to stretch ourselves… So yes, that annoying co-worker perhaps is an opportunity for us to be charitable and patient (recognizing how Jesus is incredibly charitable and patient with us).  That sick person who “yeah I’ve been meaning to reach out to,” is that face of the suffering Christ who longs for our compassion.   Jesus manifests Himself in the people and circumstances of our everyday life, yet, so often we fail to see Him in those ordinary and sometimes unexpected contexts?
This past Friday, Pope Benedict in his homily for the Epiphany put it like this:

    Our heart is restless for God and remains so… But not only are we restless for God: God’s heart is restless for us.  God is waiting for us.  He is looking for us.  He knows no rest either until he finds us.   God’s heart is restless, and that is why he set out on the path towards us – to Bethlehem, to Calvary, from Jerusalem to Galilee and on to the very ends of the earth.  God is restless for us, he looks out for people willing to “catch” his unrest, his passion for us, people who carry within them the searching of their own hearts and at the same time open themselves to be touched by God’s search for us.” (Beautiful,  huh???)

Thinking about Joshua Bell in that train station that morning, I can pretty much guarantee I would have walked past him as he performed his beautiful music (at 8 in the morning, most likely I would be searching a Dunkin Donuts for coffee than anything else).  And like the thousands of others who passed by, it would have been a true loss not to take in such a gift.   With the feast of the Epiphany, we reaffirm this great mystery of our faith – this glorious message that God has come to us,  that God comes to seek us, that He continues to make himself manifest to us.  Are we too busy to notice it?

This article was written by Fr. Jim Chern @Montclair State University

Please leave him feedback on his story in the comments section below.