It happened on the subway, on the 6 train.
This is the story of a woman named Donna, and her husband John, the story of what happened to them on New Year’s Eve. It’s a true story, or at least I believe it to be true, as true as any story you could tell me about someone you know. It’s a story about a long buried hope, and about an epiphany.
It happened on the subway, on the 6 train. It was early in the evening, and they were on their way home from an appointment at the doctor’s. They sat in the middle of the car, surrounded by a crowd of animated young men and women on their way to a night of happy New Year’s partying. Some were dressed to the nines for fancy affairs, others bundled in layers for the frigid blasts of city winds.
It had been a long time since Donna and John had celebrated on New Year’s Eve, a dim memory of their youth, and recent New Years had gone unheralded and unmarked, asleep in their bed long before the great aluminum ball would begin its descent toward another year. Donna looked at the crowd around her, breathing in the mix of perfumes and colognes, seeing their smiles and hearing their excited voices, and for moment she was a little envious, a little jealous of the possibilities they still dreamed.
She looked at her husband’s weathered hands folded upon his lap and wondered how it was that they had grown so frail and so spotted, those hands which had once held her securely and tenderly, which had caressed her and reassured her and comforted her in times that now seemed so long ago. Within those spotted and wrinkled hands, blood with poisoned cells now was flowing, spreading throughout his whole body. Perhaps if they had been able to have children, if a real family had been at the center of their lives… she thought. Suddenly the train lurched and a young man bumped against her knee. “Sorry,” he said. Donna nodded, just as John opened his eyes for a moment, drifting back into and out of consciousness from a subway sleep.
Sitting just across the car from them, visible at times between the shifting bodies of standing passengers, was a young Latino woman and her little son. He looked about four or five years old, and adorable. He had a puffy red and blue jacket on, and a brand new Yankee baseball cap, and a toy car in his lap, and he was sitting next to his mama, wedged in on one side by a very large woman. Donna noticed them--mother and child--only briefly, when the standees would move for a moment or two, opening a line of sight. The mother was clearly attentive to her son, bending her head down towards him, speaking to him, smiling, occasionally patting him or putting her arm around him.
The train got progressively more crowded as it made its way towards mid-town, and at each stop more standing passengers pressed closer around Donna and John, who was awakened by the closeness in the car. As the train approached the 42nd street stop, many of the passengers began to jostle and ready themselves to leave or reposition somewhere in the car, and when the doors opened on the platform, there was a surge of bodies moving all at once.
For a moment, the path was clear enough to see across to the other seats, and the mother and son were still seated as before. Donna looked to the other end of the car, where a man was raising his voice in irritation at another passenger for some unknown offense. At that instant, there was a loud cry, and Donna's attention turned to the other side of the car. The woman was alone, her son’s seat was empty, and she was suddenly hysterical in face and voice. “My boy, my boy…!” she screamed.
Before Donna understood what was happening, her John was leaping towards the closing train door, getting caught within its gripping black lips, half in, half out, as the train began to lurch forward down the platform. For a moment, for what seemed like an eternity, he was caught like a fish in a net, unable to free himself even as he was being swept up in the movement of the train. Donna heard her own voice cry out, and then, suddenly, he was free, unleashed by the monster and spit out onto the platform, as the train continued to gain speed. Donna and the mother looked helplessly, desperately out the window as the train plunged into the darkness of the tunnel.
Suddenly they were linked together in the drama, and they shouted to one another, to the other passengers, to anyone, for the train to stop. Someone went forward through the doors at the end to try to find a motorman, but within moments the train had already arrived at the next stop.
Donna and the young woman leapt off the train, and rushed to the other side of the platform. It was jammed with people who were completely oblivious to the drama unfolding within the lives of these two women. There were no policemen in sight, no one in authority.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” Donna said to the mother, whose face was wet with tears and running mascara. “Calm down, dear, calm down,” she said as she reached around, put her arm on the young woman. A train came within moments, and they were swept inside with all the others. Donna grabbed hold of the woman’s hand, squeezing it tightly. She noticed how soft it felt, and how young. It trembled In her grip.
The train arrived back at 42nd street, and they were disgorged with all the other bodies. They looked around, but it was chaos, hard to see anyone who wasn’t rushing by in every direction. The young mother was almost wailing in fear and grief.
And then Donna saw them.
Over by the side of a newsstand, crouching down beside the little boy, John was talking to him. The little boy had tears on his cheeks, but now was laughing against his fear as John pulled a magical nickel out of his ear. Donna motioned to the boy’s mother, who immediately cried out and ran over to her son, sweeping him up into her arms, covering him with big lipstick kisses amidst all out crying.
Donna looked over to John, who was holding the boy’s toy car, watching the mother with her son. Her John, her husband, and suddenly she saw him as he had been when they were young and hope-filled, when they were newly wed and passionate in love and life. This man who had always been her mainstay, her security, her light: she suddenly found him again with the same stirrings in her heart that had been there the first time she met him.
John looked over at her with a familiar grin not often seen these days. He raised the the toy car in the air for a moment and looked right at her, and she knew right then and there that the light of her life was standing before her, her hero of the moment and of the years. It was a moment, an epiphany, when you learn where love really is. From John, her husband, a light shining forth into the darkness, touching her heart and revealing the Love that continues to be born in the least likely of places.
On this feast of Epiphany—which means “manifestation, showing forth, revealing”—it is a good to consider the deeper meaning of what we have just celebrated. On this the 12th day of Christmas, our true love gave to us...what? This is the day sometimes called Little Christmas when the magi arrive at the manger scene and give their gifts to the baby. But this is also the day when our trashcans are stuffed with wrapping paper, and trees are already sitting on the curbs outside our houses. CVS has the Valentines displays up already. What was it all about, this celebration we are just completing?
I think it’s the question of the magi, and of the Epiphany story of Donna and John. Where is the One each of us is searching for all our lives? Where is the One who is the reason for the season? Where can I find the One to believe in?
Well, maybe not in a fancy palace or a Four Seasons hotel. And maybe not surrounded by celebrities, or people with power and money. Maybe instead, he can be found among simpler people, poorer people, like shepherds, and farmers, and people in broken down old towns with empty storefronts. Maybe among the humble, the overlooked, the marginalized, the meek. Among the most ordinary of people in the most ordinary of places. Maybe on the 6 Train, a Latino mother and her little boy, or in the projects on the lower East Side. Mother Teresa once famously said that Christ often comes to us in the “distressing disguise” of the poor.
Where should the magi go looking today? Maybe anywhere. He could be anyone. He could be everyone.
We may see him in “distressing disguises”: in a child hungering for attention, in a single mother worried how she will afford her rent, in a young gay woman or man looking to be accepted, in a senior citizen who has lost all her friends and who thinks that dying will take her out of her loneliness and misery, in the man who has been dealing with chemo treatments for months, in the young woman who believes she will never find a husband, in the angry man who curses at the taxi out of the window of his car on 2nd Ave, in the refugee fleeing violence and persecution, in the homeless drifter seeking shelter, or in anyone who is weary or battered, or who feels alone and misunderstood.
He is often found where we don’t expect him.
Where do we have our own Epiphany? Where do we find the newborn King of the Jews?
Finally, maybe wherever there is light. It was the light of a star that led the magi to him, and for us as well, we should find the-One-in-whom-we-can-believe wherever there is light. And maybe that part of the search is easiest. The light we seek is actually always shining right above us. The journey to the source of that light need not be a physical one.
Actually, you can do it right now, and right here. The reason for the season is right here, His light is already shining in here, in our hearts. Within this humble, broken-down place, a savior has been born to me, who will make me radiant, will make my heart throb and overflow.
Raise your eyes and look about. "The riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you, the wealth of nations shall be brought to you, gold, frankincense and myrrh, and you shall delight and proclaim the praises of the Lord."
If we open our eyes, and open our hearts, we will find him. He will be made manifest.
And we will share in the greatest epiphany of all.