The Epiphanies of an Optical Engineer
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
January 9, 2017

Feast of the Epiphany 
(Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12)
08 January 2017 – St. Austin Parish, Austin, TX

Merry Christmas! In many countries, today is the height of the Christmas season, the Feast of the Epiphany. defines an epiphany as “a sudden realization about the nature or meaning of something. An epiphany can often come about due to some experience that may trigger the sudden realization.”

Our gospel passage is the remarkable culmination of the Christmas narrative by Matthew. Matthew is writing to an audience of Jewish Christians, but the point of today’s gospel is that Christ is Lord of all people, not just those who follow the Torah. All roads eventually lead to Christ, even the studies of Persian astrologers.  

Today is a day to pray for better relations between world religions, a day to pray that we can continue to treat our family members who have drifted away from the faith with love and compassion. And it’s the perfect day for me, as someone who used to build telescopes, to tell a little bit about how I became a priest.

God is present everywhere, and God’s mercy works in mysterious ways. Let us celebrate that!

Some astronomers suggest that the magi had specific information about the time of Jesus’ birth because the “Star of Bethlehem” could have been created by a series of conjunctions of the planets Venus and Jupiter and the star Regulus in the constellation Leo, conjunctions that happened over a nine-month span, the same length as a pregnancy. 

So that helped them pinpoint the time of the birth, but did they pinpoint the location? Even before the days of GPS systems, no one ever gave me directions to their house via a star. It seems kind of preposterous. But maybe the magi had some other methods of finding their way. 

Have you ever had moments in your life when the pieces come together in unexpected ways, leading you to, ahem, epiphanies that you never would have imagined?

Let me tell you about some signs in my life – including signs in the stars – that have led me to becoming a Catholic priest. But first, I need to make something clear: I LOVE living in Austin! I campaigned for over a year for the Paulists to assign me to St. Austin Parish!

I assure you of that because I am from the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburghers, no matter where they move, are famous for their devotion to the city of their birth.

And it is while in Pittsburgh, in second grade, that I saw a sign in the heavens. Well, actually, I saw a picture in The Weekly Reader at school. It was a picture of the planet Saturn. The Voyager II explorer had just flown by Saturn, giving scientists a treasure trove of data about Saturn’s atmosphere, rings, and moons. I was fascinated by this image, and I wanted to learn more. My mother seized on this opportunity, and she encouraged me to try to read the article in National Geographic about the flybys of Voyager I and II to Saturn. And that launched my interest in science. When we wrote research papers in 10th grade English, I studied how the various moons of the outer planets were similar to Earth. For example, the Voyager mission revealed that one of Jupiter’s largest moons, Io, is rocked by violent volcanic activity. 

Some of you know that I love music. I first got into music in first grade because I wanted to be like my sister who played the piano. Although I started out on piano, it’s led me to be involved with all kinds of musical ensembles – orchestras, bands, and choirs.

I also love math. I don’t know if you’ll believe this, but one of my favorite subjects in high school was, of all things, analytical geometry. Do you remember learning about those funny shapes called conic sections: circles, parabolas, ellipses, and hyperbolas? Well, I found them absolutely fascinating.

I graduated college as an optical engineer who was involved in a lot of music. And although my first job was outside of New York City in the semiconductor industry, God has a way of leading us towards epiphanies. Less than four years later, I was back in my hometown of Pittsburgh, designing spherical, paraboloid, ellipsoid, and hyperboloid mirrors. One of my first clients was the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the company that had made the Voyager explorers. And the first image taken by the telescope I worked on for JPL? It was of Jupiter and its four largest moons, including two of the moons I had written about in my 10th grade research paper! It was definitely a “full circle” moment, where the disparate pieces of my life were coming together in unexpected ways.

But something else remarkable happened because of that optical engineering job in Pittsburgh. It gave me the opportunity to reconenct with old friends and join some musical ensembles. On May 26, 2001, I was singing with friends in a choir at the ordinations for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, when I felt an overwhelming, lightning bolt call to consider becoming a priest. I can’t tell you all the things that went through my head that day, but some of them were prompted by the volunteer work I had done for Tau Beta Pi, the National Engineering Honor Society, whose headquarters, coincidentally, were 6 blocks away from the parish I worked at in Knoxville, TN for most of the past five years!

I am convinced that all of these things are integral parts of my faith journey. Things not remotely related to Judeo-Christian Scripture – such as Persian astrology, analytical geometry, and Romantic choral music – can still lead us to God. So, when we meet people who seem to find the divine in places completely foreign to us, can we be open to the Holy Spirit’s ability to convert their hearts?

I chose my confirmation name as Karl with a K in honor of one of the guys in the orchestra who was a year ahead of me in school. It wasn’t until decades later that I studied the theology of another Karl with a K, Karl Rahner.  Rahner’s theology has deeply affected my concept of God…. And I no longer think that it’s a coincidence that my confirmation name is Karl. One of Rahner’s big concepts about God is what he calls the “ever-receding horizon”– the more we know, the more we realize what we still don’t know. And in some ways, God is always on the far side of that horizon, just out of reach, calling us forward into the unknown, to an exciting, unexpected future.

Are you ready for another epiphany in your life? And can you trust that your loved ones who seem to have drifted away from the faith may experience epiphanies of their own? God works in mysterious ways, ways beyond our comprehension.

The work of the Voyager spacecrafts is not done yet. In August 2012, nearly 35 years after its launch, Voyager I become the first man-made object to leave our solar system. As Voyager ventures towards other stars, the horizon continues to recede.

God is as large and as distant as the stars. God is as small and as close to us as a newborn baby. Where will you encounter God in 2017?