A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
T. S. Eliot
Compared with the journey of the magi, our journey was downright posh. While they had camels (so our nativity scenes tell us) and traveled over the desert from Persia to the dry, politically tense region of Judea, we pilgrims traveled by plane across the Atlantic to the City of Lights, to Paris, and then by train and bus to the wonderful monastic community of Taize’. They wanted to discover the deeper meaning behind the strange star or light they had observed in the sky. I wanted to discover what I was supposed “to do” with the rest of my life.
Both they and we encountered lots of sheep, it turns out! But, my sheep were far more sophisticated, I think…being French sheep. They wore berets and lovely scarves.
The magi traveled because they were seeking. They were searching for the meaning behind the strange light they had seen while observing the sky. The sky held great meaning for Persian astrologers. While making careful notes of the movement of the stars, they had an experience that didn’t make sense to them. Something upset their lives. They reached a point in their lives where they couldn’t just stay in the same pattern, noting the movement of the same stars. Rather, something unusual happened, and they risked everything: their reputations, their safety, their family’s stability, their health…their lives…to travel across the desert to realize, for themselves, what deeper meaning this experience held.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet…
And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters…
A hard time we had of it.
In other words, they went on pilgrimage.
I ended up spending a week at Taize’, studying with the brothers, sharing conversations and prayers and questions with youth and young adults from nineteen countries—in my one class alone! All of us…each of us…having traveled to this isolated monastery because we couldn’t just stay in the normal patterns any more. We couldn’t just follow the typical, normal routines of our days. Something had happened to each of us, and we had to travel somewhere where we could encounter the deeper meaning behind this “strange experience,” this yearning, this searching…this wondering….Something drew us….called to us…
We were pilgrims too….
If you would, look at today’s Psalm in your bulletin. Verse four is particularly significant, I think: “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrim’s way.”
The pilgrim’s way…. What a meaningful image to reflect on during this celebration of the Journey of the Magi…
It’s an image that calls to us, as a community…calls us out of any complacency that may sneak in through cracks and under the door….
All of us, I would surmise, have had some experience of being drawn out of a pattern of life…and pulled toward something more…something different…something more profound…more REAL. We each have had our patterns of living, and we each have felt the pinch of those patterns no longer satisfying…
Maybe it helps to explore this pull, this yearning, this desire, in terms of what it means to be a Pilgrim People…to be a people on the pilgrims way.
It may surprise you to learn that the earliest people in the Christian movement were not called Christians. That name came later… Rather, the earliest folks who followed the teachings of Jesus, handed on in the men and women who were Jesus’ disciples, were called “People of the Way.”
To them, it made perfect sense to recognize their practice of faith as a journey… They recognized that God had called them, led them, through their experience of Jesus of Nazareth, into something new, something more REAL.
As the Psalm says, “Happy are the people whose strength is in you! Whose hearts are set on the pilgrims way.”
Blessed are those who walk and make progress, whose inner self, whose soul, whose center, whose spiritual heart is in God, and whose hearts raise up a journey, a path, a way…
The image here is rich because the root of the word “way” can also point toward exalting, with a song…
So, we can say,
Blessed are those who walk and make progress, whose inner self, whose soul, whose center, whose spiritual heart is in God, and whose hearts raise up a journey, a path, a way…that is exalted and becomes like a song.
Our journey, our pilgrimage, our calling away from the complacency of life toward the richness of God becomes a song…. Our pilgrimage becomes a way to praise the God who gives us life and calls us into new experiences.
The question that bubbled up in me as I reflected on these texts and this Christmas Season, this time when we focus on the Journey of the Magi is this: What role does the Church as a community have as we recognize the myriad pilgrimages of people both within and outside of our parish?
Does the Community of Grace offer a sacred space where pilgrims both within and without find respite and encouragement? Does the Community of Grace offer a space…Are we a space…where we all can share with each other those glimpses of disconcerting grace that nudged us into new spaces of prayer and understanding?
Such an understanding of the church goes well beyond any sense of a closed club of people who know the secret gestures and when to sit and when to stand…
Living into our call as a Pilgrim People, a People on the Way, requires that we open our doors to those who are seeking and searching…even as we continue to search ourselves.
And, rather than immediately begin telling them all the details of what “makes a good Episcopalian,” with the code words, the coordination, the rituals, the gestures, the myriad details… What if…what if we met them with open arms and open hearts (even as we are met ourselves)…and said….
What are you searching for?
The Rev. Stuart Craig Higginbotham
Second Sunday after Christmas, Year B
Psalm 84:1-8; St. Matthew 2:1-12
January 4, 2015