Pilgrimage

Epiphany                  6th January 2019 . Matthew 2: 1-12   

             As sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“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.’
And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
and running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.”

T.S. Elliot’s The Journey of the Magi

No satins and silks and elaborately decorated turbans here, kings perched regally on patient camels treading the soft desert dunes, silhouettes against the starlit sky. Eliot draws us instead into the grit, sweat and uncertainty of the Wise Men. They followed the Star obediently, but not always willingly; and tormented by doubt. Was this indeed “all folly”? they know that when they returned they, and their world, would never be the same?

Did they know that they were pilgrims?

They were probably astrologers, though we often refer to them as kings. They were probably from Babylon, because Babylon was a center for astronomical studies and curiosity about portents written in the stars. Matthew’s intent in making this a part of the birth narrative of Jesus was to symbolize the spread of the Gospel beyond the geographical and spiritual boundaries of Judaism; to foreshadow Jesus’ Great Commission at the end of the Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”

But for us this story is more than symbolism and foreshadowing. They have their place, but it’s not literary structure that makes today’s Feast of the Epiphany what it is. Epiphany, or the manifestation of Christ, the Light of the World, to the Gentiles, is significant because it’s what makes Christmas more than an isolated event. Epiphany invites us to ponder, not just what the Magi brought to the Christ Child, but how they were illumined by what they found when they arrived. What gifts did they discover there?  Who were they when they returned home? Because that’s what defines pilgrimage—a journey that transforms the traveler. Epiphany invites us to see the Magi as pilgrims and to see ourselves in their journey.

We have made our way through another year—some more unscathed than others, but all touched by a trek, sometimes a slog, through months of good news and bad, accompanied along the way by friends, colleagues, family and strangers who made their mark on our lives—at times gentle, and at times bruising.  A hard time we have sometimes had of it. There were moments when we wished we could go back to How Things Were Before—whatever that means to each of us.  But Time kept nudging us onward. Wondering, sometimes (go ahead, admit it) Is it all folly?

It’s not. Not if we know that we are pilgrims. That we are not just travelers from birth to death, stopping here and there along the way with no purpose but to say we’ve done it. That’s what tourists do. And Epiphany tells us that we are not tourists.

Why is this distinction important? Because the Christmas encounter with the Christ Child dares us to ignore it. Dares us to go forth from the manger unchanged. Dares us to return to our homes empty-handed, without having discovered the gifts that we have received on this pilgrimage to Bethlehem.

And this is the fundamental point. While gold, frankincense and myrrh were the symbolic gifts of kingship, divinity and death, the gifts that were illumined by the Wise Ones’ meeting of the Christ Child were anything but symbolic. And they are revealed to us, and within us, as surely as they were in those three sweaty and exhausted travelers.

Epiphany is the result of our encounter with Jesus—it is the “aha!” moment of realization, not only of who he is, but of who he calls us to be. Epiphany is the illumination of the gifts that equip us for the journey back into a world that can never be the same if each of us cherishes and shares what we have been given—indeed that has been within us from the very beginning.

What is it that we have been given?

Father Richard Rohr names three things as the soul’s foundation; they are Faith in the fundamental goodness of Creation; Hope for the ultimate reconciliation of humanity with God, each other, and Creation; and Love—a deep knowledge that each of us is beloved of God. Faith, Hope, Love. These are the gifts we are called to carry away from the Manger, and to offer to the world as we return homeward. And if we listen carefully, we may hear an invitation to something new in our lives—a new challenge, transition or vocation. Listen: That’s Epiphany inviting, no, daring us toward transformation—to go home by another way. Do we dare heed its call?

How much more perfect can it get that today we baptize a child whose name, Sofia, means “wise”? Sofia was Baby Jesus in the Christmas Pageant. She was a delight– so alert and interested—she was fascinated with a little battery-powered candle that one of the angels was holding nearby. Sofia was going for that light. She would have that light. And when she got it, she stuck it right in her mouth. (No, children; do not try this at home—just enjoy the metaphor, okay?) As Sofia begins her life’s pilgrimage as a member of the Household of God, may she never stop radiating the light of Christ that shines upon and within her today, and may the gifts of Faith, Hope, and Love sustain and strengthen her for her journey.

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