Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Great Pilgrimage

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville FL
January 2, 2011

The Second Sunday after Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 84
Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
Matthew 2:1-12

The Great Pilgrimage

Merry Christmas!

Although the world has moved on to New Year’s Eve and Day celebrations, for the church it is still very much Christmas.

And in today’s gospel we heard one of the last missing pieces of the Christmas story – the arrival of the magi, the wise men, bearing gifts for the newborn king of Israel.

We imagine three men in exotic costumes, topped with crowns, each carrying a gift. Yet, Matthew never tells us how many of these wise men made the trip to Bethlehem. But, in the Christmas story it’s always three, isn’t it?

In reality, “the Christmas story” itself is actually a blend of the birth stories found in two gospels, Luke and Matthew.

Luke tells the story very much from Mary’s perspective. And in Luke, it’s lowly shepherds who first pay homage to the newborn king – very much in keeping with Luke’s emphasis on the Good News that Jesus brings to the poor.

Matthew gives us our information about Joseph. And in Matthew, it’s the magi, these mysterious visitors from the East who first pay homage to the newborn king and present him with precious gifts appropriate for a royal child.

Matthew’s story of the magi is very much in keeping with his emphasis on Jesus as the messiah not only for Israel, but Jesus as the messiah for the whole world. Matthew makes this point at the beginning of his gospel with these foreign visitors to Bethlehem. And Matthew makes the same point at the end of his gospel, when the resurrected Christ tells his disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

So it’s these mysterious visitors from the East who receive the first manifestation of Christ – the first Epiphany – to the non-Jewish world.

This week as I’ve reflected on the story of the magi, I’ve been drawn to the idea that they were making a pilgrimage. They wouldn’t have thought of their trip as a pilgrimage since it was common for foreign governments to send representatives to present gifts on the occasion of a royal birth.

Yet, these magi left their homes and traveled a considerable distance in order to meet and honor the newborn king of Israel. There hadn’t been a formal announcement of this royal birth. Their invitation was subtler and more personal. The magi looked to the heavens and discerned that they were to make this journey into the unknown.

And, as sometimes happens on a pilgrimage, their ultimate destination turned out to be much different than they expected. Matthew tells us first they went straight to the capital, straight to Jerusalem. After all, where else would you find a newborn king?

Instead, their pilgrimage takes the magi to the unexpected, to Bethlehem, where it had been predicted the messiah’s birth would take place. The magi wouldn’t have known that, of course, since they weren’t Jews.

And when the magi reach the unexpected destination of their pilgrimage, what do they find? There’s no palace and no servants. There’s no heavenly host singing. Matthew tells us simply,

“On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.”

Although they couldn’t have truly understood the magnitude of this experience, for the magi this pilgrimage had ended in an unexpected place, in the presence of the Creator.

And having found the newborn king in such an unexpected place, I bet the magi were transformed by this pilgrimage. I imagine them puzzling over everything that they had seen, as “they left for their own country by another road.” I imagine them reflecting on this unusual experience in the years to come.

Pilgrimages seem to have a nearly universal appeal. Somehow we are drawn to visit places associated with the holy men and women of the past.

Christian pilgrims still make their way to the Holy Land to walk and pray in the land of Jesus and his first followers. Pilgrims continue to follow Paul’s route around the Mediterranean. Pilgrims visit Rome. And, for us Anglicans, there’s no greater pilgrimage than taking the road to Canterbury.

Part of the appeal of a pilgrimage is that when we’re on a pilgrimage we really keep our eyes open much more than in our everyday sleepwalking lives. When we’re on a pilgrimage we’re really open to having some kind of encounter with the Creator, and sure enough, we often do.

In my previous church I made two pilgrimages with some of our teenagers. Three years ago we went to San Francisco and made our way down the beautiful California coast visiting the Spanish mission churches. Nearly all of these churches straddle the uncomfortable zone between still serving as houses of worship while also being tourist attractions.

I remember one day when we were sitting in one of the mission churches (I’m not sure which, they’ve all blurred in my memory) talking probably about the art or architecture or the history. Maybe we were comparing this church with others we had seen. There were plenty of tourists milling around, chatting and taking pictures.

Gradually the room grew quiet as people stopped what they were doing to watch, either directly or out of the corner of their eye, as an old woman dressed in black from her veil to her shoes, slowly made her way on her knees up the center aisle. She paid no attention to the people around her. As she passed us we could see that she was praying the rosary that she clutched in her hands.

She was still praying at the altar rail when we quietly exited the church, a living symbol of piety and prayerfulness.

My second pilgrimage was just this past summer. We visited Montreal and Quebec City, where you Floridians would have felt right at home in the surprising heat and humidity.

Near the end of the trip we visited a grandiose, baroque chapel built for the Ursuline sisters, Roman Catholic nuns who have been in Quebec since the start of French settlement.

By this time the kids and, yes, the adults were getting pretty churched-out. So as we sat in this beautiful space with its large iron gate designed to set apart the worship space for the nuns, there was a good bit of chatter, texting, picture-taking - you get the idea.

An elderly woman who seemed to be an attendant, shushed the kids. They quieted down to what I thought was an acceptable whisper. Then she came over to us and reminded us that we were in a place of prayer and if we couldn’t be quiet we’d have to leave.

Just as I was thinking that we’d better go, in her very quiet voice this woman began to engage the kids in conversation. It turned out that she was Usuline nun and had lived in this convent for many, many years. She talked to us about the importance of prayer over her long life in the convent.

She was delightful. She radiated a deep holiness and serenity. She charmed the kids she’d been shushing a few moments earlier. What had seemed like an unpleasant situation turned out to be a great, unexpected, blessing.

Not in the same way as the magi, of course, but both in watching the black-veiled woman make her way up the aisle on her knees and in meeting the holy sister in Quebec, I felt that my pilgrimage had brought me to an unexpected place, into the presence of the Creator.

The great truth is we don’t have to go to the Holy Land or Rome or Canterbury or California or Quebec to make a pilgrimage. The truth is we are on a pilgrimage right now. We are on the great pilgrimage back to the One who created us, who loves us and whose presence, we, like the magi, find in unexpected places.

As this Christmas season draws to a close and a new year begins, maybe we can all resolve to stop sleepwalking and resolve to keep our eyes open. Maybe we can resolve to be pilgrims – knowing that our great pilgrimage will take us to unexpected places where we will have epiphanies of Christ – encounters with the Creator.

Merry Christmas.