On the Feast of the Epiphany, there are a number of images, metaphors, analogies, and similes from the scripture readings we hear, from the hymns we sing, from the legends we have heard, and from the personal experiences we have had that give both personal and collective meaning to our celebration.
If we were to sit down with a piece of paper and pencil with the intention of writing down what comes to our mind when we think about the Feast of the Epiphany, what would we write?
Undoubtedly, some of us would write the words: “shining star,” “magi,” “three gifts,” and more likely the words “gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Our words might include: “Melchior,” “Balthazar,” and “Gaspar,” the names of the three magi according to medieval legends. And possibly, but not very likely, our words would include “Asian,” “Persian,” and “Ethiopian,” the three nationalities known to the old world represented by the magi.
But I would venture to say that the word that would not likely be found in any one’s list, including my own, is the word “pilgrim.” And yet, the word “pilgrim” is the theme of today’s celebration and more importantly the underlying theme of our lives.
When we study the poetic language and the historical context of the first reading, the words of the Prophet Isaiah describes the Israelites as pilgrims who are journeying home to Jerusalem after their captivity in Babylon. Their way is illuminated by the shining light of God’s glory. Traveling with the Israelites are pilgrims from far-off lands bringing with them caravans of wealth and gifts, as they proclaim the glory of the God of Israel.
When we view the gospel from the perspective of its writer, the three magi fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah as pilgrims when they find Jesus after encountering Herod. Not as wealthy royalty but as humble pilgrims they come to the infant Jesus with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
When we think about the three magi and their journey to find Jesus, it becomes clear that to be human is to be a pilgrim. From conception to old age, we long for, we search for, and we ever so slowly travel toward the one who calls us home. So what does it means for us to be people on the move, a pilgrim people in this life?
First, pilgrims understand that their journey has an internal dimension. In other words, the travel is as important as the destination. Travel challenges pilgrims to look at themselves openly and honestly and to consider changing what needs to be changed. And after the changes are made to appreciate the effort it has taken to make those changes.
Understanding that our pilgrimage has an internal dimension is like planning to take an airline flight to see family or friends. Arriving at the airport, we find that our flight has been cancelled. What do we do? We don’t want to abandon our plans? We have arranged and looked forward to being with the people we love. So we evaluate our situation. We check out alternative forms of travel. We do the best we can to negotiate with the airlines to arrive at your destination by air, by bus, by train, or by rental car.
When we finally arrive at our destination, we appreciate our ingenuity and our determination. Our experience of being “seasoned travelers,” dependent upon ourselves but in dialogue with others, encourages us to recognize and appreciate our own capabilities and the capabilities of those who have helped us. The internal dimension of a pilgrim is the persistent and undying source of life that enables a pilgrim to continue living life no matter the obstacles, no matter the struggles, no matter the disappoints and discouragements that might appear in our pathway.
Second, pilgrims realize that while they may travel by themselves they do not travel alone. Traveling is always done with others. This requires concern and thoughtfulness. Concern and thoughtfulness is when we create space for other human beings by sharing our own space. This means that we are called upon not to change others but to provide them with an opportunity to be themselves. Perhaps in the process we learn something new about ourselves.
It is like getting on a flight with people we’ve never met before. People have their own habits and way of doing things. But if we are sensitive and share concerns, we can do all sorts of things to make our trip successful. I think it is very interesting that people will help others on the same flight. From letting the elderly and families with children board a plane first to helping the frail and tired place their baggage in the storage bin overhead.
Be it a short flight or long a flight, we are somehow joined to form a community of pilgrims who pass pretzels, peanuts, and drinks from the person sitting on the aisle to the person sitting at the window. And the process is done again passing empty glasses and packages back towards the aisle before the jet lands. But we seldom remember what goes well. We generally remember what has been disruptive to our travel and in doing so miss what it means to be truly human.
Our human life is a journey of the heart. We are journeying our way home to the God who lovingly hears and attends to our every need while we are journeying. We travel from different directions, at different speeds, with different customs and traditions. But we all have the same Godly goal. Because of that common goal, all who travel toward it are pilgrims with us.
Today’s feast serves as an annual reminder that since the beginning of time people have been pilgrims. It is God’s gift given to us.
Fr. Bob Kelly