The journey looked like this. Three Kings, lounging on cool satin pillows in the sultry Persian air, observe a star. Together, they watch as it arcs across the sky towards lands unknown. They look at each other with wise eyes, nod deeply, and purposefully process out of the room, padding away on soft, slippered feet. They pack for travel, one gold, one frankincense, one myrrh. Their trunks filled with gifts and robes and telescopes, they mount their sturdiest camels and set out across the sands towards the West. For weeks, months, they travel through the wilderness in a stately parade, gently rocking on the backs of their beasts, stopping only to check their coordinates or to rest in rustic towns where their appearance provokes quiet wonder and the offering of the people’s finest food and drink, their softest beds, their cleanest hay.
The Kings break their journey in Jerusalem and seek out Herod. They deign to dine with this Roman toady some silly men have begun to call “the Great.” He flatters them, fills them with dates and roast lamb and fine wine. He wants information from them; they know this. “Go and search diligently for the child;” he purrs, “and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” But they need no encouragement. They would never be anything less than diligent, and they know without saying a word to each other that they will never pass this way again, never share their star-child with this petulant, petty fool.
They move along, quiet now, serenely watching the star as it settles over a tiny, dark cave on a moonlit winter’s night, where a tiny babe is the only Word that is spoken. Here they kneel in a row, each removing turban or feathered hat or jeweled scarf and placing their gifts before this long-expected child, this babe of their searching, born, king of the Jews. That night they rest easy, fulfilled and happy, and when they all dream a dream of warning, they look at each other with wise eyes, nod deeply, and leave for their own country by another road.
Or maybe the journey looked like this. Three kings, or maybe they weren’t kings, maybe they were just wise men…and why three? Maybe four or five or six, maybe there was Caspar and Melchior and Balthasar…and Cornelius and Bilbo and Eliot. So *some* magi have been watching the skies every night for months. This is what they do – they’re wise men, after all. Suddenly Melchior sees something in the heavens that he’s never seen before: a star – a great, bright, blaze of a star – starting in the East and moving across the sky. He’s excited, he’s like a dog with a bone, panting as he tells the others that he wants to go chase it. At which point there is a great deal of eye-rolling and groaning. Caspar reminds Melchior that this wouldn’t be the first time he’s gotten something wrong – remember that time he’d predicted the end of the world? Balthasar sighs and immediately begins double checking Melchior’s math. (He never was very good with fractions.) Cornelius just crosses his arms and says no way, he isn’t going anywhere, he has a concert coming up that he cannot miss. Eliot protests that they’ll have a “cold coming of it,” that it’s “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."* But Bilbo tells Eliot to stop waxing so poetical and turns to Melchior with a star in his eyes – yes! yes! a star! let us wish upon it, let us follow it, let us have an adventure!
It takes a while, of course, to convince the rest to go along. This must portend something wondrous, Melchior keeps saying, and there is this tale, this ancient tale from Hebrew prophets of a boy born to save the world. What if this star marks his coming? We wouldn’t want to miss that, would we? And it’ll be fun…so one by one, they nod their heads grudgingly, plan their gifts and pack their trunks. Eliot says goodbye to “The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,/And the silken girls bringing sherbet,” Cornelius hurries back inside at the last minute for some extra staff paper, they all scramble up atop their stupid, stinking camels, and the journey has begun.
And it is a real slog. The desert winds blow sand in their eyes, the nights are freezing cold, the days are blistering hot. The clouds cover the skies so that there are no stars at all. They get lost, they get hungry and blistery and gruuumpy. Cornelius won’t shut up about the concert and eats all of the stuffed dates and dried apricots and bitter chocolate they had brought along as gifts. Caspar is silent and Balthasar is nervous and Eliot won’t stop going on about “the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly/ And the villages dirty, and charging high prices.”* But still they slouch on.**
Finally, after weeks of stumbling and griping, they all see where they must be headed – Jerusalem, the star of the West. They wind their way to Herod’s door and say, Help? Where is the child? they ask. When Herod looks at them blankly, they push on. He must be here, they say, we’ve followed this star for months and we darn well mean to pay this child homage. But Herod is confused, and angry, and ranting, until finally one of his scribes remembers Micah – that old prophet Micah, who once said that a ruler would come forth from, not Jerusalem, but Bethlehem of all places. Bethlehem? Herod can’t believe it, but he thinks, What can it hurt to send these magi on to check it out? Go to Bethlehem, he growls, look for this magical Messiah baby, and let me know if you find him. Let me know where you find him. (Cue evil laugh here.)
And so the magi are suddenly back up on their stupid, stinking camels, and traveling – again – down an unknown road – again. Now they are all quiet, too tired to care, too exhausted to worry about where they are going or why Herod was so jumpy or what they’re going to give this baby since they forgot to pick up an extra gift in Jerusalem. They are so tired they hardly notice when the star stops. They stumble off their camels – with overwhelming joy – and into the house where they find a wide-eyed girl of a mother holding a baby boy. She tells them stories of shepherds and angels while they slump to the ground before him, offering him the gifts not already eaten. Cornelius offers to sing his newest melody, Bilbo tells the child a great tale of their adventure, and Eliot promises a poem. They each pay him homage, this wisp of a child, and suddenly they feel the hard ground shift beneath their knees. Somehow, everything has changed. They stand and leave the holy family and head back out into the night, and they know, now they know, that the journey has really just begun. It stretches out before them, not just around Herod and back to their home but all the way to Nazareth, and the Sea of Galilee, and Bethany and Jerusalem and Golgatha and a tiny, dark tomb. Eliot asks, “Were we lead all that way for/Birth or Death?”* The others shrug their shoulders, quiet, but peaceful now. Perhaps “the end of all our exploring,” Caspar says, “will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”*** Eliot jots that line down for remembering. And then they journey on.
And isn’t this what our journeys look like. Much as we might like to imagine that our journey to find the Christ will always be a journey on a straight path, a journey of confidence and reassurance and knowledge, with a clear destination in mind, with an inspired beginning and a profound end and evenly-spaced steps along the way, our journeys of discipleship are rarely like that. They are far more interesting. We may begin grudgingly, haltingly. We may need a nudge or a push to get started at all. Or we may start off inspired but find the terrain difficult and stumble. We may get lost, grumpy, lose track of our own gifts along the way. We may meet people who treat us with disdain, who bluster or mock or send us packing. And we may arrive at a particular place and think that we’ve really, you know, arrived, only to discover that what we find there only encourages us to keep seeking just a little further on down the road, just over that hill, around that bend.
But if we are willing to keep walking, we will find that this messy, complicated journey is rich with life. The bends in the road help us to practice our faith, the encounters along the way help us to practice loving neighbors, the stops and starts help us to practice Sabbath and prayer. Even the Herods can be transformed into guiding forces and by the grace of God end up pointing us in the right direction. This kind of journey changes us. This journey brings us to our knees and brings us to ourselves. This journey breaks us open so that when we find the Christ child we will be open to what he has to teach us, to the new life he has to offer us. This is what the journey looks like. For why take a journey if it isn’t going to take you anywhere at all? So if your journey looks more like the second version of the wise men’s journey, know that you are on the right path. You are on the path where God is with you. So journey on.
*From T. S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi
**After W. B. Yeats' The Second Coming
***From T. S. Eliot's Little Gidding
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
6 January 2013
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia