“Pilgrimage” is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place. After my experience this past summer – hiking 400 miles on the Appalachian Trail – I can’t help but view Matthew’s account about the magi as a tale of pilgrimage.
January 2, 2022
Dr. Todd R. Wright “Pilgrimage” is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place. After my experience this past summer – hiking 400 miles on the Appalachian Trail – I can’t help but view Matthew’s account about the magi as a tale of pilgrimage. We are not sure where they were coming from exactly. Or how many of them there were. Tradition gives them three names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthazar; and it has them coming from as far away as Persia, India, and Arabia or Ethiopia. But Matthew only says they are “from the East”. Wherever that was, it was a long journey. So I have three questions. (Perhaps the same ones you had for me after my sabbatical.) First, I want to ask, “How did they know where to go?” Matthew says they had a star to follow. I had white blazes on trees. Either way, there is a certain comfort that comes from following such signs. You cannot see the whole route, but you are able to follow as far as the next marking. And that is enough. Of course, I found that there were places where the trail was unclear. Maybe what I thought was a white blaze was just light colored lichen. Maybe the path divided like something out of a Robert Frost poem and I was unsure whether to go left or right. Maybe it was dark or the way was rocky with no trees or the twists and turns had the north-bound route heading south. I imagine the magi ran into similar problems. You cannot follow a star during the day. Some nights may have been cloudy. Maybe some roads were dangerous and required a detour. Casual tourists might have turned back at a little adversity. Not pilgrims. Pilgrims are on a sacred journey. They keep the faith. So I kept going for a total of four weeks. The magi may have traveled for two years! That seems like a long time. Of course we’ve been on this COVID journey for almost that long. We’ve grasped for signs to guide us. We’ve kept the faith. It has been enough. That makes me wonder whether they ever got discouraged. COVID’s impact on our health and economy, our schools and our gatherings, has often been discouraging. It has brought out the best and worst in people and poked holes in institutions we trusted. The endless variants have made it tough to hold on to hope for long. You know. 400 miles is a long way, even if the way is beautiful. I got tired and footsore. I missed my family and sleeping in my own bed. Toward the end the rain and the mud made the going tough. I suspect the magi dealt with all those traveling challenges. Worse, they got to Jerusalem only to find the Holy City was not their true destination. Worse still, their query revealed King Herod to be an insecure despot: anxious and angry, manipulative and malicious. I suspect they saw right through him. But dealing with a snake like that must have made them question the wisdom of finishing their journey, despite being so close. Can you imagine being 6 miles away from your goal and turning away? I can’t. I walked the last 6 miles into Hanover, NH, dreaming of a cheeseburger. They had a more enticing goal! They had a true king to meet! Third, I wonder whether the magi thought the trip was worth it. It was a lot of miles. It must have been a huge expense. And they left everything back home. Was it worth it? You could understand if they hesitated before answering. But Matthew has no doubt. He says they were “overwhelmed with joy”! Not “surprised by joy”, or flushed with a flash of it, but overcome with joy, flooded with it, floored by it, disabled by it, dazzled by it! Do you remember your joy when you first heard there was a vaccine, or when you realized that meant you could safely see your grandchild, or hug your friends, or go back to school? That’s what the magi were feeling, that mix of hope and happiness, elation and relief! So, it was with joy that they met the child and his mother, Mary. It was with joy that they knelt and worshiped. And it was with joy that they gave him the finest gifts they had. That joy erased any doubts about whether their pilgrimage had been worth it. I don’t have any doubts either. It was a joy to walk the trail and do all the other fun things I did on sabbatical. It was a joy to return home. It was a joy to return to all of you. So, as we start a new year, I can only hope that this journey we are on together will be deemed worth it and that we will find joy at the end! Amen