Shortly after my wife and I were married, I bought a crèche set for us to display during the Christmas season. As I unwrapped each piece, I carefully examined the familiar figures of Mary and Joseph, shepherds, Wise Men and an abundance of sheep. What surprised me, however, was that there were two figures of the infant Jesus. One was Jesus as a newborn baby who was meant to be cradled in Mary’s arms. The second was a baby about a year old who was to be placed on Mary’s lap. He had obviously learned to sit up and lift his tiny hands in welcome and blessing.
Why were there two figures I wondered. I posed the question to a knowing friend, who straightaway answered: Why, you switch the babies on the Feast of the Epiphany. It most likely took the Wise Men a long time to travel to Bethlehem. Jesus had grown! Since then we are always very careful to make the change on the 6th of January when the Feast of the Epiphany occurs.
In his Journey of the Magi, T.S. Eliot, with a poet’s eye, describes the possible journey in terms that suggest it was difficult and arduous. Both the older Jesus in our crèche and Eliot’s poem have led me to reflect that our growing to maturity in Christ – both personally and as a church – involves undertaking a difficult, if not hazardous expedition. The journey into the mystery of Christ takes us through many seasons and strange places. However, we must make this journey if we are to reach the goal of our discipleship, which is nothing less than being ever more-fully conformed to the image of Christ.
The Magi had no idea where the star would lead them. In fact, when they reached what they assumed to be the point of logical conclusion, namely Jerusalem and the throne room of King Herod, the star then obliged them to press on further to the village of Bethlehem.
In the same way, when the children of Israel were led out of Egypt, they had no idea where God was leading them. And yet, something deep within them kept them faithful to their journeyings, though certainly not without struggle, complaint and a yearning to go back to an idealized past, forgetting that it would have been a return to slavery.
So, too, with us. From time to time we feel the promptings of the Spirit inside us that require us, in some sense or another, to leave home. At such moments we are called from a place of security and assurance and obliged to launch out into the deep with very little sense of where we will ultimately be led.
The Spirit may accost us in any number of ways and in the various circumstances of our outer and inner lives. We may experience a landscape-altering event that changes our direction. We may have a shattering insight that breaks us open to a new level of consciousness. We may hear a passage of Scripture or the voice of a friend. In such moments, God may be calling us: leading us forth and inviting us to follow.
“What we will be has not yet been revealed,” we are told in the first letter of John. Therefore, our becoming who God most deeply and passionately is calling each one of us to be and to become is dependent on our willingness to go forth and pass through whatever lies before us. Like the Wise Men, we must follow the star.
Our path may take us into dark woods, through deep ravines and over lofty peaks. Along the way, we may be obliged to relinquish various certitudes and images of ourselves and experience a nakedness that leaves us exposed and undefended. Demands may be made upon us that will seem to us to be greater than our ability or endurance. However, as difficult as all this may be, God’s grace accompanies us in the form of courage.
We are to travel on by way of faith, hope and love, which work within us a spirit of trustfulness. And, as Paul points out, authentic hope has to do with that which is unseen and unknown to us and yet already present to God. Such hope contains within itself potentialities that only can become concrete and real in the living of them. It is only by undertaking the journey and following the star that we become who God intends us to be.
The Magi did not travel alone. They supported one another along the way. May we also in our journeyings, both as individuals and as a church, support one another with open and generous hearts, and together may we grow up in all ways into the one who is our destination and our home.