Advent I | Pilgrimage

On the morning of February 14, 2001, I awoke to find my Subaru Impreza encased in a half-inch of ice. The sidewalks and roads were iced over, and snow fell steadily, swirling and drifting in a driving wind.

I spent the better part of 15 minutes chipping and scraping, until I could pry open the driver’s side door, start the car, and run the defrost. I tore a windshield wiper blade during the ordeal.

On most such days I would not have hazarded the roads, but this was not any day.

I loaded my car and trekked across town to a Jiffy Lube, where the fluids could be changed, the wiper blades replaced, and the remaining iced thawed from the vehicle. I made my way up the street to a florist, where they charged me $10 for a single long-stem rose. I did not bat an eye.

I then embarked on what would be a 7-hour westward journey over an icy and perilous Interstate 80. I was departing Kearney, Nebraska. My destination was, Lord willing, Ft. Collins, CO. For the uninitiated, I-80 is a veritable cavalcade of 18-wheelers, with grooved, undulating lanes. Under ideal conditions, it isn’t a pleasant roadway. These conditions were far from ideal.

Knuckles white and breaths filled alternately with prayers and curses, I drove like man possessed.

That Valentine’s Day marked my first opportunity to be in-person with my girlfriend of just over one month, and no act of heaven or earth was to prevent the reunion. (Ten months hence, she would become my wife.) We’re prone to forget St. Valentine was a martyr.

Upon reflection, I see that all journeys are acts of worship. Whether an errand for milk, or a road trip to the Grand Canyon; all travels attach themselves to worth. Is it any wonder Advent reads like a travelogue?

The word advent is, unsurprisingly, of the same stock as adventure: something unusual, exciting, daring and oftentimes hazardous. A “venture toward,” whose destination merits the costs.

For this reason, our intrigue is drawn to the mysterious magi; noble mystics hazarding their own westward journey. “Bearing gifts,” we sing, they “traverse afar.”

Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star

They are the “three kings,” the “three wise men,” and yet nowhere are we told there were three of them. We’re not even told they were all men! Scripture tells us only of magi; astrologically-attuned Eastern pilgrims, come, as it were, to worship.

Lore surrounding the “three wise men” owes itself to the fact that these pilgrims indeed bore three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Yet I might even say this catalogue falls at least one gift short. For these star-struck travelers actually offered a more significant gift: themselves. Put differently, they offered the gift of presence by way of journey.

The particulars of these characters has been augmented through much apocrypha, including three places of origin: Persia, Arabia, India. Even more, the tellings construct these characters in trifold specificity, imparting the names Melchior (Persia, gold), Balthazar (Arabia, myrrh), and Gaspar (India, frankincense). Rich as such traditions become, they tend to affect an evicting of the Everyman – the Every-magi – from the narrative. That is to say, they might evict you and me.

Advent is a story of worshipful journey – of pilgrimage – and, like all great stories, has its own magical way of sweeping us into the drama. The word magi is, after all, the base of our word magic.

As I write, I am aware of a set of mental negotiations taking place within me regarding magic, for its place in Scripture and in Christian regard is not uncomplicated. Frederick Buechner wrote, “If security’s what you’re after, try magic. If adventure is what you’re after, try religion.” But he would go on to add, “The line between them is notoriously fuzzy.”

In Advent, the line between magic and religion and many other things does become fuzzy, for here we have magi – astrologers – who, in their watchfulness, “observed his star at its rising.” (Mt. 2:2) Whose star? “The Child who has been born king!”

This places the emphasis of Advent squarely upon alacrity; a brisk and joyful readiness to embark.

Here was a community of Eastern star-gazers who, from time immemorial, had awaited an astral event denoting the birth of a foreign king. These had inherited a tradition of searching the skies. Likely, they had found camaraderie around this peculiar preoccupation. Why? We can’t be entirely sure.

But we know they spent their time on the lookout. Was it something to do with clues of God’s ongoing terrestrial involvement? We can be certain their lands did not lack for gods and demigods; likely many and varied. But each night they were found beneath the stars. The theological term for this is prevenient grace; the notion that God is everywhere at work in human hearts. St. Augustine described it thus, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Were they restless? Are we?

So they journeyed. Packed up their baggage and provisions, bid their loved ones goodbye, and securely stowed away their treasuries. Their journey would have taken a matter of weeks; an Advent season in whole. By the time they arrived, the nativity was no longer staged in a stable. Let us linger with them in their trip, even as we commence our own in these days.

Many of us have been confined in space in these days: physically, yes, but also spiritually. We’ve forgotten how to look for his star on the rise and our yearnings no longer drift to pilgrimage. Little wonder God’s first question to humanity was, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9) Where are you?

The Sons of Korah wrote, “Blessed are those whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.” (Ps. 84:5) They continue by saying that, though they may pass through many a sad and arid landscape, “They go from strength to strength, till each appears before God in Zion.” (v. 7)

Star of wonder, star of night
Star with royal beauty bright
Westward leading, still proceeding
Guide us to thy perfect light

Thy perfect light! The blessed exist within a life of pilgrimage, with Zion fixed in their hearts. Elsewhere, the psalmist Asaph called Zion, “the perfection of beauty,” the place from which “God shines forth.” (50:2)

The perfection of beauty. This is the destination of Advent. The journey is often made by unexpected peoples from unexpected places, and what – or rather Who – they encounter defies expectations also.

When the star began to rise, so did the magi’s hearts. It was for them a divine overture and it must be for us also!

You may remember the Disney film Finding Nemo. It’s the one where a little clown fish is captured and made to live in a dentist’s office aquarium. He had given up hope of ever being liberated and reunited with his father, until the day a pelican arrives at the window and regales the aquarium-dwellers with the love-inspired exploits of his father – and Nemo’s yearnings are rekindled!

Advent is a story of worshipful journey; of journey predicated on worth. Yet, above all, the journey is God’s. The gift is His presence, and all is hazarded in the hope of reunion. Your life is the worth.

Therefore we sing,

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary soul rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Advent is God’s journey to us, which might become our journey to him. Advent is a journey of one to another, and it is a journey to be made with a company of star-gazers.

Oh that its magic might gather us together and set us on the highways to Zion for worship!

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