Pilgrimage, Arrival, Epiphany
All kings shall bow down before him, *
and all the nations do him service.
For he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, *
and the oppressed who has no helper.
--Psalm 72: 11-12
The faith story that we Christians live by, the story of our community, and of our God is ultimately one of pilgrimage; of journeying from one place to another, and allowing something new, something amazing and unexpected to come out of the most simple, mundane, routine surroundings. In the stories that we tell on this day of the church year, the Epiphany, we mark the transition from the Christmas season that we have been wrapped up in, the celebration of the gift of Christ’s incarnation through his birth into humanity, to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and the work of bringing about the Kingdom of God here on earth. The first story of which, is the arrival of wise ones who have come unexpectedly from a foreign land, and from a different, non-Jewish religious background, to recognize the arrival of one who would be called the king of the Jews, the Messiah, Immanuel, God-with-us. Their arrival comes after a long journey – one that leads them to witness something so simple, so common, so plain as the birth of yet another child into the world, and yet, it is a birth that was foretold by prophets, one marked by a unique constellation in the sky, one that fulfills for us the cry, “Come thou long expected Jesus, born a child and yet a king.”
My own story of pilgrimage is one that caught me by surprise. It is from a time in my life when I stood on the precipice of great change – as one season of my life was coming to an end, and something new was on the horizon. The day after I graduated from high school, several very good friends, and I travelled to Washington D.C. We were members of a group history project that had won 1st place in our state competition and would now be competing at the National History Day competition. We were traveling with more than 40 high school students, parents and teachers, which, if you’ve ever traveled with a large group, you can imagine the kind of stress that might accompany such a trip. But still, it was my first chance to go to Washington D.C., and I was very proud of our team’s accomplishment and looked forward to the national contest ahead.
Now, you may be surprised to know this, but as a young teenager I was not particularly “proud to be an American.” I was concerned with dangers of extreme patriotism and the horrors that war was still considered a necessary evil in my lifetime. I was extremely concerned with the environment and was an active environmentalist at my school. And most of all, strong in my faith in a loving creator God, I struggled with the lack of compassion that my fellow Christian Americans would express toward members of our community – the fact that discrimination against women, minorities and the gay and lesbian members of our society was considered a norm, something that could not be overcome, and was simply a fact of life. I hated the feeling of hypocrisy that came with recitation of the words “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” when there were so many times that it felt more truthful to recognize that there was only “liberty and justice for some.” I never expected that a visit to the nation’s capital would have an effect on me. Or that it would provide such a “significant moral insight” as a planned spiritual pilgrimage is intended to bring about.
Our group spent a few days touring the monuments and the various places of pilgrimage that our Nation’s capital provides. We met our state Senator, Paul Wellstone, toured the capital building, viewed the Constitution, visited the National Museum of American History, and finally, after days of walking, snapping pictures, riding on buses and getting a little Washington D.C.’d out… we came to the Lincoln Memorial.
It was evening, and lights were turning on as the sky quickly darkened. I was only with a small number of our larger group, and the monument, for the moment was not overwhelmed with too many people. If you haven’t been there yourself, you must also try to understand just how high the stone marble stretches above your head. The interior ceiling of the monument is 99 feet tall, and the Lincoln statue that sits on a large pedestal is 19 feet tall (so as not to be dwarfed by its majestic surroundings.) The inscription above Lincoln’s head reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
“In this temple…” this sacred place where people who believe in the words liberty and justice for all have come again and again over the years to make their voices heard, to let their presence be known, to participate in the necessity of standing up for what they believe to be right, and true, this was a place that spoke to my heart, and unearthed a deep, unrealized hope and optimism for all the possibilities this nation is capable of achieving in the world around me. It served as a reminder that as a citizen, born of this nation, I too am called to act.
I had never felt so much patriotism and such a deep connection between my heritage as an American citizen and my call to act as a faithful Christian, as I did standing at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. I stood there imagining the number of Americans who have made a pilgrimage to that place over the years striving for civil rights, for equal opportunity and justice in the eyes of the law, and of the country we live in.
Millions of people taking a stand for what they believe in, and striving to call our nation to set a path of righteousness. People from all walks of life, making their way to bear witness to the hopes and desires that inspire a nation to act. I found myself as one among many, on a pilgrimage that I didn’t even know I was called to be a part of. Yet, there I was, in this historic place looking back with awe at our nation’s history, and looking forward with eyes wide open in hopes of seeing a world changed for the better in my future.
At that moment I had an epiphany experience, a deep insight as a result of something that had become as normal and anticipated as going to see yet another monument. My journey as a high school student had come to a close, and my anticipated entrance into adulthood as an 18 year old with the privilege of voting in that years’ election, was about to begin. And something new and fresh was awakened in me – a sense of my faith being bound to my actions as a citizen of this nation, and a deep abiding hope that in my lifetime I would see true change in the world around me by being a part of building up of God’s kingdom.
More than 10 years have passed since that day. Our nation still struggles with war, violence, environmental health, and issues related to discrimination. And yet, we have come so far once again. On January 20, 2009, Americans from all walks of life will make pilgrimage to be witnesses to the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States of America, Barack Hussein Obama in the same year as Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. All politics aside, one cannot look upon these historical events in our nation’s history, without a deep hope that we as a people, as a nation, under God have entered into a new world. And my hope holds strong that God being in the midst of this shift is calling upon each of us to do our part as kingdom builders.
As a priest I am called to preach the equality of all God’s children in the name of Christ Jesus. As an Episcopalian I am called to strive for justice and freedom for all people. As an American I am called to believe that liberty and justice for all is a possibility and a value of this nation. My unexpected pilgrimage ignited in me the hope that my faith, and my citizenship could work hand in hand to strive to bring about the wonder of God’s kingdom, and the hope for God’s people in this world.
Paul’s words to the Ephesians speak to the Gentiles – those who have not yet come to know as deep a faith in Christ, and yet they speak filled with hope that they too will known through the work of the church the richness and the wisdom of God’s presence in the world by coming to know Christ.
The wise ones, too, whose pilgrimage brought them to Bethlehem to pay homage to a newborn child, one who would be a shepherd to the people to Israel, whose life’s work they would not see in their lifetime; their place in the story is one the reminds us that the Christ-child came, not for us alone, but for the whole world.
And as we enter the year 2009, our journey, and our pilgrimage of faith continues – as a people of God, as a nation striving to live into new things, as individuals seeking solace, pardon, strength and renewal through our journey to the holy table that is set for us here. May your journey to that table be one that opens you up to the possibility that God will meet you in the most unexpected, mundane, simple places. May it reveal to you the depth of Christ’s love, so that as your pilgrimage continues, you may be ignited to stand up and do your part to be about the work of building God’s kingdom. Amen.
Delivered by The Rev. Mary Catherine Enockson
Sunday, January 4, 2009
The Episcopal Church of Our Saviour