“New Beginnings” Colchester Federated Church, January 1, 2023, (Matthew 2:1-12) Epiphany Sunday

It is good to gather in person on this first day of a brand new year.  Welcome to 2023!  We’re jumping ahead in the liturgical calendar to contemplate Epiphany.  As an aside, Epiphany always falls on January 6th and concludes the 12 Days of Christmas.  In the Christian calendar, Epiphany is when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus Christ to all nations, represented by the magi who come from the east to worship Christ.  By the willingness of these wise people following the light of a star, the story of Jesus’ birth changes and becomes more expansive and inclusive.  This is the story of Gentiles who come to visit this Jewish child whom we Christians believe to be the Messiah.  The holy day of Epiphany is about celebrating Jesus the Christ as the light of the whole world.

Epiphany is a story found only in Matthew’s Gospel centered on the magi and the journey that they embarked upon to find Jesus.  It gets to the ancient and modern concept of pilgrimage.  How can we define that word?  PBS had a series called Sacred Journeys with author Bruce Feiler and some characteristics of pilgrimages were shared.  The series relates, “For as long as humans have walked, they have walked to get closer to their gods.  The Greeks made these quests, as did the Israelites, the Mayans, and the Chinese.  Jesus hailed these journeys, along with the Buddha and the Prophet Mohammad.  These wanderings have been around forever.  Pilgrims made them in the eons before writing was invented. Believers made them in the millennia during which the great civilizations were built. Seekers follow them today.”[1]

What are the characteristics of a pilgrimage?  The Sacred Journeys series understands pilgrimages to hold six characteristics in common: the call, the separation, the journey, the contemplation, the encounter, and the completion and return.  There is often that clarion call that begins the journey of a pilgrim.  People feel a yearning or a desire within their hearts.  By its very nature, pilgrimage undoes certainty.  This is about going off into the unknown.  What is safe and familiar is rejected.  Only when one recognizes the call and achieves some separation from the familiar can the journey truly begin. 

The journey sometimes involves pain—physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual pain.  Long journeys may entail blisters on your feet or feeling homesick for loved ones.  The journey requires sacrifice.  Though the sacrifice has a way of enhancing the experience.  Should one find companions on the journey, the bonding that takes place is deep. 

The journey of a pilgrimage entails contemplation.  Some pilgrims go right to the center of it all—the holy of holies (if you will) to contemplate the meaning of life.  Other pilgrims go around a sacred place and find the meaning of their journey through a less direct route.  The encounter once there is the climax of the journey.  There is a moment where the person encounters the divine.  A Thin Place is discovered. 

Which leaves the final step of a pilgrimage as the completion and return.  There is a culmination to the journey, and perhaps some sense of closure.  Often the pilgrim discovers that the meaning they sought all along can be within the familiarity of their own home.  Think of Homer’s epic Greek poem The Odyssey.  The point of pilgrimage is for the pilgrim to gain perspective.  The journey is the point.  Yet the journey isn’t the end of the pilgrim’s story.  Sometimes we don’t know what we’ve got ‘til it’s gone.  We don’t know or appreciate what we have until we get some distance to realize the blessings that were already present all along in our lives.

If we read the Epiphany story of the magi as a pilgrimage story, we can see these patterns of pilgrimages.  The call, the separation, the journey, the contemplation, the encounter, and the completion and return.  The magi make that journey by the light of a star to encounter and honor the newborn king.  As Matthew tells it, “When they saw the star, they were filled with joy.  They entered the house and saw the child with Mary his mother. Falling to their knees, they honored him. Then they opened their treasure chests and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.”[2]

The magi felt that call to go and discover the identity of this child.  In order to do it, they had to leave their homelands.  They journeyed across a great distance following the star in the sky.  There was some contemplation about how to go about finding Jesus, hence the consultation with Herod.  Though they saw right through his political maneuverings and desire for power.  The magi eventually see the star alighting over the place where Jesus was staying in our Gospel story.  This sign fills them with joy.  These wise ones meet Jesus with Mary his mother, and falling on their knees they honor him.  We can see that these wise ones go right into the holy of holies in this encounter.  The pilgrimage changed them, and they do return home.  Matthew makes sure to tell us “because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route.”[3]  It’s fascinating to see how this story perfectly fits into the patterns we can see over and again for pilgrimages.  In this way, Epiphany is a timeless tale about the invitation for all of us to have a genuine encounter with Christ.

My friends, once again we are receiving the gift of Epiphany Star Words on this special Sunday here at Colchester Federated Church.  We assumed it might not be a highly attended service given that today is New Year’s Day and vacation is nearing the end for many folks.  That’s alright if you couldn’t make it to worship and are watching from home.  We’re going to leave the table full of stars set up for next Sunday too so that people will have the chance to select your word for 2023. 

As usual, Nicole cut out the stars and I wrote the words on each.  These words come from a few lists of Epiphany Star Words.  The words are unique with the hope that your word will speak to your heart.  Consider the star words to be a gift for your journey of faith as we enter this new year.  It might be clear right away what the word may mean for you and how God is still speaking through that word in your life.  Your star word may make no sense at all, even after you’ve looked up the meaning in the dictionary and sat with it for a while.  Put the star on your refrigerator, dresser, or desk—somewhere where you can see it and ponder the meaning.  The hope is that the word will guide you on your way in 2023 just like the magi of old who went on that pilgrimage to find the Christ child born into our midst.  Thanks be to God for new beginnings and journeys of faith.  Amen.

[1] Sacred Journeys with Bruce Feiler, PBS, https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/sacredjourneys/content/pilgrimage/
[2] Matthew 2:10-12, CEB.
[3] Matthew 2:12.

Photo by Robert Thiemann on Unsplash