by George Parsenios
When reading religious history, in the Bible or from the life of a saint, we often fail to see the human side of even the most human actions. When we consider, for instance, Noah constructing his enormous ark, who reflects on how his muscles must have ached after a day’s work? Or, who thinks about how very great an argument must have taken place between Sts. Paul and Barnabas for these two great followers of Christ and very close friends to part ways for such a long time.
Somehow, these matters are glossed over because we know the triumphant conclusions of these stories or we focus on other aspects of them. But by treating them in this way, we may lose the real application of these stories to our lives, because we have removed the human element from them.
I start this way today because I think we can prepare ourselves well for the festival of Christmas by considering in a more human light the Magi, the ‘Three Wise Men’, who followed a star to the town of Bethlehem in order to behold a great wonder. We often admire their single-minded and unwavering pursuit of the star in the sky, but surely their pilgrimage must have involved a good deal of struggle and travail, and certainly a considerable amount of doubt. You see, travel in the ancient world was not easy. If the bandits did not get you, a sharp turn in the weather could. T.S. Eliot understands this fully in his poem “The Journey of the Magi”. In this poem, he imagines what the Magi must have thought many years after their well-known journey. Some of their reflections might have been along these lines, and I now read from Eliot:
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
...And the night fires going out, and the lack of shelters
...And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.
Certainly, as the poem suggests, the Magi overcame much adversity to travel to Bethlehem. Their bodies were tired and their minds were weary. Above all, the voices were singing in their ears telling them ‘that this was all folly’, that what they hoped to find, that what they expected would be waiting for them, did not exist at all. They may well have travelled all that way for nothing.
How clearly this speaks to the modern Christian. If the dead of winter was the most dangerous time of the year for ancient travellers to set out for Bethlehem in Judaea to seek the Christ, then the late 20th century is equally perilous for those who wish to find the Lord in a spiritual quest. The voices of doubt and so-called sophistication sing in our ears that there is no God, only human beings; or, that it is foolish to surrender the pleasures and pursuits of life in the name of Christ, because these things make life so enjoyable. It is not easy to make this journey --- but we must make it. We must set out on the search. The Magi would not have met our Lord at His birth if they had stayed at home. They had to leave behind the comforts of their lives and go to look for Him. We, too, must journey to find the Lord.
But our journey is not a geographical one. What I mean is, we do not have to leave Lowell, Massachusetts in our journey. We must be searching and developing spiritually, inwardly. Our journey is not on a map, where we move from one city to the next, but we move from one virtue to the next, growing closer to our Lord, growing closer to our brothers and sisters in Christ. If we do not approach our lives as a journey to grow closer to God, what are we doing, where are we going? Our Lord tells us, “seek and you will find”. He does not promise us that we will find Him if we stand still.
We must do something. We must act. We must take the effort to learn more about our faith by studying in the classes provided by the Church, by paying close attention during the divine services in which we pray to our God, so that we really understand them and we really pray them. And we must read the Holy Scriptures where we are spoken to by the Lord Himself and His closest followers. And, above all, we must struggle to make our lives fit these teachings. We must try to appreciate people more fully, we must have greater self-control, we must try to live more moral lives --- in short, we must act like people on a spiritual journey.
You see, the life of a person on a journey is different. The Magi, for example, could not take all of their possessions with them on their search. They had to leave behind their many servants, their rich and luxurious homes and set out with only the things they could carry with their small entourage. We all know that when we set out on a journey, perhaps for a vacation, we must carefully select what we will take with us - our cars can only hold so much luggage. If we travel by plane, we must take even less.
The same applies to a spiritual journey. Too much stuff, too many possessions can be distracting. They can make us do and think things that do not contribute to our journey toward the Lord. If we are overly concerned with acquriring money, we cannot use it to help others. We keep it. If we are overly concerned with impressing others and appearing overly fashionable, we cannot stoop to help the person who needs assistance. It just doesn’t happen. If we are too concerned with the anxieties of our daily lives, we will not make the time to pray, even for a brief moment.
As we move on toward the feast of Christmas, let us concentrate on our journey toward Christ. This is actually a period of fasting in the Church. It is a period in which we prepare to see the Lord come into the world on Christmas Day. Let us be ready for Him. Let us treat the next several weeks as a journey, a spiritual quest to seek the Lord, not just by waiting for Christmas Day, but by actually seeking to see the Lord in our brothers and sisters in Christ, to discover God’s will in our lives and to strive to do that will.
So, we must first know that we are on a journey, and then we must act like we are on a journey. Anything that does not further our way on this journey must be removed from our lives. Anything that we need for the journey, which we do not yet possess, must be acquired.
The Magi knew that they were on a journey. And they gave up all that they had in order to take this journey. They made a radical break in their lives and moved on to a new life in search of the Christ. To say it another way, the Magi knew that, although they had travelled to see a birth, they were also to experience a death, not a physical death, but death to their old ways of thinking. Indeed, Elliot’s poem quoted earlier ends with the following lines:
I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
The Magi had to die to their doubts and their fears, they had to leave behind their fine palaces and their many servants. They had to empty themselves of all their riches and of all those things that gave them confidence and self assurance and they set out on a journey into unknown lands in search of the Christ. They knew well the words of St. Paul before they were even spoken: “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. It is as though they said, “I have given my life to Christ, even when the only thing guiding me is a faint star in the midnight sky.” But it is not easy to say this, and it is even harder to live it. Quite simply, it involves a death. But this is not a sad or morbid death. All those who die to themselves in order to live with Christ will be raised with Him in glory.
Christ has been born into the world, let us fall down and worship Him. Like the Magi, let us give to Him something precious, but something even more precious than gold and frankincense and myrrh. Let us give to Him that which is most valuable to us and to Him. Let us give to Him, and to His service, our very lives. Let us live like we are on a spiritual journey. Amen.