Last fall, when I was at the pilgrimage conference in Virginia, one presentation in particular caught my eye. The title of the paper was: The Fourth Question. It was a perfect hook. Of course I immediately wanted to go to hear that paper. I didn’t even know what the first three questions were. That didn’t matter. All I REALLY wanted to know was what the “fourth” question might be.
When we got to the session, the presenter turned out to be a scholar who had walked to Santiago in Spain back in 1979, when there were not as many people walking it as today. She’d walked it again recently, so she is a Camino veteran. And she said that in her experience, when you’re a pilgrim walking the trail, and you meet someone new, there are, almost inevitably, three questions that come up quickly in conversation, and one question you try to avoid.
The three questions that automatically come up are …… (want to guess?!)
The first question: where are you from?
That makes sense, I guess. It helps situate you. It establishes relations. “Oh, you’re from Canada. I have a sister in law who moved to Toronto….maybe you know her?” That kind of thing.
The second question has to do more with the trail. “Where did you start?” This is a bit more subtle. But having been on the Camino, many of us there knew what she meant. There’s a kind of pecking order among pilgrims, even if there shouldn’t be. If you started at St Jean Pied de Port, you’re doing the long haul. If you started way back in France somewhere, or up in Germany or the Netherlands, and have walked the whole way, then you’re really hard-core. And if you started out from a taxi that morning five kilometres down the road, well then you’re a beginner. So that’s the second question. It helps establish status, I guess. Although maybe that’s not such a good thing, it’s human nature.
So where are you from, and where did you start? The third question, the one that follows, is a bit like the second: “how far are you going?”
This question, she explained, is a bit exploratory as well. Because now you know where the other person is from and how serious they are, you also want to get an idea of where they’re headed. Given the fact that the trail can take over a month to walk, if the other person is going all the way to Santiago as well, then there’s a good chance you’ll bump into each other again. Maybe that would be nice. Maybe after a few minutes of walking together you already know you don’t really want to share days and days more time. Either way, it’s good to know where they’re headed.
And that, she said, is the list of the USUAL questions one pilgrim will ask of another in the first few minutes of polite conversation.
Of course, by that point all of us in the session are waiting on her every word. So? So? What about that fourth question?
“Now. The fourth question we pilgrims normally try to avoid asking each other…” she said, “begins with the word “why“….”
Jesus never ever asks the word why when he meets the disciples of John. It’s interesting. But I think it’s worth noting that he actually DOES ask almost the same thing in other words. When Andrew and the other young man start walking after Jesus, Jesus DOESN’T ask them where they’re from, or how far they’re going. According to John, he says this: what are you looking for?
In other words, why are you walking, here with me?
The WHY ARE YOU HERE question isn’t one that only pilgrims avoid. Sometimes it feels like it’s the one question that we, as a society, are keeping ourselves away from more than anything. Our too-too-busy lives, our 60-inch flat screens, our constantly being plugged into one form of distraction or another, our fixation on celebrities and sports….all of it adds up to an uncomfortable conclusion. If an alien from outer space, or someone from the distant past, were to walk into our world and look around, they might well ask themselves “well it’s clear that these people are trying to avoid something, but what is it?”
Perhaps at least one of the things we’re trying to avoid is this: things didn’t quite turn out like we expected them to. Most of us have been taught that if we try to be good people, and if we make money – a fair bit of money, we hope, and if we have children and buy a house and get a job and take a couple of vacations every year and do well, we’ll be, if not happy, at least content.
And some of us are. But if that script were generally true, then we wouldn’t be drinking too much, and watching an average of four hours of TV a day, and becoming overweight by eating when we’re not hungry, and taking pills for every twinge of depression and anxiety. We’re an overmedicated, underslept, over-stimulated, under-engaged and under-exercised, apathetic, wilfully ignorant and sick society. And because of where we live and how much we make, we’re suffering all this while actually being the most privileged general population in the history of the planet.
For us, the fourth question crosses the polite social fences we set up to protect ourselves. Why are you here? The fourth question represents the moment of risk, which is scary. But it’s also the moment of promise. Why? Because the fourth question is an invitation to relationship. “Why are you here?” (whether to a pilgrim or a friend or neighbor) means, or at least it should mean “I’m asking you this question because I care enough to hear the response. And I will honour it. And I may challenge it. BUT. Asking it will mean that we will walk away from this encounter, at the very least, having made real, human, community in this moment with each other.”
By asking the question “why”, Jesus invites Andrew and the other to contact. And they pick it up by asking Jesus another question. That’s how conversations go. They ask “where are you staying?” But this time Jesus cuts to the chase. It’s no more polite conversation but as Messiah and Lord, an invitation to community: “Come and see”.
Why are we here? is one of those big, existential questions. Maybe it doesn’t have an easy answer. But if we don’t even ask it, we’re avoiding one of the main reasons for being conscious (what they used to call ‘having a soul’). We could do worse than to hear the words of Isaiah: It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations…”
The fourth question is one that, pilgrims or not, we should be asking ourselves and each other more often. Why are you walking this way, this lifestyle, this dream, this job, this home, this retirement, this path? Is there another way to walk? The Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, has chosen you. As Jesus says, Come and see. May we hear the question, and the invitation, and follow the fourth question to whatever blessed and challenging places it may lead us.
My Christmas day dinner this year was perhaps the worst I’ve ever made. I like to insist that actually, I’m a pretty good cook. But Christmas dinner wouldn’t have convinced you. I ran out of tin foil and the turkey was dry to the point of parts of it being inedible. Definitely no gravy. The mashed potatoes would have been good – if they hadn’t been cold as ice by the time we sat to eat. And the green beans. Well, I was lucky I didn’t start the house on fire.
It all started out well enough. I’d prepped the meal by putting out the steaming pots for the vegetables and chopping and washing the beans for the meal earlier in the day. So when the time came, because I was distracted by phone calls, and in a bit of a press between one child arriving and another who had to leave for work, I was happy that everything was already ready to go. In between checking potatoes I just took the beans, put them in the steamer pot, and turned on the burner. It seemed that ten minutes should be about right.
However, when the turkey came out of the oven, the beans weren’t even close to done. In fact, strangely, they still looked hard. Hmmm. A watched pot never boils, I guess. Anyway there was the turkey to cut, the potatoes and rutabagas to mash, the lack of gravy to explain, and more phone calls coming in from far away family. I guess it’s just taking a long time for the water to get going, I thought, and went on to something else.
Finally, with dinner almost ready and on the table, I glanced over one last time. Still no steam. What is the matter with those beans?
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem saying: ‘where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star at its rising.’
Epiphany has SO many messages for us that it’s hard to know where to start. There’s the fact that, like the Magi, God brings strangers into our lives. That’s a good learning all by itself, and one we’ll come back to. Who were the strangers that God brought into your life this past year, and what unusual and meaningful gifts did they leave you?
Epiphany is also about the importance of giving, and maybe even more, of receiving, gifts. It teaches us a new relation with others, instead of just feeling we have to earn or bill or always be on a tally sheet somehow, plus or minus. Then, also, Epiphany is about the ways in which our lives really are a pilgrimage, because what the Magi were doing was definitely that. Like the Magi, our pilgrimage extends out to the worldwide family of our Creator, including people who at first seem different to us, or strange, or even dangerous. All of these are important parts of today.
But there’s something even more basic about Epiphany, something that lies behind and beneath all these other learnings. That is, Epiphany is about a way of SEEING. It is about a way of being conscious in a world that seeks to keep us stupid and unconscious.
I know stupid is a hard word. But it’s accurate. Many forces in our world want us to be, or to become, stupid. That’s no accident.
You can’t hide a star in the heavens. And yet only the Magi came looking for Jesus. Everyone has eyes, but among the sighted, at least, not everyone sees equally. Moreover, neither do WE see, equally well, at all moments of our lives. Like with me and the beans.
Jesus is reported to have said “those who have ears, let them hear.” Maybe we can rephrase that for Epiphany: those who have eyes, let them see.
We tend to think of seeing as something we do automatically, by virtue of just being alive. What we don’t realize is that, more than we think, what we see is a matter of choice. Likewise, what we DON’T see is a matter of choice.
The truth is, for most of us, life can be threateningly dull much of the time. We get up. We shovel some food in our mouths, worry about getting fat or getting old, or getting out of shape or getting redundant at work, worry about our children or our grandchildren or our parents or our health or our career; and then we do our job, or watch our TV, or talk on the phone or surf the internet or do whatever it is we do for most of our waking hours. And then we go to sleep again, knowing we will repeat more or less that same pattern, again and again.
That’s what life has given many of us. And to face – or maybe NOT to face – that routine, the problem is that we tend to turn off the very ability to see that might save us.
Of course there’s more than one suggested way to open our eyes. Lots of folks – especially advertisers – want us to believe that the way out of the daily grind is through desire. New clothes will change you. The more things in your closet the safer you are from loneliness, or death.
You have the power to be great, the most subtle of the advertisers even tell us, mimicking the serpent in the garden. And they’re right. But the problem is, the ways they suggest usually mean buying something, and usually make us focus on ourselves even more than we already do. If we open our eyes and only see ourselves, then it’s just a mirror game. We’ve missed a whole big wide, wonderful world, including the stars.
Not the Magi. They’re pictured as powerful figures. Rich. Kings, maybe. Wise. Respected. And yet what do they do? They travel, despite hardship. At the end of their journey they worship someone other than themselves. Theology might call that a revelation of the spirit. Others call it enlightenment.
It takes incredible discipline, and constant reminders, to pull ourselves again and again out of our ruts of not-seeing. It takes mindfulness to take the time and make the effort to open ourselves, consciously, to see the beauty of the world and wonder at it. To see the strangers and the outsiders who are always there, but rarely noticed. To see the small uncertainties in another’s hands as they fidget, or to care for the revealed fears in another person’s facial tics, or how beautiful are the details of almost every other human being, God’s gifts to us.
Which brings me back to strangers. Today is a day for remembering those who were once strangers, and came into our lives bearing gifts. It’s a day for pulling our eyes out of auto-focus and seeing the very real pleasure and pain and tragedy and beauty and joy – better than any Hollywood movie – that are given to us in almost every moment. It’s a day for really seeing the beans.
When, at the very end of all my preparations for Christmas Dinner, I actually really looked at the beans, instead of seeing them through the fog of my schedule and my distraction and my family plans and my worries, I realized what most of you have probably known all along. There was a simple reason the beans weren’t cooking: I had forgotten to put any water in the pot!
I grabbed it and pulled it off the stove. Good thing I have good pots. Even so, the bottom was becoming more and more bronzed from the heat. It steamed and sizzled as it went into the dishwater. I cooked the beans another way.
Today may we be moved to open our eyes and see what is really in front of us. May we take our place among modern-day Magi, those who spend the time and effort to really live and not just BE, to voyage, in some way. And may we be blessed by others, strangers or not, who can take our hands, hold us carefully, and gently but firmly, help us to look up and see the promise that is there shining for us, and for all of creation.