Years ago now, I read a lovely short story. I don’t remember the author or the title. But I remember it was about a quite elderly, widowed man who had finally decided the time had come to move into a nursing home. He moves in, and downsizes. One of the things he is about to lose is his car. He has decided to give his beloved old Cadillac to his granddaughter since he won’t need it anymore and doesn’t feel he’s as safe a driver as he used to be. The nursing home, this man, and his children all agree: giving up the car is the best thing to do.
The day before he is supposed to hand over the Cadillac, the man takes the keys, and walks out from his little room to the parking lot to see it one last time. He thinks about the car….how he’d been to Florida with that car, how that car had taken them on family vacations and in recent years, how it had been his constant ally as he drove to more and more funerals – and he opens the door and gets behind the wheel one last time. Then, in a surprise even to himself, he puts the keys into the ignition, starts it up, and drives away from the nursing home.
As the story progresses, you don’t really know why he’s doing this, or what’s going to happen. At the home, it takes a while for them to discover he’s gone. But once they do, they think he’s skipped town, or maybe showing dementia, and there’s a panic over what might have happened. His children don’t know what to do, and wonder if he’s changed his mind about staying at the home.
Meanwhile, the man drives west. He listens to the radio awhile, rolls down the window, notices the prairie grass, smiles at the sunshine and the big, big sky. The miles tick away as he rolls westward.
At the nursing home they hesitate and hesitate, waiting to see if the man will be back for dinner. When that doesn’t happen finally they all the police. The family are in a state. Everybody is consulting with everybody about the state of emergency. Is the old man suicidal? Is he lost? What’s happened?
The man stops at a truck-stop diner where he has a wonderful warm conversation with a little child and a good heart-to-heart with a waitress. But soon he’s right back behind the wheel. He’s intent on driving. He stops at a roadside hotel for a few hours of sleep. But then, with the sun, he’s awake and back driving. Prairie towns and cities fly by as he keeps the big Caddie’s nose pointed west.
At the time of King Herod the Great, it says, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem, having traveled a great distance to see him.
So what happened, exactly, that made the Magi travel so long, and such a distance, to follow that star?
They weren’t running away from anything, the Magi. They were traveling TOWARD something special.
It seems a bit trite to say that life is a journey, but it is. It’s a journey we start on before we can remember, before we even realize fully, that we’re traveling. Sometimes the journey is exciting, and often it’s just a day-by-day slog. We walk through green valleys, and sometimes across high mountains that are difficult but rewarding. And there are, inevitably, in every life, hard, difficult and painful paths, paths we’d rather not go down, but have to. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow…., like it says.
Sometimes it takes faith to keep going in life, and it would take faith, in the ancient world, to travel across the East as the Magi are supposed to have done. I’ve been watching a Netflix TV series called Marco Polo. It’s not starting off all that well – the plot is hard to follow, the Chinese and Mongolians all speak English, and there’s lot of violence that has nothing to do with the plot. Apparently, according to the reviews, the story line gets better.
The basics of the show are really good, however. How can it not be? It’s about Marco Polo – the great adventurer. The vistas and costumes and settings are magnificent. And historically, Marco Polo brought back to the west tales of a wonderful, exotic, foreign, and strange and terrible and beautiful world. One of the things that caught me about the show was that in it, Polo looks to the stars called the “Three Sisters” and tells himself that that will always be the way home.
Epiphany means, “the light shines” – in our case, and in the case of the Magi, the light of the Christmas star. It too was a guiding star. The Messiah star is a light that’s supposed to guide us, to cheer us on when all else fails. When we don’t know what else to expect, there will always be that star, that one point of faith we can hang on to. In other words, like the Magi, our journeys do not have to be random, and our way does not have to be without hope.
We don’t know for sure, but the Gospel of Matthew was probably written by a Jewish-Christian to a small and struggling group of other Jewish-Christians. It’s natural they’d be wondering about enlightenment. Why did THEY, this small group, follow Jesus as Messiah when the vast majority of Jews didn’t? Why did they believe what others rejected? Probably, the way they worked out their loneliness and disappointment was by deciding that they happened to be the only ones who had seen the star, metaphorically speaking, and knew what it meant.
These days, when organized faith is less and less fashionable in our society, we’re again in a bit of a position like that. How can it be that we see this star, when everyone else dismisses it so easily? Why are we traveling in this particular direction, when other paths seem so much more common?
When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. And then, opening their treasure chests, it says, the Magi offered the child gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
It’s nice to look at Wise Men in our creches. But the Gospel doesn’t even tell us if there really were three, or whether their names were Caspar and Melchior and Balthazar. So more important is to consider what the Magi DID: they were willing to go on a difficult journey to discover truth. They were pilgrims. And they left gifts.
For me, the most important verse in the whole Epiphany story is the last verse. After everything that they did, Matthew says, the Magi did one last thing: they went home by another way. My understanding of a true Epiphany is that even after a small one, you can never go home by the same way. Once our God reveals something to us about love or grace, about justice or the truth or perhaps about ourselves, there’s no going back. We will always be changed.
In the story of the man and his Cadillac, it tells how he finally reached Calgary. You think maybe he’s going to stop there but he doesn’t. He keeps going, straight through the city, driving west, always west.
Now, you all know what’s west of Calgary……
Right. The Rocky Mountains. And there’s where the story ends.
It says that the man drives his Cadillac into the foothills, and right up to a viewpoint lookout on the side of the highway. And there he parks, gets out of his car with the cool high altitude air in his lungs, leans back against the hood, and looks up at the beauty of the Rocky Mountains. The ancient granite walls rising majestically from the foothills. Only for a few minutes.
Then finally, he calls his children, who are worried sick. “I just needed to see the mountains with my own eyes,” he tells them. “One last time.” And then he gets in the Cadillac, turns it around, and heads home. “Now I am ready,” he says.
You and I are on a journey. Many journeys, of course, some we hardly even recognize we are traveling. But the question we need to ask ourselves is: “Is the epiphany we have felt, the spiritual vision we have witnessed, going to sustain us?”
May we too, like that elderly man, and like the Magi, be given guidance for the easy and the not-so-easy roads ahead. May we find joy in our destinations. And by this world and the miracle, the Word and the Spirit, may we also be granted a vision – the equivalent of the mountains, or of the Magi’s star – to guide us through all our coming years.