Today is the feast of the Epiphany. For the Orthodox and Byzantine rites, today is Christmas. Today is special for travelers, too.
This is the day, so the story goes, that the Magi, the Wise Men, the Astrologers or what-have-you showed up in Bethlehem to “pay homage” to whomever they found—a baby? A messiah? A king?
The significance, of course, is that these travelers, who were not Jews, represent the rest of us who are not Jews at that moment of incarnation when a tiny spark of heaven came to earth and included everyone.
What I like about the Epiphany is what happened before and after that cameo appearance of the Three Kings, when they wandered onto center stage, a little dazed and confused, and wandered off again into the void of history.
For one thing, they wandered. They didn’t know where they were going. They didn’t even know exactly what they were looking for. They didn’t know what to pack—except for those gifts that ended up being so symbolic: gold for a king, frankincense for divinity, and myrrh for death. Who told them to bring that stuff?
And how in the heck did they follow a star? It’s not like a trail of bread crumbs or markers on trees. I imagine they doubted themselves at times, and for sure they were lost when they stumbled into Herod’s palace.
Did they feel like vagrants? Did they want to give up? Did they argue: “I’m sure that star is telling us to go left.” “Did you leave my Damascus steel dagger at the last oasis?” “For the umpteenth time, would you keep that randy camel off my donkey?”
But the thing is, that’s how I feel. I’m following a star. There’s no trail. No signpost. No GPS. Not too many people have gone this way before. I get lost and doubt myself. I feel like a weirdo.
But…there’s this star, this dream, this light in the sky, this crazy thing I have to do. And every so often, a heavenly light comes to earth just for a second. The curtain parts; the dark is illuminated; and I experience something glorious despite my thick, myopic mind.
And that, too, is called an epiphany.
Aren’t those the moments we travel for—those moments of blinding beauty and insight that take our breath away? When we recognize some truth about ourselves, other people, or the universe?
That’s why I have a whole category on this blog labeled “epiphanies,” which I’ve used far too sparingly. To be honest, I’ve experienced too many breathtaking moments to count: incredible vistas after long, tortuous hikes, encounters with flora and fauna, people with such simplicity and grace that I can only be humbled in their presence.
This year has been tremendously good to me. I spent the winter in New York City caring for my baby grandson during the week and exploring the city on weekends. Both were hugely delightful, as was getting to know my daughter and her husband very well.
I traveled throughout the Canadian Atlantic Provinces for several months, which fulfilled a longtime dream and was, as these trips usually are, more amazing than I could have imagined.
I was given, literally, a home base—a tiny house in the woods, which is perfect for me. How did this come about? I am incredibly graced.
I’m planning another long trip in which I hope to travel from Chihuahua in the north of Mexico to somewhere near the Strait of Magellan at the tip of South America. This could take at least a couple of years, including breaks back at my home base.
I’m sure I’ll be scanning the night sky for some sign of my star at times. I’m sure I’ll be lost and doubt myself, but I’m excited to begin.
The end of the story of the Magi involves a dream and a quick exit by different path. These men were wise because they paid attention. To survive such a journey, I’m thinking, required lots of attention—to small signs along the road and to the nuances of human communication, not to mention dreams and intuitions.
So they had a bad dream and got out of Dodge without checking back in with Herod.
But in another sense, once you’ve been the recipient of a profound epiphany, is it ever possible to return the same way you came? To return to humdrum business-as-usual?
I don’t think so.