I’ve been thinking recently about my annual retreat. Each year, Catholic priests are required to go on a five-day spiritual retreat. It’s like the Church is our mother and she’s forcing us to eat our broccoli. There’s something about physically removing to another place that mentally and even spiritually opens up new doors. I do all my best note-booking and meditation while on retreat. Which isn’t to say it’s easy. There’s always a day or even two where I’m unplugging, trying to drain the white noise from my ears, reorienting myself less toward what I have to do that day and more toward how it is that I want to be, who I want to encounter, what thoughts I would like to think. Deacon James, God bless him, and I appreciate it so much, asks me once every couple of months if I’ve scheduled my retreat yet, and I know he’s going to keep asking until I do. It isn’t that I don’t want to go, it’s that I look at my to-do list, the difficulty of getting priests to cover masses for me while I’m gone, simply missing being here with my Church and family, I know it’s just five days but stay with me here, I’m a very sentimental person. What I’m meaning to say is that there is a certain cost to traveling; the logistics, the money, the planning, and maybe worst of all is missing the place you’ve been and then falling into a bit of a melancholy after arriving back home.
Life is funny. We want to be gone when we’re home, and we want to be home when we’re gone. I went to a church summer camp for a week when I was maybe nine or ten years old. The first night I was there, I got so homesick I almost cried. At the end of the week when I’d arrived back home, I almost cried again because I wanted to be back at the camp (Don’t tell people these embarrassing stories I share with you all, I’ll deny I ever said it). If you’ve ever felt like this, or like there is so much you want to do and accomplish, people you want to see but there isn’t time, places you miss, memories that cause a twinge of bittersweet reminiscence, being at a funeral and grieving even though in your intellect you know that your loved one is in eternity waiting for you, if you’ve ever watched a really good movie and were sad that it was over, or read a book and got legitimately upset because there were no more sequels in the series, you are experiencing one of the limiting factors of human existence.
We cannot be home to all of the people and places for whom we want to be home, and this causes us pain. Scripturally speaking, we have left the Garden of Eden behind but we are not yet in our Heavenly dwelling, or we might say that the Kingdom of God is already here but is also continuing to arrive in its fullness. We feel the tension of that condition of already-here-but-not-yet.
You may notice that in Church we walk a lot. At every Mass, the priest processes from back to front in a symbolic journey from the world to the heavenly sanctuary. When I extend my hands at the Eucharistic prayer and the bells ring for the first time, it marks a supplication to the Holy Spirit to process from the heart of the Holy Trinity down upon the gifts of bread and wine. In Jerusalem during the time of Christ, there were frequent Temple processions on feast days, and even before that, the Israelites marched in procession through the desert on their way to the promised land. The Israelites processed around Jericho before its walls fell. In rural communities, there may be a procession to bless the fields. There are often processions in honor of various saints throughout the year, we do one for St. Lucy every December here at Epiphany.
I still remember going to the Cathedral for my first Corpus Christi procession. It was blazing hot. We walked down Lindell road and paused in a parking lot where they had the shrine set up, and we all knelt down on the blacktop for prayers. I thought my kneecaps were going to explode. I was about to give up when I looked over and there were all these little old ladies calmly kneeling. This was before I knew that Catholic ladies are made of steel, and I thought that if they could do it so could I. My knees still hurt today. The point is, we process because it is a physical way of expressing that our lives are a journey. We dwell between heaven and earth, and ever since we walked out of the garden of Eden we have never stopped walking. It is tiring, and uncomfortable, and our knees hurt, but before we give up, we lift up our eyes and see the hope that inspires our pilgrimage.
Hope is the air we breathe, and as we steadily walk towards our goal it is true freedom to have hope and to know why we are walking in the direction we walk, who it is that we are hastening to meet. The Catholic philosopher Gabriel Marcel says, “… freedom is a conquest, always partial, always precarious, always challenged. … the freest person is the one with the most hope.” When it comes to the Christmas story, the Magi are icons of hope and freedom. Nothing holds them back as they leave behind their kingdoms, the comforts of home, friends, family, everything that defines their past and their limitations. They set their eyes firmly upon that miraculous star and follow it unrelentingly to the source of ultimate hope. They walk, and bring gifts, and bow down before the Lord of the Universe. These Three Kings initiate a procession that continues throughout history. They represent the inner aspiration of the human spirit and the logic by which all of creation is returning to Christ.
At the Solemnity of the Epiphany, we are led to a revelation of this great truth – The heart of the world is Jesus Christ. We seek him out and bring our gifts only to find that he has sought us out first and offers the greatest of gifts, the gift of himself.
How is God calling us onward? What steps are we taking to follow that star to the side of Christ? We always have two options: We can either wander off the path and stagnate or we can continue the journey, no matter how challenging. In the end it is all so simple. Christ is born and the universe shouts and shakes, for God himself is born. We keep him steadfastly before our eyes, leaving all else behind to follow in his footsteps.