Faith is not the clinging to a shrine but an endless pilgrimage of the heart.
- Abraham Joshua Heschel
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’” Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him 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.
- Matthew 2:1-12 (NRSV)
At first glance, there is a seeming contradiction between Heschel’s reference to faith as an endless pilgrimage of the heart, and the assertion of Matthew that the star, which had led the Magi’s journey, came to a definitive stop over the place where the Christ child was found. In fact, many would argue that this manger scene makes a lovely shrine for faith: where else can we know the joy, peace, and compassion that shined afresh into our world that night; and where else can we kneel in prayer, content that God’s legions of angels have us safely enfolded with a promise of peace and goodwill? Here we have the light and love of God - guaranteed - so why should we seek anything more? Why should we leave this holy place and take once again to the dusty roads of life?
Before you respond to this question, please note that the Magi did not remain spellbound in Bethlehem. They offered their gifts, they paid homage to the child of Bethlehem, and then left by another road. Perhaps they saw in his eyes that if they remained there they would remain alone, for this child would not long remain swaddled in a manger. If they wanted to abide with him, they would have to take to the road again, and follow him into the streets where broken lives wait to be mended, cold hearts wait to be warmed, and hungry spirits wait to be nourished.
Perhaps Heschel is right; perhaps faith requires an endless pilgrimage of the heart, because if we stay in Bethlehem and build a shrine to faith, we stay alone. God will ever be found where needs wait to be addressed. Were we to realize this, Sunday would be an epiphany indeed!