One of the good things about travelling is that it both dislocates and disconcerts us. The unique combination of stress, boredom and expectation can reduce us to nervous wrecks but also open us to experiencing the world afresh. Not only do we travel to see 'new things', but by travelling we sometimes end up seeing things anew. Even things that we thought were familiar, we can see them as if for the first time when we return home, or when we think about them from far away.
This disconcerting nature of travel is captured well in TS Eliot's The Journey of the Magi. Of course, the Magi are not on any old journey, but are seeking the person who will fulfil ancient prophecy. But having travelled to find a king, they encounter a child in a stable. Common shepherds have arrived before these Persian gentlemen. They have to go home by another route and unwittingly leave a trail of grief and destruction behind them. On going home, they realise they do not feel at ease in their own culture; their journey has changed them.
Of course, these disconcerting elements are mixed with the beautiful and purely positive side to this wonderful feast. The universal nature of the call to salvation, which was always part of the preaching of the prophets, is expressed in the reading from Isaiah. 'The nations come to your light, and the kings to your dawning brightness.' The gifts they bring express the divine, regal and priestly sacrificial role of the child they encounter.
The inherent plausibility of the story is given an interesting fillip by the Roman poet Horace, writing just before the birth of Christ. In one of the most famous poems of antiquity he advises his friend not to worry about the length of his life, nor to ask the Babylonian astrologers for any predictions or readings from the stars.
Stargazing, then, was the sort of thing wise men from the East were famous for doing. Not only did their stellar cartography help them navigate the ocean of the desert, they tried also to see where time and eternity would touch and go. Was there not an ancient prophecy, spoken by a Gentile, about the star who would arise out of Jacob? Another ancient prophecy spoken in persona Christi is preserved in the Apocalypse (22:16): 'I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star.'
Ironically, although pilgrimage is an integral part of Christianity, we don't have to travel to find Christ, he has already travelled to find us. By the gift of the Spirit, the blessed Trinity dwells within us. The ocean of our soul has been sounded and charted by the God who loves and creates us. The 17th century cavalier poet John Cleveland satirised the mania for travelling to the 'New' world to find gold and silver, while the 'black gold' which was coal, could be found in plenty at home. It's partially an attack on preferring the exotic over the domestic:
England's a perfect world, has Indies too;
Correct your maps, Newcastle is Peru.
In two simple lines, Cleveland has not only disconcerted and dislocated and superimposed opposite sides of the world, but has upturned whole world views. The birth and epiphany of the child of Bethlehem does the same to an infinitely greater degree. Correct your maps. Our life as Christians is a constant correcting of our maps.
Of course, we have Jesus Christ, revealed today as true God and Man, he who is the Way, the Truth and the Life; but often other vistas tempt us, tales of earthly paradises, but only Christ will satisfy us, if we redraw our maps and redirect our steps.
So whether we are
great travellers or prefer to stay at home, we have both a clear destination,
eternity; and we have the means of getting there, the indwelling of the Blessed
Trinity. Even in this life, our hearts and minds can become a Bethlehem where
Christ is continually born by the gift of faith. ' Moreover, we possess the
prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive
to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the Morning Star
rises in your hearts' (2 Peter 2:19).