We Can Not Return the Way We Came
About 29 years ago, my life took a turn that would affect every decision I would ever make, every friendship I would ever forge, every experience I would ever have. No, I didn’t commit a crime. I didn’t father a child. I didn’t win the lottery. I didn’t kill anyone. But it was for me such a life altering experience because I had to leave behind much of my past, the people I had known, the hopes and dreams that I cherished, to realize a new beginning, with new hopes and new dreams, to set out on an entirely new journey. There would be no turning back, no living the way of the past, not even to think or speak as in the past. Whatever memories I would carry forward might serve only to shed light on the journey that still lay ahead, to illuminate new experiences, to inform new decisions, to enlighten new friendships. The only positive movement would have to be forward … into a new life never even before imagined.
That life altering event took place a few months short of 29 years ago when I stepped off a plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport. That was also the longest day of my life, literally, setting off on a journey from Manila, a half a world away, to Tokyo, then Chicago, then New York City, from 9:00 in the morning to 11:00 later that night, a day lasting 32 hours, eight hours longer than any typical day. And I only had a one-way ticket, a few bills of a strange new currency in my pocket, a suitcase, the clothes on my back, and a heart full of hope, fear, wonder, terror and grand expectations. I am a first generation immigrant, right off the boat, as they say, or a plane. None in my family was a political refugee, so going back was not entirely unthinkable. But I was still legally a dependent then, and my family would not be able to afford a change of heart if I didn’t like it here. It was still my decision. But once made, there would be no turning back.
In the days immediately following my arrival, I spent many hours sleeping when everyone else was up and about. And I would be awake late into the night as my body clock had not yet adjusted fully. Everything of my previous life was taking place some twelve hours ahead in a different land, and my mind and heart were wandering lost somewhere between here and there. Every time I longed for that previous life, I was unable to enjoy the present experience. It took my realizing there was no returning to that previous life for me to take notice of the new world about me, how everything was different and excitingly new, from the blades of grass to the leaves of trees, from birds and insects to mountains and hills, from woods and gardens to lakes and rivers, unfamiliar faces, curious and inviting, unfamiliar ways of dressing and strange new patterns of speech, new books, new music, new movies, new architecture and new technology. It was a whole new world ripe for discovery.
29 years later, here I am. I have taken to my new life and I am convinced I have prospered. Gone is the previous life I had known, its hopes and dreams, its friendships and pleasures, its challenges and dangers. I cannot imagine being back there now, although I have been twice for short visits. And each time, I came upon particulars of my previous life, old friends and familiar hang-outs. But I would never be able to recapture my previous patterns of thought and speech. I could not recall the hopes and dreams that may have once inhabited my mind and heart. And when I try to imagine what life would have been like had I not embarked upon that journey years ago, my imagination fails me. Life would have been different in many ways. My choices would have been different, my experiences, the people I would have met, the many details beyond my control. It would be a whole other life, all because I had taken a different path when I came to a fork in the road.
The magi in today’s gospel, wise men in Christian tradition, came from the east. Scriptures identify them as astrologers. They could have been kings, but that is not important. There could have been more than three, but that’s irrelevant as well. They discovered a new and exciting reality, one which offered them a challenging choice – to follow the star and come upon a newborn king or stay home and miss this one great opportunity to be part of history. Did they know their lives would be forever changed? Most likely, although we never hear about it. Long journeys brought a fair share of excitement and inconvenience. Would the joys ahead justify the sacrifices? What would life be like when they returned home? Would they even make it back?
I believe the experience of the magi was primarily an encounter with God, whether or not they were aware of it. Their quest for the child who would one day be king could have been at best scientific research or at worst political opportunism. The convergence of planets that produced the bright light which led them to the child held religious significance, of which they may or may not have been aware. Their journey took them to Jerusalem and an encounter with the local bigwig, Herod, and his advisers who were familiar with the messianic prophecies. And when Herod directed them to Bethlehem, he would be instrumental in fulfilling God’s design – the revelation of God’s infinite compassion to those who were traditionally not of Israel, outsiders, gentiles, non-believers. Whatever their personal motives, whatever Herod’s plans, whatever the circumstances that brought them together, God had another idea entirely.
As with most true encounters with God, the wise men from the east would not realize their moment of grace until after the fact. They would see only simple ordinary events, chance developments after perfectly innocent decisions, nothing more. And yet their lives would be significantly altered forever. We hear about it only in passing, yet it is a detail which mirrors the experience of all who, led by a star, find the revelation of God’s compassion at the end of their journey. Herod instructed them to return to him on their way back, intending to discover the child’s exact location, which he claimed would allow him to pay homage to the future king, but which we soon discover veiled his evil plan to destroy the child instead. So an angel instructs them in a dream to return home by another way. It is an image of our own return trip home after a true encounter with God – we cannot return the way we came. We are transformed. No one who encounters God will ever return the way they came. It happens again and again in Jesus’ later life. The return journey we take will be different because the experience of God will change us irrevocably. It is a change that will affect our every decision, every friendship, every experience from that point on. We cannot be the same people as we were once. Can you say the same for presumably having known God all these years? Or do you keep taking the same road home?