Alleluia. We have observed his star at its rising, and have come to worship him. Alleluia.
—Gospel acclamation for Epiphany (Year A), from Matthew 2:2
When I left the library, it was dusk. The sun had already dipped behind the surrounding mountains, which bathed the village in shadows. Pale pink, lavender, tangerine and gold swirled above me. I pulled my jacket a little tighter.
I’d come here to encounter God, but in this moment I felt only the chill of loneliness. It took two days of solo travel—two flights, a taxi, a bus ride, a night’s stay in a seedy hotel, another taxi, a boat ride and, finally, a slow ascent in a school bus along multiple switchbacks—to arrive at Holden Village.
This Lutheran community in the North Cascade mountains of Washington state was a place I’d dreamed of visiting since college, since chanting “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world” by candlelight on Sunday evenings in the Chapel of the Resurrection at Valparaiso University. Sometimes, during the sermon, I stared up at the chapel’s darkened, vaulted ceilings and wondered about Holden Village. This was the place where Marty Haugen had composed his Holden Evening Prayer liturgy, which we sang weekly.
More than ten years later, I stood there, unsure of what to do or where to go next.
I wonder if the magi felt this way when they arrived in Jerusalem. They were so close to Christ: they’d followed a star from the East to visit the child-King. Now, a little turned around in a foreign land, they needed directions.
The man-king they met, Herod the Great, both helped them and commanded them to send word when they had reached the child. I wonder if they noticed the twinge of fear in Herod’s tone. I wonder how they felt as they continued toward Bethlehem. Were they afraid, excited, unsure?
I’d come to Holden Village for several reasons. On sabbatical from my work as an editor of Living Lutheran, I’d been accepted into Holden’s Partners in Ministry program for spiritual retreat. The trip west offered space away from my preschooler, husband and housework to focus on a book proposal. I planned to write for myself and offer the villagers a writing workshop. I planned to worship. I planned to hike.
I hadn’t planned on sharing my faith struggles with anyone in the village. Ministry professionals aren’t supposed to have doubts. (I did—doubts and questions and not a lot of answers.)
Because I was a stranger, I hadn’t planned on sharing my heart. I was so nervous my first night there that I skipped dinner, avoiding any risk of connecting with the villagers.
Cracking open the familiar cranberry hymnal at evening worship, I felt something open inside me, a warmth. Maybe a hint of belonging. I sang familiar hymns that night, first softly, then a little more boldly. Then Pastor Melinda spoke about life and death and Jesus, quoting one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott: “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news.”
I’d almost lost someone I couldn’t live without, but he’d healed. Now someone else I loved was sick. And my heart was still broken. I looked around the room at the community gathered, saw the tears in their eyes. I knew I wasn’t alone.
We know how the magi felt when they reached the Christ child, because the Bible tells us: “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy” (Matthew 2:10). In Bethlehem they kneeled before Jesus, offering him treasures.
For our church, the Epiphany story reveals Jesus as the savior of all nations. Love, forgiveness and hope for everyone comes from a vulnerable child who is Christ incarnate.
But the story isn’t over. A dream warns the magi to ignore Herod’s orders. They take a different, arguably more dangerous, route home, hearts changed forever.
On my second day in the village, I attended community breakfast, lunch and dinner. I listened to, learned from and shared stories with others, and my life is richer for it. I was learning that brokenness often occurs in solitude but community changes everything.
That evening, while walking alongside one of my new companions, I looked up and gasped.
Gleaming bursts of brightness glittered the night sky.
I saw the stars and knew I wasn’t alone. Emmanuel—God with us.