Summary: As God called Joseph to take the Holy Family to Egypt, so too He calls us to take the blessings we have received and bring them into the world.

Now hold onto your hats folks: I am not perfect. And pardon me for being blunt: You aren’t perfect either. But I’m not going to stand up here and dissect Dcn. Steven, but I will show you a bit of my guts. I struggle with distractions during prayer time—sometimes it’s the cell phone beeping, or something that needs cleaning, or getting dinner started. But it doesn’t really matter what it is, since all of it draws me away from the one thing necessary.

Now, I’ve been working on this for quite some time, years. And, while I have made progress with certain distractions, it seems there’s always a new one to fill in where one has left off. It’s annoying, it's a burden, and it’s a pain because, as a clergyman, I am obliged to pray the daily office for my own intentions, for those to whom I’m called to serve, and for the whole Church. So sometimes it takes a several tries and a bit of time to complete my prayers.

Now I could get discouraged, and sometimes I do, and sometimes I get a lot frustrated. Because the good that I want to do I don’t do, and what I hate to do I keep on doing. So do I stop struggling? Do I stop swimming against the tide of distractions and fall back into the water and allow the current to carry me away? Certainly not! But every time I start to feel down about it, I remind myself that I’m not perfect, and that God knows whereof I was made and that He remembers that I am dust.

The struggle to do what I want to do, the battle to reach my real goal, this is a journey. And as St. Basil wrote, “Rough at first and hard to travel, and full of abundant sweat and toil, is the road that leads to virtue, and steep withal.” The path that we walk isn’t easy. Jesus said, “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Mt. 7:13,14). But the struggle, the journey, isn’t in vain.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).

We are not yet at our final destination. Earth such as it is—this mortal life that we enter in weakness, grow into strength, and then once more in weakness leave—this life is not our end, our purpose. Or at least it shouldn’t be. Our present life is not all that God has to offer us. God hasn’t invited us over for dinner, set out nice appetizers, and then thanked us for coming and showed us to the door. We presently have the appetizers, the foretaste of something greater. But we have not yet reached heaven. God made this world for us, but He made us for eternal life with Him. And the anticipation of living forever in eternal bliss, perfectly fulfilled, perfectly satisfied, perfectly striving (and achieving) more and more, that is our hope.

Who remembers the Gospel lesson from last Sunday? It was John 1:1–18. And in those 18 verses, what was the gist of what the apostle John is saying? Verses 1, 12, and 14, “The Word was God….to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” That’s the message of Christmas, the good news. And therein lies our hope, the right to become children of God.

We prayed this morning, “Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” There again is the good new of Christmas: that God humbled Himself to share our humanity. And there again is the message of hope: that we may share the divine life of God. As St. Peter wrote, “Through [Jesus’ own glory and goodness] he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature…” (2 Pe. 1:4). Jesus, God Himself, has given us great, precious promises, that is the covenants which were completed in His own sacrifice on the cross. And He did this so that we could participate in the divine nature as adopted children.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).

So how do we go on pilgrimage? Well, the first thing is to know your destination, your goal, what you want to reach at end of the journey. That is what we call our “hope.” In life, we have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Ask me, “Fr. Jon Mark, what do you want to do?” And I reply, “Be a successful architect.” And you say, “And then?” “Become a parish priest.” “And then?” “Retire from architecture.” “And then?” “See my nephew’s children.” “And then?” There comes a final “and then” for each of us. What that final “and then” is, that is the most important answer. For me my final “and then” is that I want to die and wake up in blessed communion with God.

And knowing what the goal is, knowing your hope, allows you to set the milestones along the way. If eternal life with God is our goal, what does the halfway point look like? Again, Psalm 84 speaks to us. “My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God’ (Ps. 84:2). Does your soul yearn, even faint, for the courts of the Lord? Does your heart and flesh cry out for the living God? That’s what drives us to move to God, even through the valley of the shadow of death. If I know how great in the Father’s land is my reward —my hope, eternal life—I can endure anything.

We’ve been talking about hope, our ultimate goal to which we hold fast. There is another aspect of hope: the virtue of hope. And it allows us to refuse anything that isn’t part of our ultimate hope. The virtue of hope enables us to reject everything that distracts us from the goal. Hope lets us look at seemingly good things, like talking to mom and cleaning and cooking, and call them bad when they stand between God and me and my prayers. Hope rejects even one’s own life if holding onto it means letting go of God.

This virtue of hope is a grace from God, and it is something that we must exercise. It doesn’t grow on its own. Unless we struggle to walk in hope—unless we refuse to allow despair to thwart us, and unless we deny cynicism its sarcastic, pessimistic grip—unless we do these things, we will not become more hopeful. When I realize that I’ve failed to focus on my prayers…again…I can despair of ever having victory and I can continue to wander off into meaningless life apart from God, or I can backtrack and get back where off and keep grappling toward the goal that I know is better.

And when we struggle through our pilgrimage, we can do great things! Again, Psalm 84:6 speaks to this. “As they pass through the Valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs; the autumn rains also cover it with pools.” Baca means both “weeping” and “balsam tree,” a kind of desert plant. Baca, the desert valley of weeping, we transform into a place of springs, filled with pools. As we journey to God, we leave a path of blessings, a wake of life. Our pilgrimage to God doesn’t just bring about blessings in our own life, but it spreads outward like ripples on a pond. Conversely, the wicked (and that includes those who blindly fall into hell as well as those who actively reject and work against Him), as they go down their evil pilgrimage into the Pit, leave a trail of death and destruction, with traps instead of springs.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).

Pilgrimage to God, when life with Him is our hope, is the defining movement of our lives, and nothing will hinder us from coming to Him. The Lord spoke through Jeremiah, “See, I will bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the ends of the earth” (Jer. 31:8). However far away we presently are from God, it’s no reason to despair for He will bring us from all the ends of the earth to His dwelling. “Among them will be the blind.” Just because we can’t see the way to God, we can trust that he will direct our path when we faithfully press on through whatever is blinding us. “And the lame;” our inability to walk should discourage us, for God has chosen the weak things of the world to sham the strong (1 Cor. 1:27). “Expectant mothers;” even if we are weighed down and quickly tire and are vulnerable to attack, God will be our strength and protector. “And women in labor;” those unable to do anything, completely powerless to handle anything more than their present travail, even these God himself will bring and gather. God says, “I will lead them beside streams of water on a level path where they will not stumble.” If we wholeheartedly set out on pilgrimage, if we truly make heaven our final objective and align our milestone goals with that hope, God will lead us and guide us, for He is our Father.

Joseph said “yes” to God when asked to care for His Son, Jesus Christ. And he was placed on a road; he set out on a journey. He had to protect the gift of God that was given to him. He couldn’t do so in comfort or in ease. Herod (the world) would have killed Jesus, would have destroyed the gift of God. So Joseph’s pilgrimage took him into exile into Egypt. Are we willing to be exiled for Christ’s sake, to give up the world that we know in order to protect the precious gift that God has given us? Herod would have murdered the One who could make him at peace with God. The world would snuff out in you and me the fire of life that we received in baptism, even though that divine light borne in us is the only hope for the world’s peace.

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, who have set their hearts on pilgrimage” (Psalm 84:5).

Your spiritual life—God’s plan for you—your pilgrimage doesn’t call you to insignificant tasks. You are called to do great things for God, to turn the desert valley into an oasis. But you will face opposition; Herods will try to kill the Christ you bear. Yet know this: Christ, God, will go with you into Egypt, and He will return with you to the land of promise. He has given us power. Power to live, to love, and to overcome. We have been given not a weak power, not simply power to survive and just get by. We have received power like the resurrection, power that destroys even the most impossible adversaries in the most hopeless circumstances.