Tuesday, December 25, 2007
Getting to Bethlehem: A Christmas Eve Meditation
“Getting to Bethlehem”
December 24, 2007
It’s about 70 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth to Bethlehem. If Joseph and his pregnant spouse Mary had to make that journey, as it is described in Luke’s gospel, they must have walked close to 90 miles on trails that wound through rugged, hilly countryside; all that, and the lady of the household heavy with child. Getting to Bethlehem was not easy for this first century Jewish couple from the North of what we would now call Palestine. But getting to Bethlehem is what they had to do.
More to the point tonight, in the lovely candlelit glow of our sanctuary, is the question of how we modern-day folk get to Bethlehem. Putting aside notions of boarding an El Al flight at the nearest international airport, I feel compelled to wonder: How do we make the trip, here and now, in our hearts, in our lives? All around the world this night, there is a vast and noisy pilgrimage of seekers and searchers, making this very trip. How do we join them? How do we get to Bethlehem?
For Mary and Joseph, it was a mixed bag of motivations. For one thing, they were caught up in affairs of state… the oppressive Roman government making sure it had up-to-date records on all the peasants so that it could continue to extract crushing taxes from them: that’s one driving force that got our couple to Bethlehem. Obligation. Duty. Some of us find our way here, on this chilly December night, let us be frank, as a result of obligation. One does what one has to do. Duty causes some of us to join in the journey, obligation places us on the road to Bethlehem.
There are other forces at work. Bethlehem is the ancestral home of Joseph; that is why he and Mary must go there. It’s Joseph’s hometown. It’s where his family comes from. Some of us have found our way here tonight because this is our home. It is either our church home or that of our family. Family, with all the richness and complexity, sorrow and joy that can be contained in that little noun: the pull of family causes some of us to join in the journey, the pull of home places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.
Mary finds herself on the road to Bethlehem as a result of an angelic visitation: nine months earlier an intruder into her young life set her heart racing with fear, and asked her an unanswerable question: Will you open yourself to the working of God in an unprecedented, even absurd way? And she answered something like, I am God’s to use. Yes, I’ll do it. Like the shepherds abiding in the fields, Mary had an otherworldly experience, a revelation of God, uncanny, unexplainable, irrational: that is what set both Mary and the shepherds on the road to Bethlehem. And the same can be said for some of us. Some prompting that we can’t explain by biology or psychology or neuroscience causes us to join in the journey; some Presence intuited, some question asked of us, places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.
There are other stories and other paths. The wise men, or “Magi,” not mentioned in tonight’s passage because Luke doesn’t tell their story, Matthew does. They are put on the road to Bethlehem by “their great learning, their ability to interpret the movements of stars and planets in the heavens.” Learning and scholarship cause some of us to join in the journey; fascination with ancient texts and peoples places some of us on the road to Bethlehem.
And let’s not forget Mary and Joseph’s experience once they got there. Theirs was a night of wandering, even of homelessness. It is a puzzle that no one in Joseph’s hometown, no one in the great, extended family he must have had there, was able to offer him and his very pregnant bride anything above the most basic of accommodations: a corner in a stable where the animals sheltered from the cold. Some will come as wanderers and homeless; the desperate search for a place of welcome causes some of us to join the journey, places us on the road to Bethlehem.
What draws them all? All these fellow travelers, the ones with societal obligations, the ones with family ties, the ones with their own experiences of the mysterious sacred, the ones drawn by scholarship and learning, the ones simply searching for a welcome for weary bodies and wearier hearts: what draws them all? What draws us? What causes each of us to join in the journey? What places us on the road to Bethlehem? I wonder.
I can only say this: we join in the journey because God has already joined us. God loves all of wondering and wandering humanity, so God joins us in the barn, all the power of the universe becoming as weak and frail as fragile newborn humanity. If obligation has brought us here—then God joins us in our obligations, big and small. If the pull of home and family have brought us here—then God becomes a part of the family, joining us around the table, even setting the table, to feed us and nurture us. If struggle and hunger and homelessness have brought us here—then God joins with the struggling and the hungry and the homeless, the weak and the wandering. God joins us whether our hunger is metaphorical or literal, whether we have more in common with the learned star-followers or the rough peasant shepherds. God joins us. God joins with us. God makes our road the God’s road. God joins us, so that we need never be alone again.
We are all getting to Bethlehem tonight, by our various routes. Wherever you come from, travelers, you are welcome. By whatever road you come, you are welcome at this table by the One who has already joined us here. Glory to God in the highest: on earth, peace. Peace.