The Revd Brutus Green
The Christmas Story begins with a journey. Like so many of the Old Testament stories, Abraham, Lot, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and the people of Israel, and all the threats of exiles and promises of return, and later in the New Testament the missionary journeys, followed by all the journeys of saints and missionaries which took Christianity to every corner of the globe; Christmas like every human story is the story of a journey.
A long time ago, I went on a journey in the deepest, darkest heart of a far away country called Australia. It was a little after Christmas but it was hot and I was in the middle of a rainforest. Now this journey in particular was to find a huge waterfall in the middle of the bush, which meant a lot of walking.
Now when people go on journeys, before they leave sometimes people give them gifts to start them on their way. So let’s look at some of the helpful gifts that we might get when we’re going on a journey.
A MAP: It always helps to know where you’re going. Can you point out Australia? Palestine/Israel? We don’t know how Mary and Joseph navigated; whether they got lost on the long difficult journey across the country with only a donkey for transportation and a heavily pregnant girl. My sense of direction, however, is very much like a compass, attached to a magnet. On the way to the waterfall I got sidetracked and stepped off the path onto a dry river bed. Easily done as dry river beds look like paths. There is though another creature that very much likes dry river beds. Spiders. After 5 minutes I stopped because up ahead was a huge web with a spider the size of my hand in it. When I looked around I saw that I was literally surrounded by spiders, all this size, strung in webs from tree to tree. This is where I needed my second gift.
A STICK: You see I am terrified of spiders. Approximately half my time in Australia I had nightmares of spiders, mostly of them infesting my hair, causing me to jump, still asleep, from one side of my tent to the other. I also had several panic attacks one of which occured at this point. Having temporarily lost my mind, overcome with a lethal combination of arachnaphobia and claustrophobia, I started mindless hacking at a web. The spider responded by nimbly leaping on to my foot. I literally can’t tell you how bad that was but I somehow managed to kick him into the bushes before the world went very dark. We can’t know the trouble Mary and Joseph had but the road to Bethlehem would have been as dangerous as it is today. More dangerous than spiders and with all the added vulnerability of pregnancy. We cannot overestimate the bravery of the young girl, her partner and donkey.
THE SUMMA THEOLOGICA: You need a reason. To go on any journey you need a reason, to sustain you when it’s tough, to give you confidence to know it will end well or in a way that’s worthwhile, to guide how you make the journey, how you treat your fellow travellers. I was going to the waterfall to see something beautiful, the glory of the natural world, to enjoy an adventure. The shepherd and kings likewise travelled from near and far to see something beautiful, following a star or the wings of angels, satisfying their curiosity but looking also for what they had discerned to be the will of God. Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem to register for the census. But they also made this journey because of what Mary had said 9 months previously “Be it unto me according to thy word.” They were on this road because they trusted in God and that trust kept them going through the long, dangerous journey.
On all our journeys we need a map to remind us where we are going, a stick for support and to keep us strong, and our faith to remind us why we are here and how we should travel. And God promises to be all these things. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, the map to God. The psalms tell us that God is the rod and staff that comforts us, and we heard this morning that Jesus is the Word of God, spoken in creation and made flesh at Christmas to teach us and live in our hearts.
As for the Holy Family, they made it to Bethlehem and the story ends with the baby born in a stable. But actually it’s unusual for a story to end with the birth of a child. Mostly they begin with the birth of a child, just think of 3 Men and a Baby, religiously repeated every year at this time. Lots of other stories begin with a birth. Our own stories as we are able to tell them, and most fairy tales, like sleeping beauty and snow white. Like the angels and the three kings in fairy tales the birth of children is accompanied by fairies, good and bad, who lay their blessings and curses on the child about to begin its own adventure.
An American poet wrote along these line a poem called ‘The Wicked Fairy At The Manger’, worth remembering, even amidst all our festivities:
My gift for the child:
No wife, kids, home;
No money sense. Unemployable.
Friends, yes. But the wrong sort –
The workshy, women, wimps,
Petty infringers of the law, persons
With notifiable diseases,
Poll tax collectors, tarts;
The bottom rung.
I think we’ll make it
Public, prolonged, painful.
Right, said the baby. That was roughly
What we had in mind.
When we get to epiphany in a couple of weeks Jesus will receive his gold, frankincense and myrhh as you have all received your wonderful gifts today. We also need to remember though the gifts God gives that we have received for our journey. That Jesus is our map, our staff and the Word in our hearts.