December 24, 2017

Journey to Bethlehem: At the Manger


On December 24, there are celebrations of all kinds in Christian churches around the world. From the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem itself to tiny congregations of only a few people, the birth of Jesus is celebrated with the words from Luke. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Over the past 3 weeks, we’ve journeyed with Mary and Joseph from Nazareth, along the Jordan River Valley to Bethlehem. It has been a time to look at what we bring to the journey and what we might be better off leaving behind. The road of life is never as smooth as we might wish. In fact, it is often more like a labyrinth with twists and turns rather than a straight path.

Last week, we paused to be with Mary and Joseph as they arrived in the bustle of Bethlehem and looked for a place to stay. Now, we come to the manger and sit in awe of God’s gift of Love. As Ann Voskamp wrote on Dec. 18 “Christ doesn’t reveal the outcome of what we face, but He reveals to us His Face. This is the gift of Christmas that flickers in the pitch black…Advent means that we meet whatever comes to us — with this brazen belief that it is Love that Comes Down…[Do we prepare for Christmas] by readying the heart to receive the gift of every moment — no matter what the moment unexpectedly holds — as a gift of His love?...No matter the barrenness you feel, you can always have as much Jesus as you want.”

We’ve journeyed with Mary and Joseph and maybe considered our life’s labyrinth this Advent. The truth we believe and live is “the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father's one and only Son. (John 1:14 New Living Translation)

Now we come to the manger to welcome the Holy Child. What is your response to the ‘love come down at Christmas’? What do you bring to the manger?

As Christina Rossetti wrote in her famous poem My Gift:

What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb,
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,--
Yet what I can I give Him,
Give my heart
.
Perhaps in 2018 we'll give more of our heart to Christ Incarnate in the world around us and in the people we meet. Perhaps in that way we can give a glimpse to the hurting world that 'Love HAS come down'. 
A new series starts in 2018. See you then.

December 17, 2017

Advent Journey to Bethlehem: Arrival


We’ve walked with Mary and Joseph as they packed for their journey to Bethlehem in compliance with the ‘decree that all should be registered’. We’ve looked at what we might pack, spiritually for Advent. Last week, we pondered their journey and how it was not an easy trip, nor is our life’s road always smooth and straight.

Now we arrive, with the couple, in Bethlehem. It is a small town. There are not many public places to stay. Even the private homes are full to bursting because of the influx of travelers for the census. No wonder Joseph is found wandering from door to door in the Hispanic tradition of Las Posadas. That is a time-honored retelling of the story of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and finding ‘no room in the inn’. As we hear the story, we may think of ‘inns’ in the modern way of a motel. That is not at all what Mary and Joseph would have found. At best, there would be a place to bed down in the lower part of a home where the animals would also be. At worst, it would be a fenced-in, but open to the elements, area again milling with animals and other people. Hardly the place to go into labor or deliver a child.

In fact, the offer of a stable, or more likely a cave where animals sheltered was probably very welcome. With our modern sensibilities, we think we wouldn’t want to bed down in a barn. In fact, a barn would have been a warm and cozy place. It would have been sheltered and dry. Probably there was straw on the floor, or straw could be laid on the floor to make a softer bed.
Getting to your destination is always a mixture of relief and bustle. There is unloading the car and getting settled into your room. Whether the couple found shelter with a distant family member (as in my book Mary, My Love) or in a stranger’s spare cave, Joseph would have needed to tend to the donkey and see that Mary was comfortable.

We don’t know if Mary was actually in labor upon their arrival, or if that came a bit later. Certainly walking 100 miles, or riding on a donkey, could be enough to hurry labor pains along if she was close to delivering. Of course, tradition says that she was imminently giving birth when the couple arrived in Bethlehem. That is why they couldn’t just bed down in the open caravan yard.

Luke tells us it was “While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.” So we can interpret the timing as we choose. Even if Mary was not yet in labor, she would be especially grateful to stop moving. Walking 100 miles when you are ‘heavy with child’ would be tiring for anyone, even a strong young woman.

Sit quietly and re-read the Luke account. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

In the Lexio Divino tradition of Bible meditation, it is suggested that a passage be read at least 2 or 3 times, pausing to think about it each time. Using a different translation can sometimes open new thoughts on a familiar passage. The internet makes it easy to find different translations.

Then, try to put yourself in the sandals of Mary or Joseph as they arrive in Bethlehem. Normally it is not a quiet town, but now, it is very busy. There are people and animals everywhere. Imagine the noise-the shouting and pushing. Can you hear the bleating of the sheep and the snorts of assorted camels? Dogs everywhere are on high alert and barking at the multitudes in the homes and streets.

Inhale some of the odors in Bethlehem. Do you smell various animals and smoke from cooking fires, the scent of food, mixed with the rising dust from feet trampling along the street? Is that a tantalizing hint of spice?

What do you feel as you walk down the street, strangers in an unfamiliar place? Can you even get someone’s attention to ask directions? And when you do find your way to someplace that may have lodging, you are told “no room”. How do you feel when you hear that there is no place for your wife to rest?

In the enactment of this scene during the annual Las Posadas in Hispanic communities, esp. in the Southwestern US and Mexico, the couple stop at many homes along the street, always hearing the same refrain. Often it is played out over several evenings with a different home being visited each night. At last, the couple find refuge and a cradle for the Child to be born.

As you contemplate the citation from Luke, enter into the relief of the pair as they finally do find a place to stay. Sit with Mary and Joseph as they settle in to their temporary home.  At last they can stop walking, unpack the donkey, and rest. Even if Mary was not yet in labor, she would be especially grateful to stop moving. Walking 100 miles when you are ‘heavy with child’ would be tiring for anyone, even a strong young woman.
Take time this week to sit and wait for the coming of the Christ Child. There was a thought-provoking prayer/poem Kimbely Knowle-Zeller on Episcopal Cafe on December 12 that you may want to read. She reminds us that even though we may get tired of waiting, “this waiting is just the beginning/A beginning of love coming down”. 

December 10, 2017

Advent Journey to Bethlehem: On the Road


This Advent we are going along with Mary and Joseph on their Journey to Bethlehem. Last week we looked at what they might have packed, and what spiritual things we might pack for an Advent journey. Did you decide that there were things you really needed to take along and others that you could do without? For me, I’m trying a day without internet as part of the journey.

This week, we’ll look at the journey itself. According to the experts, there are a couple of possible routes, both of which make a trek from Nazareth through the Valley of Jezreel, down to the Jordan. Some scholars suggest that the couple crossed the Jordan and continued on the eastern side, crossing back at Jericho. Others insist that they stayed on the west side of the Jordan down to Jericho before turning southwest toward Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Of course, if you look at a map, the most direct route would be straight south from Nazareth. However, that road would have gone through Samaria and most Jews avoided traveling in Samaria.
In any case, the trip was about 100 miles on foot, and/or on donkey. This means it would have been from 8-10 days of walking. It is very likely that the pair traveled with a caravan since it was unsafe to be on the roads alone. With so many people traveling to their home towns it was probably easy to find someone to go with. Even in a caravan it would have been a difficult journey for a pregnant woman.

Amy Grant sings Mary’s Song that highlights Mary’s confusion and longing on her journey. “I have traveled many moonless nights/Cold and weary with a babe inside/And I wonder what I've done/Holy Father you have come/And chosen me now/To carry your son.” The song continues as she sings, “I am frightened by the load I bear/In a world as cold as stone/Must I walk this path alone/Be with me now”

Like Mary we are Christ-bearers in a ‘world as cold as stone’. As we travel through Advent this year, we may also find that it’s not an easy trip. The holidays can bring up old memories that may not be hurtful or sad. The 4-week trek can seem very long when all around people are acting joyful and carefree. We can be under pressure to pretend that we are cheerful, too.

St. Paul notes that the Christian journey itself is not always easy. He says, “I have traveled many weary miles. I have faced danger from flooded rivers and from robbers. I have faced danger from my own people, the Jews, as well as from the Gentiles. I have faced danger in the cities, in the deserts, and on the stormy seas. And I have faced danger from men who claim to be Christians but are not.” (2 Corinthians 11:26).

It is OK to not conform to the secular, hectic pace of the season. It is fine to seek reflective time to deal with your feelings, whether they are happy or not. Are you on a difficult journey this Advent? Can you find someone to walk with you on your Advent trip?

Sometimes it helps to have a friend to talk to and share the feelings with. Jesus promises that “when 2 or 3 are gathered together” that God is there. (Matthew 18:20) Meet with a trusted friend and invite Jesus into the conversation.

Like Mary we can come to realize that we are not alone. As Amy Grant sings, it is the “Breath of heaven” with us always. With Mary (and Amy) we can pray, “Hold me together/Be forever near me/Lighten my darkness/Pour over me your holiness/For you are holy/Breath of heaven”

Whether your Advent road is smooth or rocky this year, remember it is just part of the total journey of your life that is full of twists and turns. I was recently reminded that our faith journey, in fact, is much more like a labyrinth with it’s twists and U-turns, than a straight road from birth to death. Through it all, we are called to bear Christ to the world that is dark and longing. 
Take time to pause and consider where you are on your journey, and enjoy the trip. Next week, we’ll look at what might have happened when the travelers reached their destination.

December 3, 2017

Advent Journey to Bethlehem: What to Pack


Today is the first day of the Season of Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child. It is a time of new beginnings, because it is the Church’s New Year. Advent is a time to pause, if only briefly, amid all the secular preparations and be amazed that the Holy God loves us so much that God became incarnate (was made human) to reconcile us to relationship.

This Advent, I invite you to come with Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem and explore what parallels there could be to our own Advent journey.

We know the story of Mary and Joseph’s travels from the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

The Gospel account is pretty sparse in details. What did everyone think when they heard of the census? I can guess that there was a lot of grumbling and likely even some cursing about the government wanting to count the conquered people. Very likely there was a prayer for Messiah to come. The Messiah as envisioned by the people would overthrow Rome and restore Israel, as had happened under the Maccabees a couple centuries earlier.

On an individual level, though, there was preparation. Because you had to return to your family home, Luke tells us, “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” There were many routes the family could have taken, and we’ll look at that next week. This week, we are looking at the preparations for the journey.

What do you do when you are getting ready for a trip? Are you one who plans out every detail and packs what is needed for rain or shine? Or are you more laid back and just toss in a few changes of clothing and underwear and hope for the best on the adventure?

Let’s think about what Mary and Joseph might have packed for a journey of about 100 miles (about 10 days). They had the additional planning for the likelihood of her child being born while they were away from Nazareth. We don’t know if they needed to arrange for someone to care for any animals they might have owned. Possibly they owned a sheep or 2 or a goat for milk. They might have had a dog around the house and a cat in the wood shop to keep down the mice. These weren’t the pampered pets we now have. They would have been much more self-sufficient, especially the cat.

Tradition says that they owned a donkey and that Mary rode that animal at least part of the way to Bethlehem. A donkey can carry about 100 pounds for a distance. If Mary rode, there wasn’t much opportunity to pile the packs on the animal, too, so Joseph would have needed to carry their supplies himself. An average man can carry 50-60 pounds, so the couple would need to keep that in mind as they packed. Let’s imagine that they could only take as much as can be put in a suitcase without paying extra weight charges at the airport.

For the trip, they needed something to keep them clothed. It is likely that they didn’t own very many changes of clothes, so it was not as onerous a task as it is when we decide to pack for a trip. Perhaps a clean tunic and a heavy outer robe that would also serve as a blanket would be all the extra items needed.

Perhaps they carried along mats of some sort to sleep on at night, so they wouldn’t have to lay directly on the ground. Maybe Joseph even included the supplies for some kind of small tent to protect Mary from the nightly elements.

Food for the trip was a necessity as there were not convenient McDonald’s along the route to grab a snack. Nor were there handy WalMarts to stop at to pick up supplies left behind. They could shop or trade in village markets when they passed through, if they had the coins or items to barter with.

Joseph probably took at least a few of his tools so that he might earn some money or food by doing odd jobs along the way.

The couple would have taken some swaddling cloths and blankets for the soon-to-arrive baby. However, they wouldn’t have been laden with all the paraphernalia and gadgets that we think are essential for infants.

What do their preparations for the trip tell us about our preparations for this Advent journey?

What kind of clothing do we need for our journey through Advent? Do we need food or shelter? Are their tools we might need or special items that we should take along?

Isaiah 61:10 tells us what kind of clothing God has prepared for us. “…He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” That’s pretty fancy clothing for a trip. However, this isn’t just any trip. We are going to meet the King of Kings, our Bridegroom, the Son of the Living God! We don’t have to worry about what to wear because God’s love already has us covered.

What about tools? Let’s look at Ephesians 6:13-17 for some things we can add to our outfit and carry as tools. “Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Our journey may be to the Wedding Banquet, but it is not always an easy trek. Therefore, we need to be prepared with truth, righteousness, and peace. Most of all we have the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit for protection.

Do we need to pack food for our Advent journey? Food is a huge part of the secular celebrations of the season. What spiritual food should we pack? In Isaiah 25:6 we hear, “The LORD of hosts will prepare a lavish banquet for all peoples on this mountain; A banquet of aged wine, choice pieces with marrow, And refined, aged wine.” Jesus tells his disciples, “I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread also which I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (John 6:51) And of course, we have the Eucharist to feed us as instituted by Jesus at the Last Supper.
In Exodus, the Israelites complained that they didn’t have food, and God sent manna for them. It was a food they simply had to gather and consume. We are offered a similar feast on our Advent journey. God will provide the food we need for the journey, if we are open to accepting it. If we take time to be on this journey, we will find that we are fed, and clothed, and led.
Do you have ideas of other things you would pack for this Advent journey with Mary and Joseph? 

Next time, we’ll consider the actual road trip that Mary and Joseph embarked on.