A Guiding light for Whose Journey?
The first time Shirley and I hired a car to tour England, the discussions in the car seemed to place considerable stress on our relationship. The inside of a car can become temporarily unpleasant when taken into foreign parts by a driver who recognises no landmarks and only sees the street signs too late, assisted by a wife, who as navigator, seems unable to read the blasted map. This combination led to some terse exchanges as North sometimes changed to South and some roundabouts became as risky as a roulette wheel (including some with more than one revolution). However our most recent trip to the UK which included a road trip around Scotland was a doddle by comparison. This time we were following a star – or at least a tiny global positioning satellite – and our chatty GPS even told us which lane to choose before taking the next exit off the motorway.
I would have to say that if the story of the shepherds was intended to have some correspondence with what actually happened at the birth of Jesus, it is a shame that the angel left them to head to Bethlehem without some sort of GPS to guide them. And if you think they had it tough, again accepting the story at face value, the wise men all the way from Persia must also have felt even more disoriented. Following a Christmas card illustration of a handy star a few hundred metres up in the sky is one thing but the more likely scenario of a star way up in the heavens which appears simultaneously directly overhead for a variety of places many miles distant is quite another. Since as far as we know, no other observers reported a Christmas card type Bethlehem star at the time, at best, we could say they were somehow navigating with a whole variety of stars among which to choose. Small wonder the wise men in the story were so uncertain they had to stop to ask Herod for directions when they got a bit closer.
On the other hand if we want to preserve a feeling for the magic and wonder of the birth perhaps we should not worry about the literal stuff and simply admit at least figuratively we all need something of our own star to help us through the blackness and uncertainty to help us understand what it was the writer of the two Christmas gospel accounts were trying to tell us.
It is hardly deep scholarship that might cause us to suspect the historical accuracy of both Luke and Matthew. We might ask a few basic questions like: if Herod really did massacre the infants why didn’t the contemporary historians notice? Or what about one of the two gospel writers saying the parents fled with the Baby Jesus to Egypt to stay there until he had started to grow up while the other had the parents going a few days after the birth to present the new born baby to the Temple?
On the other hand as poetry, the word pictures they paint are wonderful. What is more, if we move beyond the restraints of a literalistic Christmas, we might begin to think beyond the past to the possibilities of our present. Even if we can’t quite identify the nature of the star, or for that matter reconcile details of the history, one star remains to guide we who come two thousand years later – and that is the star, not of the baby, but of the adult the baby will become.
In one of the most evocative stories, it was the shepherds which were called by the angel. The shepherds were the lowest of the low – and the adult Jesus will show how he came for the marginalised. If the shepherds mattered, then for the baby who will grow to an adult the marginalised are an essential part of the gospel – and should be part of our gospel.
The setting, and the parents also, matter as part of the poetic scene. The backwater of Galilee, known for sedition and the stirring of trouble was not where we might expect the star to lead – and certainly not to find Jesus as the baby of the unmarried mother Mary. Furthermore, if Joseph and Mary had not been married at the time of the birth, even if she apparently escaped the stoning the law proscribed, at the very least she would not have escaped the stories and innuendo.
For all the Nativity setting of angels and miraculous signs, we find the baby in the dirty straw of an animal feeding trough, an outsider, surrounded by the rat bag shepherds. Perhaps not quite appropriate for someone later remembered in cathedrals with impressive choirs and much fancy dress, but more than appropriate for one as an adult who took his message to the tax collectors, prostitutes, heretic Samaritans and unclean lepers.
There is also even a real world to be glimpsed amid the angel’s announcement and subsequent heavenly choir.
Look at the words: “Today in the City of David – a deliverer has been born – the Messiah, the Lord.” At this safe distance of time, this is now the stuff of oratorios and church religious celebrations, yet for the time there was also the hard edge of challenge to the authorities. Even the angelic choir singing “Bringer of Peace” was not intended simply as religious mush. These were after all the very same titles that went with Imperial proclamation. Caesar Augustus was the one at the time called “Saviour”, “Lord” and “bringer of Peace”.
What is more “Messiah” was the Jewish title of the one expected to bring political independence from Rome….. words of challenge indeed. “Move over Caesar Augustus, it’s Jesus who saves”, is the coded message that some of Luke’s listeners would have been hearing.
Christmas is indeed a festival worth celebrating yet it is not just the tinsel and fairy lights and wonderful Christmas music that should hold our attention. We might have lost sight of that part of the reality, but both Luke and Matthew remind us the infant baby Jesus was born into a world that had dark shadows – and that same world today – continues to have dark shadows. No doubt at least in a figurative sense, the star of Bethlehem is still out there somewhere. But remember as the Christmas story tellers put it, the shepherds had to move from where they were to encounter the Baby. The wise men also had to set out as best they could – and for them it was a difficult journey. For anyone who believes the gospel still speaks to our time today, we need to be honest about where the light is still needed. If we were only to see these journeys simply as literal history, something that once happened to be remembered and now typically mis-remembered, we risk missing seeing the relevance of the coming of Jesus for our own dark times, where relationships are still broken, where the twin spectres of hunger and fear still loom and where the interdependence of human kind and all life on the planet are even more critical than any time in the past.
It is true we can act as if Christmas is merely a pleasant interlude and a time when we can escape our realities. Yet we do so at the risk of leaving the image of Jesus imprisoned in the manger. That other gospel writer who addressed Christmas as sublime poetry, John, looked back on Jesus’ coming and wrote the words: “The light shines on in the dark, and the darkness has never put it out”.
Yet for the light to shine on there must be bearers of the light. This is why Jesus needs to come again and again. Think of Jesus coming in the experience of the reformed slave trader John Newton, who worked so vigorously to help those he had once enslaved.
Think of Martin Luther King – or more recently of Nelson Mandela both shining Christ’s light into the dark obscenities of racial discrimination. Think of those who help serve meals to the destitute for our city missions, or those who daily challenge our politicians to come up with policies of justice and compassion.
Ask too of who might carry that light, now the saints of the past have moved on. Singing our carols identifies us as those who claim to be willing to carry the light. The old words: “let us go in heart and mind even unto Bethlehem” calls us to a journey to seek the vision of a Christ Child who offers hope. As we journey we learn, perhaps unexpectedly, that we have been called to embody that vision. Unless we and others like us can carry that light, others will remain in darkness, and unless we and others like us radiate hope – we deny the possibility of hope.
In one of his books, John Powell puts it this way. (John Powell, Through Seasons of the Heart P 373)
“There is an old Christian tradition that God sends each person into this world with a special message to deliver with a special song to sing for others, with a special act of love to bestow.
No-one else can speak my message
Or sing my song, Or offer my act of love
These are entrusted only to me.”………..
A guiding light for a journey….. but who among us will set out, to go in heart and mind, even unto Bethlehem?