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    The Road to Bethlehem

    Five journeys at the heart of Christmas. December 10, 2015
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    Journey of Anticipation: Mary Visits Elizabeth
    BY ROY R. JEAL

    This beautiful travel account (see Luke 1:39-56) places in our minds a picture of the meeting of two women, one old, one young, both preg­nant with first children. The older, in the culture of her time, is experiencing the removal of the social shame of being barren. She will, finally, have a child. The young woman, a girl really, perhaps about 15 years old, faces the social dis­grace of pregnancy while unmarried. Where would a pregnant teen go? Very reasonably, she goes to a trusted female relative, also pregnant. She comes, stays for a while and then leaves.

    Thoughtful women like Mary and Elizabeth know something about such things. Others, men for example, usually do not. This story of their meeting is sandwiched between longer descriptions about John the Baptist and is meant to help set the stage for the story about Jesus in Luke's Gospel.

    We visualize surprising things. Women who were not expected to have children will have them soon. Particularly striking is that Elizabeth and her baby recognize that Mary and her baby are blessed persons. Elizabeth is amazed that she should receive the mother of her Lord in her own home. Perhaps more striking is that Mary comes to her own understanding of what is occurring in her body as she utters the famous poetic words of the Magnificat (see Luke 1:46-55). For both Mary and Elizabeth these are bodily experiences and reactions. They have awareness in their bodily senses that lead them to deep insights of soul and spirit. Mary understands that God is doing something in her body that brings about good for her and for the world.

    This short narration tells us that something new and wonderful was com­ing into the world. Elizabeth and Mary knew it was powerful. Their experiences gave them insights into the new real­ities they were encountering. Faithfully, they recognized and confessed that God does things for them. They responded eagerly in body, soul and spirit. Mary did the right thing by engaging in wor­ship, by magnifying the Lord. This story explains something of Christmas: we are reminded that God came in Christ to make things right in a difficult world. This story is a Christmas gift. It draws us to worship.

    Journey of Surrender: Mary and Joseph Travel to Bethlehem
    BY MAJOR SHARI RUSSELL

    Image of Mary and Joseph travelling to BethlehemWe are not human beings on a spiritual journey. We are spiritual beings on a human journey,” noted Jesuit philosopher Teilhard de Chardin.

    A journey entails more than simply arriving at a destination. It encompasses the process along the way: the joy and sorrow, the challenges and successes, things foreseen as well as surprises. At times, journeys are a choice and require commitment; other times, they are a necessity and require obedience. Journeys may be difficult, filled with disappointment, discouragement or disillusionment. Or they may be easy, filled with blessings, bounty and benefits.

    Perhaps, like Joseph in Luke 2, we have experienced journeys we would rather not embark on. Joseph, a des­cendent of David with a respected and honourable heritage, chose to journey with Mary, his fiancée, pregnant with a child who was not his. Joseph considered alternatives that would honour his herit­age and reputation: publicly disgrace her or divorce her quietly. But God had a different journey for him—to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own. Joseph relinquished his need to defend his character, maintain his reputation and honour his family heritage by choos­ing to obey God's leading.

    Although the circumstances may vary, Joseph's journey is one to which we can relate. A journey that challenges us to not be “concerned about myself, my career, my future, my name and future, my name and fame,” as Catholic priest and author Henri Nouwen wrote, but to surrender and die to self as we fol­low the Lord's example. This process of growing as spiritual beings is not about upward mobility, but about relinquish­ment and surrender. Joseph chose to let go of disappointment and betrayal and embrace the path of obedience, leading to immense blessing and honour.

    Although the destination was the same for Mary, the process and her response were different. Mary's incredu­lity at the angel's message quickly trans­formed into willing submission, as she replied, “I am the Lord's servant! Let it happen as you have said” (Luke 1:38 CEV). Her words to Elizabeth are a song: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour” (Luke 1:46-47). When we respond with willing sub­mission, a song may burst forth as we experience the deep joy that can only be found in the Giver of Life.

    As we reflect on Mary and Joseph's journey this season, we may not have a choice about what our journey looks like. But we can respond in obedience, sub­mission and joy in affirmation of God's boundless love and grace in our lives.

    Journey of Worship: The Wise Men Seek Jesus
    BY CAPTAIN MARK BRAYE

    After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him' ” (Matthew 2:1-2).

    These two verses from the Gospel of Matthew are our introduction to the Magi, these characters we think we know so well. The truth, however, is stranger than fiction. For one thing, they were not kings. They were pagan astrologers, “not too far from what we'd call sorcerers and wizards. Gandalf [from The Lord of the Rings] and Dumbledore [from Harry Potter] are coming to worship the Baby Jesus,” writes David Mathis, executive editor of desiringGod.org.

    For another thing, they did not visit the newborn Christ. When they finally met Mary and Jesus, Jesus was, perhaps, as old as two years of age. “When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house [not stable], they saw the child [not baby] with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and wor­shipped him” (Matthew 2:10-11).

    I know this ruins your Nativity set and Christmas carols, but there is still much we can learn from the journey of the Magi. Here are two reflections on their story and interaction with Jesus that can speak to our own spiritual journeys.

    First, the journey of the Magi shows us that God is bigger than our ideas and theological frameworks about God. At first glance, it seems heretical to talk about pagan sorcerers seeking and worshipping Jesus. They special­ized in the supernatural—divination, magic and astrology—clearly violating Old Testament laws. Yet God spoke to them. As David Mathis writes, “We really should beware of having a narrower vision of who can come to Jesus than God does. We can be so prone to write off people like this, but God doesn't. He draws. He woos.”

    Second, very simply, the journey of the Magi calls us to worship Jesus. They came to worship him. We should worship him. As we sing in the chorus of Angels from the Realms of Glory, “Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new-born King.”

    Journey of Terror: The Holy Family Flees to Egypt
    BY MAJOR WIL BROWN-RATCLIFFE

    He is jolted awake. His heart is racing; his body drenched in sweat. He throws off the blan­ket. A frenzy of panic drives him—he must take those he loves and escape to safety before it is too late.

    On a moonlit night in August, Abdullah Kurdi, his wife and their two young sons, refugees from Syria, boarded a smuggler's boat bound for Greece.

    Centuries before, in the dead of night, Joseph ben Jacob gathered Mary and the child Jesus, and fled to the safety of Egypt. The family, including Jesus the Messiah, were homeless.

    None of us can forget the nightmar­ish image that swept across the news of three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on the beach, near the Turkish resort of Bodrum. It's too hard to look at—we are compelled to turn off the TV, to turn the page.

    In the past few months, countries in Europe have been forced to respond to the tsunami of refugees spilling over their borders, and have found that they're ill-prepared to cope with the influx of humanity and their needs. In North America, we are able to distance ourselves from the crisis across the ocean, but to do so puts our integrity as Christians at risk.

    “The Slaughter of the Innocents” is both a contemporary newspaper banner and a Scriptural narrative (see Matthew 2:13-18). The despotic and murderous Herod the Great (73-4 BCE) ordered the death of all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age in a paranoid attempt to obliterate any threat to his throne.

    Have you ever turned the page in a story to get past the parts that make you uncomfortable? The Nativity, for all its simplicity, was still harsh for Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus. Our sacchar­ine Christmas pageants—with shepherds in old housecoats and Magi wearing tin­foil crowns—show how disconnected we've become from reality. When was the last time you heard the flight to Egypt, when Jesus was a refugee, included as part of Advent readings?

    This Christmas season, as perhaps like none before, we are seeing the frantic escape of the Holy Family being replayed in real time, by real people.

    Our connection with Jesus has always been confirmed by the degree to which we identify with other people: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these broth­ers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matthew 25:40). The Holy Spirit engages our hearts and hands to interact with the biblical story, discern the lessons it holds for us, and act in ways that dem­onstrate we all belong to a global human family. How will you respond to help our brothers and sisters who have nowhere else to run?

     Journey of Love: From Heaven to Earth
    BY LIEUTENANT KRISTEN JACKSON-DOCKERAY

    Image of the stable and manger in BethlehemHe was a defenceless baby lying on some itchy straw, watched by cattle. The first breath that filled his lungs was diffused with the overwhelming stench of animal dung. Small and dirty, Jesus was God's answer to changing the world. God became a baby. The Word of God became flesh. The God of the universe came down and moved into the neighbourhood (see John 1:14).

    The divine way, it turns out, is a downward way. This baby lying in the itchy manger-crib is not what was expected. The people were waiting for a mighty Messiah; instead they got a baby refugee. They were hoping for a powerful warrior to take over Rome; instead they got a wandering homeless man. He could have saved the world through his mighty power, but he didn't. Instead, he saved the world through his unreserved sub­mission to the way of downward mobil­ity. God saved the world by committing himself to the downward pull. And it is in this downward pull that we find the power of God.

    Jesus moved from power to power­lessness, from greatness to smallness, from success to failure, from strength to weakness, from glory to condem­nation. This voluntary, self-emptying of power, status and security is a pro­foundly countercultural message. In a world driven by a pervasive need to gain power on our way to the top, the story of salvation stands in contrast to upward mobility. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Not when we have figured every­thing out, not when we are successful, but when we acknowledge our need for God's grace. When we acknowledge our brokenness. That's the moment when God says, “Now that is something I can work with.”

    This downward way is the way of salvation. Downward mobility is the way of God. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of the cross.

    It must also be our way as followers of Christ. We, too, must submit to the pull of downward mobility, to become the least, to join those who are at the bot­tom. The message of Christ in a manger is that the world is conquered through weakness, leastness and struggle. The king of heaven is found in an unclean stable.

    It is a surprising message and it is an unsettling challenge. In Jesus, God has come to dwell with us. God has shown up and wants to share in our story, even the parts that are the most painful.

    It is such a simple story—a baby born in unexpected circumstances. It is a divine story, where God resides in the smallness and powerlessness of a baby. It is a story that changed the world.

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