Will you be on the road, traveling this holiday season, away from your residence?
You'll have a lot of company. Millions will crowd the interstates heading home to visit the relatives. So many of our men and women in the military will be scattered around the world, often in distant places, separated from loved ones. That's true, too, for Christian missionaries, who will go on serving the Lord in far off locales at the cost of being unable to be with family at yuletide. Truck drivers will still be hauling freight. Emergency personnel, like police and firemen and hospital and rescue workers, will be on the job and moving about and out of the house.
It's fascinating to me that most of the persons in the stories of the first Christmas in Luke 1-2 and Matthew 1-2 spent time on the road as the epic events of Christ's birth unfolded. A good bit of traveling takes place in these narratives.
Zechariah, for example, was fulfilling priestly duties, away from home, at Jerusalem's temple when he learned that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby in their old age who would grow up to be John the Baptist. He journeys homeward with the amazing news. Young Mary, upon receiving the angelic announcement that she, though a virgin, has been chosen to give birth to the Christ-child, leaves her house in Nazareth and travels southward to a Judean town to visit Elizabeth, her relative, and she both gives and receives encouragement at their joint and unusual pregnancies.
Then, of course, there is the long, arduous trip that Joseph and Mary take from Nazareth to Bethlehem during the most difficult time of her child-bearing when she is about to deliver. She's a long way from home and her "maternity ward" ends up being in a smelly stable or cave. Later, after the birth, shepherds leave where they are and go to see the new baby. Eventually wise men from hundreds of miles away set out on a road trip to find and pay homage to this small child who they sense is someone of great significance. Ultimately, Mary and Joseph will have to embark on yet another not-completely-pleasant pilgrimage when they hurriedly whisk young Jesus away from their dwelling and to safety incognito in Egypt out of range of king Herod's evil intentions. And don't forget the intriguing story of the family trip to a religious feast in Jerusalem when the now adolescent Jesus is missing for awhile, causing great distress for his parents.
Surely the incarnation itself was the most extensive journey. God stepped out of eternity and Heaven, entered time and space, and took on human flesh in Jesus, all for the purpose of reconciling sinful humanity to Himself. What an incredible distance was spanned. What an awesome love was demonstrated.
Some lessons emerge.
For starters, we probably ought to shed our naive, warm, cuddly,sentimental notions of what that first Christmas was like. It was not a Hallmark, comfortable, cozy, "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" kind of experience for the cast of characters living through it, even though they were tremendously blessed. There was fear, uncertainty, loneliness, hardship, and separation involved in history's most momentous event. Let that be of some comfort to you this holiday season when you're stuck in traffic or just can't find that perfect gift or have to put up with cranky or obnoxious family members around the Christmas dinner table or are haunted by dark, hurtful memories of past holidays that were very painful or when you have to be far, far away from the people you love most. Let's face it--Christmas is not always "the most wonderful time of the year." Remember, too, that there will be other Christmases. More than likely this is not your last one!
Let the journey motif in the Christmas stories remind you that the Christian life itself is a pilgrimage. Spiritually speaking, we are to be on the move. We're to be growing and stretching and advancing. We're in a maturing process, progressing toward the goal of becoming like Christ. The Bible describes our relationship with Jesus as a walk and a race. Sometimes that's hard and sometimes it's easy, but we're not just to sit and wait until we go to Heaven! There are lessons to learn, sins and bad habits to give up, virtues to acquire, and service to render.
In your literal moving about this Christmas, whether it's crosstown or across the nation, take some cues from the personalities you meet in the birth stories of Jesus. Like Mary, for example, find someone(an Elizabeth) that you can lift and refresh and affirm. Nursing home, maybe? A lonely homebound individual, perhaps, or a scared little child? You might find, as Mary did, that encouragement and inspiration flow right back to you. Like the shepherds and the wise men, make ample time for worship. How tragic to spend so much money on self and others and schedule so many holiday activities for ourselves that we forget about Christ and his amazing entry into this world and ignore opportunities to give him praise. He can be adored, incidentally, just as much in a family car trip on I-64 or I-81 as in a magnificent Christmas Eve candlelight service in a church if you are genuinely focused.
We can learn from Joseph that sometimes you may have to change your plans in order to serve the Lord. I'm sure that he would have preferred to assist his wife in her childbirth at home rather than on a long trip. I feel certain that a sudden, unexpected trek to Egypt to protect his new, young son wasn't on his calendar for the upcoming year. He wanted to please God, though, and so he was flexible and pliable. See your interruptions this season as perhaps divine appointments. Think about making maybe one major sacrifice to help someone in dire need. Like Zechariah, realize that there is great value in simply being silent sometimes, too. Carve out some down time as he and Elizabeth did to be alone and quiet and reflective, to let your soul be renewed in the midst of a hectic few weeks. That'll be tough on the highway when the kids are quarreling in the backseat. It'll be hard, too, if you think you absolutely have to go to every Christmas party. Personal times for solitude and retreat work wonders for our spirits, though.
Even if you're not going anywhere this holiday, travel back in your mind's-eye at least once to the rich happenings of that first Christmas centuries ago. It may completely change your perspective.