“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” At last, the journeys’ end. For there have been different paths. Mary and Joseph, having travelled down from Galilee, at last arrive weary into Bethlehem. The shepherds, making their way down from the hills in the surrounding countryside, will soon reach the stable. A few more days and the magi will have crossed far greater distances, followed the star to this same end. And at the end of these three journeys, the child who is the glory of God and peace to men and women.
Each of these journeys captures or reflects something of even longer, harder, travels. In Mary and Joseph we see something of Israel’s journey towards the Promised Land. This was the exodus journey out of slavery through a wilderness beset with trials, the darkness of infidelity to the covenant, the persecution of the prophets, dark days of foreign invasion and the desecration of God’s holy nation. Encapsulated in the magi’s pilgrimage, lies the gentiles’ long search for God, the darkness of idolatry, and perhaps the guiding light of reason. And, then, the shepherds who live in the fields, a journey made by the homeless and migrant labourers, by the marginalised outsiders who contend against the darkness of both material deprivation and social exclusion. We might see within them also a reflection of our own journey through the difficulties of the pandemic.
All find their journey’s end in the Christ child. It isn’t simply that each of these travels finish at the same point, but in this common ending the travellers themselves find a new commonality. What does the angel say? ‘I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.’ That joy can be summed up in Shakespeare’s line from Twelfth Night: “Journeys end in lovers meeting.” In the Incarnation we see the One who loves us above all others come to meet us – as he continues to do each day of our lives, most especially in the sacraments we once again will be able to share. So we can share the amazement of the poet Sir John Betjeman:
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue,
A Baby in an ox’s stall?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant,
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare –
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
Amid the joys and struggles of this Christmas let us remember to give thanks for that great truth, God is with us, not just on this Christmas Day, but to the end of our lives and beyond.
Fr Chris Denham