It’s 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Are you willing to make the journey to see God in the flesh?
“Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” That’s the famous question Charlie Brown asks at the pivotal point in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. It’s a good question, isn’t it? The way we answer that question is going to shape not only the way we celebrate Christmas, but also the way we respond to the incarnation of the Son of God.
Our common civic religion answers that question in its holiday songs and television specials by saying that Christmas is all about everyone coming home and gathering around the hearth with friends and family.
And that’s good, of course…although those of us who are practicing Christians might smugly think we’ve got the better answer—the one Linus offers Charlie Brown when he recites the nativity narrative from the Gospel of Luke. But even among Christians, I think sometimes our response to the mystery of the incarnation doesn’t go much beyond the home-and-hearth definition of Christmas. Sure, we light our Advent wreaths and sing a few verses of “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” but are we really responding to the mystery of God taking on human flesh as deeply as we should?
Dig a little deeper into the Scriptures we hear around this time of year. Are they about staying home, where it’s “warm and cozy”? Not really. The shepherds didn’t stay with their flocks when the angels announced the birth of the messiah; no, they got up and left right away, in the middle of the night, to go find him. The magi, too, didn’t stay home; instead, they embarked on an epic journey to see who they would find under that new star. Even Mary and Joseph didn’t stay home—they left friends and family behind when they traveled the ninety miles to Bethlehem.
So, it seems like God has a slightly different idea about Christmas than we do. God sends his prophets and his angels to announce that he wants to be so close to us, he’s coming down to be with us “in the flesh,” face to face, up close and personal. And the way we’re supposed to respond is not by staying home, but by getting up and going out. Like Mary and Joseph, God has called us to go on this epic road trip to meet him in Bethlehem, not just in spirit, but in the flesh, face to face.
So, I want to unpack the implications of this idea with you by telling the story of three journeys to Bethlehem…starting with the journey of Mary and Joseph.
The Gospel of Luke glides right over this part of the story, because all of Luke’s first readers would have known exactly what the journey would have involved. That can leave us moderns assuming it wasn’t a big deal: I mean, it’s ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which is a two hour car ride, easy, even with a few stops along the way.
But Scripture scholars paint a much different picture about what the journey would have involved in first-century Palestine. According to them, it would have taken Mary and Joseph a week or more to travel that distance, sleeping on the ground and eating little more than bread for every meal. If they went during the winter months, it would have been cold and rainy, with high temperatures just above freezing. And they wouldn’t have traveled alone, but in a caravan, for protection against the bandits and wild animals that hunted the wilderness of the Jordan River valley. Once they got to Bethlehem, they might have been glad to find lodging in that cave-turned-stable, but given how crowded the village was, they probably shared it with other travelers and their pack animals. The image of the Holy Family having that spacious stable full of petting zoo animals and angels is probably not in line with their actual experience.
Now, if the journey to Bethlehem was that hard for Mary and Joseph—who, let’s remember, received their marching orders directly from the mouths of angels—then who are we to expect to have it any easier? In fact, maybe there’s something about the very physical difficulty of the journey to Bethlehem that is essential to our encountering the Son of God in the flesh. After all, he didn’t work out the problem of our salvation from a distance, but up close and personal, in all the messiness and difficulty of ordinary human life. Maybe we’re called to do the same—to leave our comfort zones, to take a few risks, to get pebbles in our shoes and rain on our heads. Maybe it’s all part of the journey.
Looking back on my own life, perhaps the most obvious example of this “journey to Bethlehem” was the two years I spent as a live-in volunteer at our local Catholic Worker house of hospitality, in my early 20s. Along with a couple other live-in volunteers, I shared the house with up to a dozen guests, mainly homeless families, plus whoever stopped by for meals, groceries, or to do laundry. The ideal we were trying to live out was that, by welcoming these people in need, we were really welcoming Christ in disguise (see Matthew 25).
And Christ did come in disguise—usually in the form of super-stressed-out moms, dads, and children who, on top of their financial struggles, were probably also dealing with medical issues, or mental health issues, or addiction issues. When the house was full with guests, it could be loud, busy, and a bit tense—maybe a little like that overcrowded stable in Bethlehem.
But that difficult reality served to make the moments of grace and joy all the more remarkable. I remember one time, one of our guests, a woman with a mild cognitive impairment, announced that she was going to present a modern dance interpretation of the song “True Colors” after dinner. As we gathered in the living room, I think our expectations were pretty low—we were prepared to be polite, but not to be blown away, which is what actually happened when she turned on the tape deck and started dancing. God upended our expectations and subverted our superficial assessment of this woman, as if winking at us through her smiling eyes.
Another time, one of our dinner guests, when he learned that another guest was planning to sleep outside that night for lack of anywhere else to stay, invited that man to sleep on his couch. Now, that act of generosity was particularly striking to me, given that Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, had advocated for every Catholic household to have a “Christ room” for such a purpose…and yet, in my experience, it is rare for Christians of means to risk that level of vulnerability to give hospitality to someone in need. In the generosity of this man who had a couch to offer, God revealed a glimpse of his own generosity.
Many other times, God showed up in the form of a generous soul. One cold January day here in Minnesota, a guest was about to go out into the night with only a fall jacket. He commented that he wished he had a winter coat, and we said we’d see what we could do to find one. Not a moment later, someone showed up at the front door with a winter coat to donate…and it fit our guest perfectly, too!
I encountered Christ “in the flesh” in so many ways during my two-year journey at that house of hospitality. Those encounters touched me deeply. When I started out, I had the idea that I was there to help others…but by the end, it had dawned on me that I had received so much more than I had given—that Christ himself had blessed me, in ways that I never expected.
And I wonder: Who would I be today if I had chosen to “stay home”?
Of course, sometimes we’re called to go on the journey to Bethlehem right within the four walls of our own homes. This is what happened to my sister and her husband several years ago when they were told that the child they were expecting had severe, life-threatening birth defects. The doctors questioned whether the child would even live; if he did survive, they said he would be severely impaired. My sister and her husband went through with the pregnancy anyway…although, as you can imagine, the journey wasn’t easy, especially since they had seven other children at the time. Even after the child’s birth, there were countless appointments with doctors, therapists, and educational professionals.
But amid all that craziness—the tears, the exhaustion, the worry—guess who was waiting for them? The Christ child, sometimes in disguise…but sometimes in more obvious ways.
A year ago, I was visiting my sister’s family and found this child who wasn’t supposed to live entertaining his little brother, and both of them laughing and laughing—and making everyone around them smile, too. (See the bottom of this article for a short video clip.)
And, again, I wonder: How would the world be different if my sister and her family had stayed home? What would the world have missed without this particular epiphany of the Christ child?
This Christmas season, while everyone else is taking down their lights and their Christmas trees, sit down next to your creche and ask the infant Jesus this question: Where can I go to meet you, face to face, today?
Because it’s true that Jesus came to us two thousand years ago, but it is also true we’re not too late to go to Bethlehem today. We only need to ask the Holy Spirit to show us the way there…and perhaps, give us the courage to start. The journey may be difficult, and it may require us to leave the comforts of home and hearth. But when we choose to make the journey, we do so trusting that Jesus is waiting to meet us along the way, in person, face to face.
And at the end of the journey, we might just find ourselves like Mary, pondering in our hearts the wonderful mystery of it all.
Cover image: Christmas 1954, Fritz Eichenberg
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