We usually think of Christmas as a time when family members come home from near, far and wide. Grown children who live in a neighboring town come home; college students come home with laundry in tow; grandparents invite everyone to their house for traditional food, good cider and mince pie that is better than anything you could buy at a supermarket.
Friends gather with friends â€“ often times traveling from one house to another. At each stop they cherish a feeling of homespun love and appreciation. This is the time when we all come home, even if our homecoming is only in our dreams, as the old song says.
It was a very different story for those who participated in the first Christmas. Each one of the people we hear about in Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus was not in the comfort of his or her own home. In fact, they were away from home and in strange places.
Think, for example, of Mary and Joseph. They were traveling along rough roads despite the fact that Mary was pregnant and due at any moment. They were traveling because the government required it and were as far from home as they had ever been. If you have ever seen a pregnant couple in an airport stressed out and exhausted by holiday travel, multiply that image by 10 and you will have a sense of how Mary and Joseph must have felt when they arrived in downtown Bethlehem.
Think, for example, of the shepherds. They were used to being away from home because they spent much of their lives herding sheep on the hillside outside of town. Not exactly the highest-class of people in Bethlehem, they were considered outcasts because they were dirty from tending the sheep. Still, they had homes and that is not where they were that night.
Think, for example, of the angels. Instead of being in heaven, where things were beautiful and peaceful, they were bringing “glad tidings” to a bunch of non-comprehending shepherds.
And while I admit this one is the hardest one to imagine, think of Jesus. One moment he is with his Father and the Holy Spirit in heaven. Then suddenly, he is a squalling human baby in a stable, surrounded by a group of folks he has never met before and who do not seem to understand what he is trying to say to them, namely, that he has this strange craving for something called milk.
Each of these players in the divine drama is away from home. Each one is in unfamiliar territory. Each one lacks the comforts of his or her natural home. Each one lacks a family around them to make their difficulties more manageable. And yet, something happens. Each one manages to create a home. Despite what they do not have, they celebrate what they do have.
Mary and Joseph probably expected that their new baby would be born in their own home, with Mary’s mother and cousins there to help with this first childbirth. Joseph might have imagined standing outside the house, waiting for word of the birth, sharing a skin of wine with his friends. Yet here they are, in this stable with the wind whistling through the cracks. No women to help Mary as she labored. No men to laugh and slap Joseph on his back because he had a son â€“ just the two of them, plus a cow and a donkey, and the stars overhead.
Somehow, Mary and Joseph and their new baby made this stable into home. Watching their newborn wrapped in swaddling clothes, they came to realize that they are not just a couple anymore. Now they are a family and wherever a family is, there is a home.
The shepherds expected that this would be another cold night on the hillside as they gathered close to a small fire to stay warm. They could at least make themselves a decent meal and share stories and laughter and create a little home away from home. Then they hear this strange and wondrous news from angels, who should be grumbling at being away from heaven in the middle of the night, but who take their mission as God’s messengers seriously and tell these startled shepherds news they never expected. At that moment, the angels and the shepherds are joined together by God’s good news and there is between them a home of sorts, a home and a family of those who have experienced the unimaginable.
And Jesus, a tiny baby, is at home with Mary and Joseph. He may not understand it at the time, but he is the hope of a troubled world.
All of those people, Mary and Joseph, the angels, the shepherds and Jesus, all of those people are all home. Not the homes that they expected or planned for, but the homes that they need to inhabit. A home of their creation but really one of God’s creation.
We sometimes think that the only good Christmas is the one in which the whole family gets together at grandmother’s house, eating the familiar foods, singing the same songs, telling the stories we have told a thousand times, but perhaps the story of the birth of Jesus teaches us that home and family are what we make of it â€“ with God’s help.
Home is the place where we feel God’s presence and God’s peace. Family is the people who teach us Christ’s love. Christmas is the day when we remember what we are called to do in this broken world: to lend a hand to that pregnant family with the flat tire at the rest stop on the Ohio Turnpike; to offer a dinner invitation to the person who has no place to go; to tell a funny story to someone who feels blue or share a memory with someone who is grieving.
If we learn nothing else from this story of people away from their homes, ordinary people who became part of an extraordinary story, we should learn that our truest home is not a place but a person: Jesus Christ. Where Christ is, there is Christmas, there is family, there is home.
Welcome Christ into your hearts this Christmas and truly you will be at home.
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