Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On the Road Again: Reflections on Luke 2.1-20 (Christmas Eve 2015)

Christmas Eve
24 December 2015

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            It was midnight when the secretary finally got around to drafting the notes from the meeting he had attended earlier that day.  Senior officials from various government agencies had come together to discuss the growing shortfall in tax revenue from the provinces.  All the officials present were deeply aware of the risks of cutting programmes in order to live within the existing revenue.

            Some senior officials began the traditional game of suggesting cuts to the programmes overseen by their colleagues.  Social services were an easy target, but it was pointed out that these services did keep the populace calm, an advantage in these troubled times.  One official was bold enough to suggest a reduction in the military budget, a heretical suggestion to almost all his colleagues.  So this only left one option:  raise taxes.  But how to do this?

            As the secretary completed his notes and moved on to drafting the memorandum to go out to the provincial authorities, he allowed himself a little smile.  He was the one who quietly raised his hand during a break in the discussion.  “The problem,” he said, “was the absence of accurate census data.  If we order every head of household to return to their place of birth, then we can generate accurate records of where they presently live, what they do for a living and how many members are there in the household.”  And so he was ordered to draft a memorandum, under the signature of the head of the government to be sure, but all the senior officials had noticed the secretary.  Several officials had sent notes inviting him to lunch at their ministries. 

            And so the memorandum went out to every province.  To make sure that people knew how serious this was, the memorandum was delivered to each community within each province by a squad of heavily-armed soldiers.  Their presence left no doubt in anyone’s mind that the memorandum was to be obeyed.

            Throughout the provinces the heads of households gathered up their families and prepared for the journey back to their birthplaces.  There were a fortunate few who had never moved from where they were born, but these were hard times.  Work was not easy to find and skilled workers often left their hometowns to seek places where their skills were in demand.

            One young man closed his shop and left the key with a trusted neighbour.  Who knew how long he and his pregnant wife would be away?  Best to leave the shop under the watchful eye of a friend rather than leave things to chance.  The wives of several of his friends were skeptical of taking a young woman so late in her pregnancy on a long and uncertain journey.  As the couple left town, he noticed the disapproving looks but chose just to smile and to wave.

            Just outside of town, on the main road south, the two young people realized just how difficult a journey this would be.  The road was jammed with people moving in both directions.  Wealthier folk who could afford to bring along a few servants were not above using those servants as ploughs to part the crowds and speed along to their destination.  Most nights were spent out in the open or under make-shift shelters.

            Food was a valuable commodity in scarcity.  Most people had planned to buy food along the way, but the residents of the small towns and cities were reluctant and not a little afraid of the swarms of people passing through.  Many of the travellers lacked money to buy food any way, so thefts were not unknown.  The young man spent many sleepless nights guarding his wife and their supplies.

            Finally they arrived at his hometown.  Hotels were full; homes full of relatives; fields full of travellers.  The young couple were fortunate to find warm lodging in one of the outbuildings of small inn.  And there the child was born, the child of young couple forced to travel far from their home to satisfy the needs of a government bureaucracy even further away.  Eventually they were permitted to return home where the child would grow into adulthood and, as you and I know full well, change the history of the world.

            I’m sure that you quickly figured out the identity of this family.  But I wanted you to hear the story told in a way that connects this ancient story we celebrate tonight with the stories of so many millions of people who are far from their homes.  Luke the evangelist tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem because of the needs of the Roman imperial government not the needs of the people living in what we know as Israel and Palestine.  Joseph and Mary travelled south not out nostalgia for the old hometown of Joseph but because of the power of the Roman army.  Unlike many contemporary refugees, Joseph, Mary and Jesus would eventually return to the north, to the town Joseph and Mary called home.

            Tonight is a night of joy and wonder.  It is a night that warms the hearts of young and old alike.  Children and grandchildren return to visit parents and grandparents.  Friends visit friends and festive meals are shared.  Gifts are exchanged and most of us experience a certain lightness of spirit, even in the midst of the darkness of winter and the busy-ness of shopping malls.  Many charities will benefit from the generosity that blossoms at this time of year. 

            I give thanks for all these benefits of the season.  I even like to keep an older English tradition that extends Christmas from twelve days to forty.  It keeps me a bit more sane and I’m sure no one minds getting a gift or two after the wrapping paper has been cleared away and eggnog is no longer available in the dairy section.

            It is right and a good and joyful thing to celebrate the birth in time of the timeless Word of God.  It is right and a good and joyful thing to be with friends and family and to enjoy a time of love and cheer.  It is right and a good and joyful thing to exchange gifts to reinforce the bonds of affection between us and to express our appreciation of the gifts our families, friends and neighbours are to us and to each other.

            But we must not forget that the mystery of this night is rooted in the story of a young family who found themselves on a road not of their own choosing.  We must not forget that the story we tell tonight is still being lived tonight all over the world.  It is in our power to be the townspeople who share our resources with those on the same journey as Mary and Joseph.  It is in our power to be the innkeeper who opens the door to welcome the holy families into places of warmth and security.

            And then the mystery of this season will be made plain for all to see:  the Christ became a human child so that all the children of humanity may know that they are children of God, holy and beloved, and there is room for us all.

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