The Road To Bethlehem
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 24, 2000
We are each called at this Christmas season to take our own pilgrimage to Bethlehem. Perhaps we don’t really want to go. Maybe there are places we would rather be. But Christmas comes, and we are held under its sway. We are unwilling pilgrims, perhaps, dragged along by our religious, and cultural, and familial obligations toward Christmas, and toward Bethlehem.
Just as Mary and Joseph were. Even though that was where Joseph’s family was from, they hadn’t chosen to make this trip. They would have been more content, no doubt, staying home back in Nazareth. But Caesar Augustus spoke, and they had no choice but to listen: Come and be enrolled, he said (and pay your taxes, which is what he was really saying)--whether you want to or not, come, come to Bethlehem. So the Roman government ordered. And so, whether Mary and Joseph wanted to or not, they did...
Bethlehem was an unlikely place for a miracle. It was a grubby little village back then, overrun with transients, people who didn’t much want to be there either; filled with inhabitants who looked upon their neighbors with suspicion and upon all these strangers with enmity--not to mention innkeepers who charged exorbitant rates; and merchants peddling all kinds of useless wares at exorbitant prices--all trying to cash in on the big influx of visitors who had come to town because of the census. So, for Mary and Joseph that first journey to Bethlehem had all the allure of a trip to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, combined with a journey to the South Shore Plaza, where sometimes it seems you’re lucky to escape the parking lot with your life. How festive the thought of that journey must have been. How depressing, more likely.
Yet, there was about Bethlehem something else, something deeper. The very word Bethlehem means “place of bread” in Hebrew (and “house of meat” in Arabic). Bethlehem was a crossroads, a place where many different kinds of people came together, and different cultures met and merged. The savior wasn’t born amid some prim and proper, meticulously manicured, not a blade of grass out of place, barren suburban landscape, but in a teeming, crowded, smelly, breathing, living, alive locality, amidst many different kinds of people.
We find our salvation, too, not only among people who are just like us, or just among people we like. We find it, truly, in the midst of all creation--in the midst of all complicated, conflicted, difficult, demanding, marvelously diverse, potentially divine human beings like you and me and all of us.
Bethlehem was also an oasis in the middle of a dry and barren desert where there were fig trees and grain and olives in abundance--and plenty of people willing to sell them to you, too. It was a powerful place, both of diversity and of abundance, and there was something about Bethlehem, even back then, that hinted to us that it might, indeed, be a proper place for the birth of a great man--and a great myth--that would change the course of human history.
So there Jesus was born, in a humble stable we are told. Actually, it may have been in a simple lean-to nestled in an stony outcropping in one of the hills around the town--sort of like a grotto or a cave. In Bethlehem, many of the inns and houses were built this way. There, often, the cattle and livestock were kept--or, in this case, perhaps, it served as a resting place for a young couple from the provinces, too poor to afford one of the inn’s regular rooms. Such a humble place for such a magnificent birth! And don’t believe for a minute that it’s an accident that it is in a stable--not at Le Meredien, not at the Four Seasons, not at the Inn at Harvard--that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords of the Christian tradition is born. For it is in the simplicity of our humanity--bare and naked, stripped of all pretense and affectation, that we meet and greet our true and deepest divinity.
And who are the first to discover the babe, the Christ Child, there in that simple manger? Not the religious establishment, that’s for sure. Not the rich and famous, the movers and shakers, the members of Judea’s elite. No, they’re all off at the Bethlehem Hilton or someplace wining and dining themselves, and having a good time, and acting too self-important to notice the miracle that’s occurring in their midst. The first ones to greet this young and simple Jewish mother with her baby boy in arms were not the insiders, members of the chosen people, but simple shepherds, strange-looking, unkempt outsiders. They were not even Jews, but Arabs, and probably Palestinians at that (there’s a loaded symbol for these conflicted times of ours if there ever was one!). These simple people--the ones who were from the “wrong” race, the “wrong” color, the “wrong” religion--were the first to fall on their knees before the Christ, while the religious and political and social establishment was too busy scheming how to maintain the status quo. It is from the renegades of history--those who don’t “fit in”--that we have the most to learn. It’s common people like you and me, who change the course of history...
Then come the Magi, the wise men. There have always been in our human journey those wise men (and wise women, too) who have been able to look with a deeper eye, and discern the true meaning at the heart of it all. There have been those who follow their stars wherever they lead and see at last the divinity at the heart of what might seem to many of us to be most ordinary.
But even though we’re exhausted when we finally reach Christmas (exhausted like Mary and Joseph were, no doubt, when they finally reached Bethlehem)--even when we get there, the journey isn’t done. Even when we finally arrive at the stable, and see the newborn child, and glimpse the holiness there and the miracle that we know will change everything, our journey has only begun. We have to travel home again--and just like the wise men--not by the same way we came, either. After we’ve truly come to Bethlehem, and really experienced the inner transformation that emmanuel--God dwelling among us and within us--represents, then all the old itineraries for our lives won’t work any more. Our previous plans and directions will all need to be changed after we’ve made this most awesome of journeys. The wise men go home a different way, the ancient story tells us. Mary and Joseph, too, go off in a different direction--to Egypt, to save their child from the rage of Herod. So, we, too, will change directions if we have really seem this miracle birth take place before our eyes (and in our souls).
Jesus, the baby, leaves Bethlehem all too soon. Eventually, he grows up, and leaves the security of the manger, the security of his loving mother’s arms, the warmth of his parents’ home. Jesus grows up, and lives that most amazing, most decent, most humane of human lives--that life that has lighted the course of history for these 2000 years.
We, as religious men and women, have to leave Bethlehem, too (even though it may have taken us years, even decades to get here). We have to grow up, too, and grasp our truth--and live our truth--and become who it is that God intends each of us to be.
For us, Bethlehem is not the destination, but only the beginning of a journey that will last our entire lives. Each year, at Christmas, we return again to that simple place, that stable in our hearts, where we pause again to be reborn, and discern again the true meaning of these lives we lead.