Getting to Bethlehem this year has been rough. Immediately after last year’s trek came the massive Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then we have endured the most active hurricane season ever on record, including the still mind-numbing devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. October brought the earthquake in Pakistan that killed a staggering 75,000 people. Meanwhile, fresh accounts of political corruption continue to fill newspapers, heating bills are up, and national morale is down.
How do we get to Bethlehem this year? A minimum wage worker must work almost a full day to fill his car’s gas tank. Airlines are struggling in bankruptcy. Amtrak is plagued by equipment breakdowns. How do we get to Bethlehem? How do we get past the 150,000 service men and women who are in Iraq, separated from family and festivities, and for some, separated from new babies they have fathered but never seen? Amid suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices, their safety is anything but assured; their length of stay is up in the air.
Bethlehem itself, and all the Middle East, are not much safer. The city of David is in a land torn apart by violence. The Department of State continues to warn U.S. citizens to defer travel there; Bethlehem is strictly off-limits to U.S. government personnel; and Christians who live there are fleeing, warned not in a dream but by everyday events.
There are personal roadblocks on our journey: the death of a loved one, the break-up of a marriage, the uncertainty of the economy, a family squabble we can’t forget. For some, there is doubt also: is this wonderful story more than a story? Did the shepherds and wise men and a star in the East ever line up the way it is written?
But on this hallowed day, on this holy day, Bethlehem is where we want to be — with its Norman Rockwell wholesomeness, its Hallmark sentimentality, its warmth of familiarity, and gentle scene of mother and child. On this hallowed day, on this holy day, Bethlehem is where we want to be — captured by the awe of a day that dawns fresh and bright, a day that gives us at least a glimmer of hope no matter who is issuing decrees or sitting in the White House. After last night’s wondrous events — the star standing still in the East, the clear night sky filling with angels, the faith of simple shepherds daring to leave their flocks to see with their own eyes this good news for all, enfleshed in a helpless infant — this morning brings us face to face with the stable where Jesus lies, with the smell of fresh straw overruling that of the animals finding shelter from the cold. But getting there . . .
Getting to Bethlehem is never easy. Just ask Mary. It is eighty-five miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Compound that with the lack of modern transportation, the ninth month of pregnancy, and no warm, cozy welcome at their destination. Her journey is more than we can imagine. More than we want to imagine.
Joseph has been good to her. But actually, they do not yet know each other very well. She has made his trip far slower. But it’s his fault they had to travel at all! Well, maybe it’s the Roman Emperor’s fault, but Joseph is near at hand. She can’t take out her frustrations on Caesar Auwhatzits. Getting to Bethlehem? Is it all going to be worth it?
Maybe that’s a question we all ask from time to time, at least in the silence of our thoughts. When the day comes, is it all going to be worth it?
This child that is born is a big disappointment to those who have their hearts set on a mighty military and political Messiah. Israel has suffered for a very long time. The hopes and fears of all the years come down to this One, and he hardly looks up to the task. But God does not care about pomp and circumstance, physical strength, or book learning. God is much more concerned with faith and obedience, but neither of them is flashy; neither plays well on the big screen.
This child who is born this day also is a big disappointment to those who want to tell God what to do, who want to place their orders and sit back and wait for the results. This child who is born is a disappointment to those who would prefer to be in charge themselves, those who prefer tyranny to grace, those who are comfortable with the rich getting richer, the strong dominating, and the lowly being oppressed even further. This child isn’t going to deliver in the way most want. But God has never engaged in popularity contests. God disrupts expectations. God always surprises.
Yet here we are, despite the year we have endured, despite the uncertainty before us. It’s Christmas. We’ve made it this far. Maybe we will get to Bethlehem. Maybe we will see this One who has been born to us this day.
The good news, friends, is that we don’t have to get to Bethlehem or anywhere else. The good news we celebrate this day is that God comes to us — wherever we are, whatever our circumstance. If we are separated from those we love, if we are in the sterile environment of a hospital, if we are on a far-off military base or working the late shift or sitting in a shelter, grateful for the blanket around our shoulders or wishing for more to eat, God comes to us. That’s the real blessing of this hallowed day, this holy day. God comes to us. God has come among us, and God’s warmth is felt through the most frigid air; God’s light penetrates the deepest darkness. This reality is what makes it all worthwhile. This truth is what makes it Gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is that in him, God has come among us. Forever.
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.
FAIRFAX FULLERTON FAIR is pastor of Highland Church in Louisville, Ky.