The Journey Back to Bethlehem

Opus sectile detail from the apse of St Mary's church in Balham, London: Mary cradles baby Jesus on her lap, holding a dove in one hand, while Joseph stands nearby holding a bundle of wheat for the cow in the background.

In times like these, we may seek a new word. But perhaps, in times like these, more than new words, we need old words.

We made the journey back to Bethlehem; to the old story of a young, unwed, pregnant girl and her fiancé, Joseph, a poor, young carpenter. The Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, ordered a registration. Mary and Joseph, poor and ashamed, followed the orders of the ruling elite, the one percent.

They journey far from home. Mary went into labor and gives birth to her child on the way. There is no room for them there. No baby clothes. We sang our songs about a glorious moment in that story. But the story, like all stories, goes on.

After Jesus’ birth, King Herod secretly calls the members of his cabinet to learn the details. He sends his wise men to do state surveillance on camelback. The wise men find the little family, but in the midst of their government business, they are overcome with joy, and we are not sure why.

Something shifted in their hearts.

The wise men dream a dream, to not return to the king. They leave their jobs, they leave for their own country by another road. Undocumented travelers in a foreign land. Then, Joseph dreams a dangerous dream. He takes Mary and Jesus and they flee to Egypt; penniless immigrants running for their lives.

We know not the intent of those registries, all those years ago. But surely, it was the government intelligence that King Herod consulted when he made his killing orders.

These are stories of darkness, but these are also stories of joy. There is a story for us here. Perhaps it’s not real, but it is true. Myth," said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.”

Maybe we left this story behind when we were little. Maybe it can be ours once more. May this old story of the nativity, the story of poor Jews who become refugees, visited by Arab Kings, undocumented travelers in a foreign land, all fleeing the empire, come alive in our hearts again.

Because even in the darkness of this story, tyrants are subverted.

A whole people who are poor in money and weak in spirit, remember their power, they see beauty even in darkness; and they resist. A baby born in poverty, becomes a rabbi with a message so powerful, that we are still re-telling it today. It was a message that could not die, even when the government condemned him to death.

We read our stories today on screens of blue flickering light; sounds of war and hate through fiber optic cable and LTE networks.

“But fear not,” the story says.

For here is the challenge and the hope: can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Of the Harlems, Flints, or South Sides of the world? Fear not, for it has always been so, and Christmas is always waiting to be born. This year, again, “Yes, sick at heart, plagued, lost as we are, let us make the hard journey.”*

Let us make the journey back to Bethlehem.

For this story, for all stories, go on.

Spirit of Life, be with us now. But be nearer to us still when the holiday is over. When we look to the days to come, like the wise men, in the midst of everyday business, may we be overcome with joy, even when we are not sure why. May something shift in our hearts.

And, like the wise men, even if we don’t yet know the way home, grant us the courage to take another road. Amen.

* Christmas 1974, May Sarton.

Other sources consulted: Christmas and the Black Spirit, Ebony Magazine, December 2001.

Must We Return to Bethlehem?, by the Rev. Victoria Safford, White Bear UU Church, 2014.