The older we get, the more we realize that we are travelers. In our life journeys we move not just from day to day, but from place to place, and from event to event. There are grand discoveries, routine daily chores, great joys and great disappointments.
One of my favorite New Testament journey accounts is the journey of the married couple from Jerusalem to Emmaus found in Luke 24. In that journey the couple chat with a fellow traveler about Jesus. They share their grief about Jesus’ crucifixion and death. Later, they come to the amazing realization that they had been journeying with the Resurrected Christ. In our life journeys as well, we sometimes forget that God travels with us.
Throughout our Advent journey, indeed, the realization that we need to focus on is that God travels with us. Perhaps we don’t always recognize the Divine presence, but it is life-giving. And now we look forward again to celebrating the birth of Immanuel who is “God with us.”
Very soon, we hear again the biblical account of the journey of Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke starts with Joseph and a pregnant Mary in Galilee. Mary was probably between 13 and 15 years old. They journey to Bethlehem in response to a census that the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus had required. The U.S. Catholic biblical scholar John Meier (1942 – 2022) stressed that Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem is to be taken not as an historical fact but as a theological affirmation put into the form of an apparently historical narrative. In other words, the belief that Jesus was a descendant of King David led to the development of a story about Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.
Nevertheless, we have a powerful image of the young couple on the road. Their journey leading to the great revelation that would change the course of human history. Matthew’s infancy narrative also describes Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as refugees, fleeing into Egypt to escape the villainy of Herod the Great. Self-centered Herod launched colossal building projects. He ordered great buildings and walls and promised to make Judea Great. Focusing on Jerusalem, he expanded the Second Temple (“Herod’s Temple”) and even slaughtered children to eliminate any possible opposition. Every age has a Herod, determined to make things great, branding “accomplishments” with his own name.
And so for today, as we look toward the Second Sunday of Advent, my travel advisory for contemporary Christians:
- Traveling with “them.” The fundamental reality for most travelers is that we travel with other people. It is easy then to make comparisons and to make judgments. Other travelers can make us feel uncomfortable and occasionally frightened. They do it to us; but we do it to them as well. In truth, however, we may dress strangely and speak in funny ways; but we all have human dignity, equality, and self-worth. We are not just “us” and “them.” We are brothers and sisters. If we travel with the Spirit of Christ, differences in gender, race, political party, and nationality can never allow us to denigrate and condemn the other. Contrary to an old Catholic teaching about queer people, for example, no one is innately disordered. God loves all. So should we. We need to welcome and accommodate them.
- Travel brings change. Life is not static. Change happens. We either make the best of things and move forward or we regress and die. Nostalgia can be fun for a short time, but do we really want to live in the past? An acquaintance, who is a US Catholic cardinal, told me some time ago how wonderful the 1950’s were and how much he misses those days. I chuckled and said he had a very selective memory. I said I remember the “good old days” as well. I remember having scarlet fever. I remember the petrifying fear of polio and learning that a couple kids in my school were in “iron lungs.” And I remember public drinking fountains marked “for whites only.”
- We change and our understandings can and should change. Women are not inferior to men. Protestants do not adhere to a “false religion.” Some of our religious understandings and practices (perhaps) made sense in the Middle Ages but certainly are nonsensical today.
- News travels fast. Yes, but not all the news is fit to print. A lot if it these days is phony and dishonest, especially when linked with regressive politics. As we travel through time and cyberspace, we have an obligation to check facts, and to speak out about and protest those often self-righteous “Christians” who propagate falsehoods and plant seeds of destructive discord.
- Traveling with fear. Fear is a part of life. In our human journeys, I suspect most of us have had fearful days that threatened to destabilize or even destroy us. I certainly have. And, in our sociocultural polarized times, new fears are on the horizon. We need to acknowledge our fears but continue the journey and face life with courage. We are not alone. As believers we know that, despite paralyzing problems, we are loved. Love energizes and strengthens. Over the years I have often thought about the final journey of the young Hebrew man in his early thirties, stumbling towards his death, with a cross-beam on his back. Frightened beyond belief. His courage, suffering, and death give us the courage to continue our journeys on difficult days. “Greater love no one has than to lay down one’s life for a friend…”
- On a God pilgrimage. We are traveling with God and to God. The most exciting part of our journey. There are of course threatening temptations along the way. The first is to think that God is only for “us” and only with “us.” God travels indeed with all kinds of believers and nonbelievers. God is at the heart of all life and all Reality. No group owns God. The second temptation, however, is to act as though we can indeed control God and, like some fundamentalist fanatics found in all religious, use God to condemn and destroy the people we just don’t like. The temptation is there — to make God in our own image and likeness.
Safe travels. May we be courageous…
And once again many sincere thanks to those who responded to my annual appeal