“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” At last, the journeys’ end. For there have been different paths. Mary and Joseph, having travelled down from Galilee, at last arrive weary into Bethlehem. The shepherds, making their way down from the hills in the surrounding countryside, will soon reach the stable. A few more days and the magi will have crossed far greater distances, followed the star to this same end. And at the end of these three journeys, the child who is the glory of God and peace to men and women.
Each of these journeys captures or reflects something of even longer, harder, travels. In Mary and Joseph we see something of Israel’s journey towards the Promised Land. This was the exodus journey out of slavery through a wilderness beset with trials, the darkness of infidelity to the covenant, the persecution of the prophets, dark days of foreign invasion and the desecration of God’s holy nation. Encapsulated in the magi’s pilgrimage, lies the gentiles’ long search for God, the darkness of idolatry, and perhaps the guiding light of reason. And, then, the shepherds who live in the fields, a journey made by the homeless and migrant labourers, by the marginalised outsiders who contend against the darkness of both material deprivation and social exclusion.
All find their journey’s end in the Christ child. It isn’t simply that each of these travels finish at the same point, but in this common ending the travellers themselves find a new commonality. What does the angel say? ‘I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people.’
That’s why Isaiah can prophesy that ‘all the footgear of battle, every cloak rolled in blood, is burnt and consumed by fire.’ For the child in the cradle is the Prince of Peace, the one in whom enmity and social injustice is to be overcome by God’s grace, by the forgiveness of sins. As St. Bernard of Clairvaux once wrote, God ‘could say from the beginning: “My thoughts are thoughts of peace, not of affliction.” Father, Son and Holy Spirit live in perfect peace. But we do not think like this, live like this, “for who has known the mind of the Lord and who has been his counsellor? Therefore the thought of peace came down to be a work of peace: the Word became flesh and now dwells among us.’
As we worship this child, sing God’s praises this Christmas, we can know with relief that God has acted to save us from ourselves, to heal us of our many conflicts. And look again at where we find this new unity in Christ – in ‘a joy to be shared by the whole people.’ Christian unity is found and founded in that shared joy which is the presence within and among us of the Holy Spirit.
Of course, we can sometimes be nervous of joy, and with some reason. After all, there are those who are tempted to whoop it up regardless of others, of their sufferings. The ghetto-blaster and the i-pod can each be symbols of a joy that is sought in isolation from neighbours, either deafening for, or deaf to, those around us. Some look for joy in the oblivion of alcoholic excess or and drug-induced euphoria, stepping out from a mundane world they find empty or just not enough. In the process they grow less and less capable of life in the real world. Perhaps more common is a fear of disappointment, a sort of scar tissue which forms over our various hurts, a wariness about joys that will inevitably be soured, so we stop short of a happiness we fear to lose.
Christianity is sensitive to this last fear, already knows that the crucifixion is implicit in the nativity. It’s not accidental that there’s no room for the Christ-child at the inn: rejection meets his very arrival. But the joy of the Holy Spirit runs through, runs beneath, real sufferings, real grief, like an underground current that at the right time breaks surface and overflows, giving new hope in place of despair. It wells up in faith, trust in God’s infinite goodness, His providence. It issues today in a joyous festival, a liturgy that practises for the endless and perfect joy of heaven.
There’s a personal journey that still continues, and each community has its journey as well, as we struggle for friendship, for the discipleship asked of us by the Christ child. But we see in this first Christmas the grace which now draws us to into the eternal joy of God’s presence. At Christmas we practise for that joy as we give thanks and praise. The angels are our models: their singing is the template for the heavenly life in which we shall rejoice in God, and with God. We journey on with new heart and purpose as the angelic chorus rings in our ears.