The other day I was listening to Christmas music and the song “No Place Like Home for the Holidays” came on. As a child, I always perked up when I heard it because of the second verse, where he talks about people going home to Pennsylvania from Tennessee and vice versa, because I was born in Tennessee and living here in the Lehigh Valley at the time.
But the premise of the song is that people are leaving wherever they live and work now to go back “home,” wherever they are from and presumably where much of their extended family still lives, because “no matter how far away you roam…for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.” And, the song implies, much of the country is doing that: “from Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific.”
That idea of “home” being where you are from rather than where you live and work now is an old one in the United States because of our increasingly mobile society, particularly after World War II (and that song was first popular about a decade after that war). The idea is receding somewhat at this point, I think, but that’s probably because that mobility is multi-generational now.
For my parents, they had a very strong sense of their “home” being Monroeville, Alabama, where they both lived from birth until they went away to college. So they might have lived in a number of different places, especially early in my father’s career when he was moving up the corporate ladder and relocating to new offices every two to three years, but they always went “home” to Alabama.
But for me, I was born in Tennessee but have no memories of that place; we lived in three different states before I was five, and then I spent my elementary school years in Allentown and middle and high school in Atlanta, Georgia, so I simply don’t have a clear answer myself to “where are you from?” or “where’s home?”
But when I was growing up, we would return to Alabama for the holidays, and I came to understand it as at least a sort of ancestral home, a place where generations of my family had lived, a place where I was “from” in a historical sense if not a personal one, because my family was from there.
Joseph and I seem to have that concept in common. You probably know the basic “plot” of the Christmas story revolves around Joseph, with his fiancée Mary, having to travel from the place that they live, the village of Nazareth in the north of modern-day Israel, to Joseph’s ancestral home, the village of Bethlehem a few miles east of Jerusalem.
Luke tells us that everyone was having to do this, going to their ancestral homes from wherever they lived, not for the holidays but to be registered in a new tax system for imperial Rome. Which, presumably, is about the only thing that could have uprooted them from Nazareth and make them travel for 100 miles to Bethlehem, given that Mary was pregnant; nobody would have chosen to do that to go to an ancestral home.
There are traditions that Joseph was born in Bethlehem, but Luke only says that Joseph “was descended from the house and family of David,” and Bethlehem was known as the city of David because it was King David’s childhood home. But regardless, neither of them would have wanted to go there under these circumstances unless they had to; the place they would want to be is safe and comfortable at home in Nazareth, bringing their son into the world in familiar and controlled circumstances.
But when you think about it, nobody in the Christmas story is in the place they want to be. While Mary and Joseph are going through childbirth in Bethlehem and wrapping their child up to lay him in a manger, there is a group of shepherds in the hills outside of Bethlehem watching over their sheep at night. That might have been familiar, but it wasn’t particularly safe or comfortable or controlled.
The shepherds are watching over their sheep to make sure none get lost, of course, but also that none get eaten, which means that there are predators lurking around to eat them. Spending your nights hoping that you will simply be bored out of your mind rather than have to fight off ravenous wolves is not really a place that anybody wants to be. It’s a place you find yourself in the first century when most other places aren’t available to you because of social class or family background.
And when a pack of dangerous creatures does show up on this night, the shepherds must have been longing for it to be something as familiar and relatively simple as ravenous wolves. Because instead of that, they are surprised by an army of angels. We always have this image of the angels flying high above in the heavens, singing songs of praise from a distance, but Luke says that the angel who first speaks “stood before them,” not flew high above them. Think of it more like a flash of blinding light that doesn’t dissipate, but rather pulses with bright power as the angel speaks standing right in front of and over them as they cower in terror at their feet.
And then, when he’s done speaking, a “multitude of the heavenly host” appears all around them singing, but they are with the first angel, which means it’s less like a heavenly choir sweetly singing among the clouds, and more like an army of blazing figures of light that has surrounded you and is chanting at you in unison. Definitely not the place you want to be if you have any sense.
And finally there are the Magi, scholars of astrology and astronomy from Persia, most likely, who have made their own grueling journey to Bethlehem. Much was made over the last week about the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn being the “Christmas star” because it is so rare and so bright in the sky, and perhaps what they would have seen that got them on their camels was not unlike that.
And while what they saw must have convinced them that Judea really was the place to be because something so rare and important was happening, they were still far from the comforts and familiarity of home for a very long time as they made their way to Bethlehem. T.S. Eliot has a wonderful poem about this called “The Journey of the Magi,” in which he describes the experience from their perspective:
A cold coming we had of it, just the worst time of the year for a journey, and such a long journey: the ways deep and the weather sharp, the very dead of winter. And the camels galled, sorefooted, refractory, lying down in the melting snow. There were times we regretted the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces, and the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling and running away, and wanting their liquor and women, and the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters, and the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly, and the villages dirty and charging high prices: A hard time we had of it. At the end we preferred to travel all night, sleeping in snatches, with the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly.
I’ve always loved the way this poem strips away the layers of mythology and sentimentality that we’ve slathered onto the story of the Magi coming to Jesus bearing gifts, and helps us understand how arduous their journey would have been, and how unclear its success while they were in the middle of it. They might have been confident that Bethlehem was the place to be, but they would have been far from certain that they were going to get there, and far from comfortable with what they were experiencing on the way.
The odd thing is, there have been few times in most of our lives that we were better prepared to hear the good news in this story than we are this year: this year in which we have been urged, from Atlantic to Pacific, not to go home for the holidays; this year in which so many of us are not in the place that we want to be, not with the people that we want to be with, not celebrating Christmas in the traditions that we hold sacred from year to year and generation to generation, whether in our family celebrations or in our Christian worship.
Because feeling displaced and divested from all of that, and even grieving it, puts us much closer to the realities of the first Christmas as it is told in Scripture. Because there, we see that nobody is home for this holiday, this holy day; nobody where they want to be, where they expect to be, where they are comfortable being. And yet that is precisely where God decides to be, through the birth of Jesus Christ.
Because the whole point of the Incarnation, of God taking on human existence in Jesus, is that God steps right into the middle of the full realities of our lives and this world: their order and beauty and hope, yes, but even more so into their messiness and ugliness and fear. For God, the place to be is not the comfortable or desirable place, but the places where light and love are most needed and most absent, most longed for and most surprising.
I’m confident that few of you are in the place you want to be right now. The good news of Christmas is that there is no place you can be without God’s presence, God’s love, God’s grace surrounding you, that God comes to us in the most unexpected places and ways: sometimes creeping in like the early morning light through your window; sometimes bursting forth like someone lighting a flare in the deepest parts of the night; and sometimes flickering into life in our very hands, the way the candles you are able to light and hold do.
So while we may be in a time of displacement, and discomfort, and disappointment, this is the place to be because God is right down in it with us, transforming the world and us from the inside out through Jesus Christ, until, as Isaiah foretold, every valley is lifted up, and every mountain and hill is made low, the uneven ground becomes level, and yes, the rough places become a plain.
And so even here, even now, we like Mary can treasure this and ponder it in our hearts; like the shepherds we can glorify and praise God for what we have seen and heard; and like the Magi, we can begin the journey home by another road.