Bethlehem Bound – Setting Out

As ‘Bethlehem Bound’ begins I thought you might like to be able to read the talks I gave at the ‘Bethlehem Bound Quiet Day’ held at the Cathedral. There will be a series of three blogs this week as we approach Christmas. I hope that you enjoy them.

It was always such a palaver when we were kids and it was time to go on holiday. There were three of us and Mum and Dad. They liked to take us on a family holiday, somewhere in the UK, none of that abroad nonsense, and anyway, Dad liked the drive even if we were all travel sick.

Weeks before we were due to leave Mum began planning what we would take, drawing up the lists and beginning to assemble everything on a spare bed. We needed clothes for all eventualities – for the rain obviously but also for those hoped for moments when the sun would come out and we could get onto the beach and maybe even into the sea. We needed to be able to change for the evening and have some clothes for every eventuality. She then had to fold it all properly, putting sheets of tissue paper in all the things that might easily get creased. Meanwhile, Dad had to get the car ready, check the oil and the water, fill her up with petrol, check the tyres and wash it so that we looked respectable as we set off.

Then on the morning of our departure there was the whole ritual of the roof rack. ‘Don’t scratch the car’ was the advice from my Mum. Dad was grumbling about getting it secure. The cases were loaded on to it, strapped down and then the tarpaulin stretched across and also secured so that the inevitable would not happen – which, being inevitable, of course it always did – flying off as we were hurtling along some road in Devon.

Then all that was needed was for everything in the house to be turned off, double and triple checked, everyone go to the toilet for the last time and packed into the car with a potty for the one who would be sick, and we finally backed out of the drive and we were off, setting off on our journey.

I have to admit to you that I really love Christmas. I know it can be annoying, I know it can be stressful, I know it can be expensive, I know that it will be disappointing in one way or another – but I always forget all of those realities when this point in the year is reached and we can get ready for Christmas, really get ready in this final week.

I have a great excuse for getting my Christmas trees – yes trees – up early – we have a lot of entertaining to do over December in the Deanery and so I need to make sure that the place looks properly Christmassy and trees do that. There are things though that I still need to do, some gift buying, lots of gift wrapping, the final bits of food shopping that can only be done close to the day itself. But I am almost ready. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas and I am excited.

For these, but for deeper reasons as well, I wanted to write a book to help us engage with the Christmas story and particularly the journey to Bethlehem that we all make and the characters who were making the journey and will be our companions on the way. So that was what the thinking was that led to the book ‘Bethlehem Bound’.

In the time we have together today I want us to think a bit about the journey that we will be making towards Christmas but also in that wider context of the journeys that we make, in life, each day. And I also want us to think about the ultimate reason that we are doing all of this metaphorical travelling and actual planning, the ultimate journey that God made in the incarnation, that sublime doctrine that for me is at the heart of our faith and at the heart of the church.

But first let us pray.

Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
we are Bethlehem Bound.
Bring us with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you. Amen.

It has been a regular joy for me to take pilgrims to the Holy Land. It is the journey that Christians have made for 16, 17 hundred years, since the holy places were identified and pilgrims decided to set out and travel there. When Queen Helena discovered all the holy sites and when the beautiful churches were built over the spots, the places associated with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and also with his birth, the starting gun was, as it were fired, which set people off on their travels.

Modern pilgrims are part of that same great company, following on the travels of people like Egeria, the woman, perhaps a nun, of the 4th century who set off for the Holy Land and wrote her account, her journal of her travels, so that we can discover from a first-hand account just what the place was like. For instance, Egeria took part in the liturgy for the Epiphany which began with, as she writes,

‘the night station at Bethlehem, when they assemble in the shepherd’s hut.’

But she goes on to say that

‘in Bethlehem on that day; you see there nothing but gold and gems and silk. For if you look at the veils, they are made wholly of silk striped with gold, and if you look at the curtains, they too are made wholly of silk striped with gold. The church vessels too, of every kind, gold and jewelled, are brought out on that day, and indeed, who could either reckon or describe the number and weight.’

It was a brave journey that she made but thank God she did. But when we decide to journey we have to at some point set out, begin the travels.

A few years ago, there was a lovely book published written by Rachel Joyce called ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’. It’s the story of a man whose life and marriage have become dull, who then hears that an old flame of his is dying, she is in a hospice at the other end of the country – he’s in Devon, she’s in Berwick Upon Tweed – it’s 600 miles. He decides to write to her and so after penning a letter saying what he felt he needed to say he put his coat on and headed off for the post box. But when he got there, he decided to walk to the next one and then the next and in the end he decided to carry on walking to deliver the letter himself, by hand, to Queenie. At one point in the book, it says this

“The least planned part of the journey, however, was the journey itself.”

And elsewhere Harold says

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there.”

Harold’s pilgrimage, because that is what it becomes, his journey, captures the imagination of others and they join him on the road. He set out not intending to travel, not knowing what he was doing, ill prepared, it was ridiculous. But he set out and kept on going, one foot in front of the other, on the least planned journey, but knowing that he would get there.

In the Letter to the Hebrews the writer talks about faith and comes up with lots of examples of faithful people. One of those that we are pointed towards was Abraham and the writer of the letter says this

By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. (Hebrews 11.8)

The journey was a faithful response, but he set out not knowing where he was going, where the journey would take him – it was an example of complete faith. It would take him to the land which God had promised him, a land in which he and his descendants would flourish and it would be the land in which God was made known, at the door of his own tent when three unexpected visitors arrived and hospitality was offered, as well as in a stable in Bethlehem when the unexpected God arrived in an unexpected form, a baby in a manger.

I want to read you a section of one of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, ‘Little Gidding’. I’ll return to the poem but I wanted to begin with this section

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Little Gidding is a real place, a tiny church in the fields in Huntingdonshire. It is in many ways unprepossessing, but it was a place where a community settled around Nicholas Ferrer after the reformation when community life as it had been known had disappeared. It is a church you could easily drive past, if you didn’t know to look out for it in that area of flat lands and big skies. But when you do find it you realise it is one of those ‘thin places’ where earth meets heaven, a special place and made even more special by Eliot’s meditative poem which looks at this whole idea of journey and arrival.

But it’s that line

If you came by day not knowing what you came for

That speaks of the same impulse that took Abraham from the land of Ur where he was settled and obviously wealthy and successful to another place, a place he didn’t know, on a journey that he could not predict. Not knowing where you are going, not knowing what you came for.

There were many people setting off towards Bethlehem. We know about two of them, Mary and Joseph, but in reality there were so many others, making their own journey, setting off from so many different places. But they had a goal and a destination in mind. St Luke of course sets the context for us at the beginning of the second chapter of his Gospel

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. (Luke 2.1-5)

It was a journey that they hadn’t chosen to make, not a holiday trip like the one I have described from my own childhood. This was a journey that others had decided that they had to make, a journey of necessity if they were to comply with the law and the demands of the occupying powers. The Romans it would seem were conducting a census of all their territories. It’s something that conquerors do. When the Normans invaded this country they wanted to be sure of what they had.

The Domesday Book, as we know it, was the result of the “Great Survey” of much of England and parts of Wales completed in 1086 by order of King William I, William the Conqueror. In total, 268,984 people are tallied in the Domesday Book, each of whom was the head of a household.

It was the same principal that required Joseph, as head of his household, to be counted but the requirement was that he had to travel to be in the right place in order for this to take place. But everyone must have been on the move. It’s incredible to think about. He couldn’t have been the only person who had moved from his hometown. And, as we know when they finally arrived, so many people had come back to Bethlehem that there was no accommodation to be found. A world on the move, people making journeys, people starting out.

So my question to you is, what journey are you on? Perhaps you recently set out on a new journey, or a new stage of a journey that you’ve been on for a while. Do you have a destination in mind or are you just seeing where the path you are on takes you? And have you got what you need for the journey, or are you travelling light, like Harold Fry in just what he was standing up in, like a Franciscan hoping for some hospitality on the way. After all, as his disciples set out on their journey Jesus gave them very clear instructions, travel light, unencumbered by stuff

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food.’ (Matthew 10.1, 5)

Where are you going? How are you travelling?

Lord Jesus,
be our companion on the way
and the goal of our journey.

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