Home for Christmas
It’s about now that most people start to look forward to being home for Christmas. Whether the term has been a fantastic series of exciting experiences, deepening relationships, and first class marks; or a grim parade of endless queuing for balls – and endless queuing at them, heartbreakingly ended relationships, and a series of 8.5s – something draws us home for Christmas. Of course it’s after the exams, which is a lovely thought, and then there’s the stocking which independent twentysomethings still expect, the family all together, the unique traditions of each household, the peculiar relations, the sense, over all, of belonging, of being home. This anticipation is reinforced by endless repetition of popular Christmas classics in the aisles of Morrisons and Tesco’s, with Chris Rea’s easy listening number annoyingly lodging in revision-stuffed brains:
I’m driving home for Christmas
Oh, I can’t wait to see those faces
I’m driving home for Christmas, yea
Well I’m moving down that line
As I’ve listened to students talk about going home for Christmas, I’ve begun to wonder more about home, such a powerful word, and idea, and feeling. Is home a way of understanding the Christmas story afresh? I think it is.
Mary and Joseph’s home was Nazareth, yet Joseph’s ancestral home was Bethlehem. And so, to fulfil the rules of the census, he and Mary had to leave their home and travel a journey of some four or five days. Jesus would not be born at home.
And we learn of another home that night. The shepherds, we are told, were “living in the fields.” That was their home, with their sheep, moving from pasture to pasture. Their home would change from month to month, even from night to night. In fact, it is where we spend the night that is our home. We go out by day, we work, we travel, but when it gets dark, we make our way home, where we spend the night. Granted, perhaps not every night for everyone here – I’m prepared to concede that an occasional student spends an occasional night elsewhere – but mainly, home is where we lay our heads, home is where our (own) pillow is.
And so it was at this temporary outdoor home that the shepherds slept, in darkness, until the glory of the Lord shone around them, and the angels sang, light beaming down on their home. This light was a reflection of a long-promised light to a people “who lived in a land of deep darkness.” As Isaiah proclaims:
“on them light has shined.”
As the choir sang earlier: All out of darkness we have light
which made the angels sing this night.
Those other visitors, the Magi, wise men, astrologers, they too left their home to come and see the Messiah. For them it was a star which drew them to Bethlehem, until it stopped over the house where Jesus was, and they entered. By the time they arrived, they found there a home for a child, for God.
This is developed in the prologue to John’s gospel, which says the word became flesh and lived among us, in our home. Our home has become God’s home. In fact there’s a hint of an even deeper relationship in the text. In verse 11, the Master read that the Light “came to what was his own”, in the original Greek, ta idia, but that could also mean, to his own home. In other words, the world wasn’t some other place, some foreign country which God deigned to visit, ticking it off the list, but rather, all along, the world was his home already, and in being born in flesh, God was coming home.
And yet I wonder if this exploration of the Christmas story through the lens of home isn’t just a little bit too cozy. It’s a bit like the John Lewis Christmas ad – a comfortable family, with a young girl conscious through the lens of a telescope that someone is outcast from the celebrations, an old man who lives on the moon. So she sends him a John Lewis telescope just like the one Santa thoughtfully gave her last year. Sight is established, and he is no longer alone.
I hope all you who are taking the Astronomy and Astrophysics 1 exam on Tuesday 15th at 2 pm in Parliament Hall are able to point out some difficulties with this scenario: perhaps the absence of an atmosphere on the moon, the chances of balloons escaping the earth’s orbit, and of course the cost of postage.
But I think there is an even deeper problem. Although the man receives a care package, he remains more than half a world away from genuine companionship.
This winter, there seems to be little cozy about the world. War continues in Syria, leaving hundreds of thousands dead, and making millions homeless. Brutality by Da-esh and others is horrifying. War seeps across borders, to Lebanon, France, Egypt, Russia – and now to this country. Refugees walk for more than four or five days seeking a place to call home. But what home will this be, beleaguered on all sides, refuge a lottery, the welcome from Europe a mixture of German and Swedish hospitality, with fences and guards elsewhere? To find any home by Christmas, where they can belong, would be a miracle.
But peer more closely at tonight’s scriptures, and that story is there too. There was no place in the inn: Bethlehem was Joseph’s home, but they did not belong there. King Herod’s murderous fear meant there was no safety at home, and so Mary and her family sought refuge in desperation, finding, thank God, an open border to Egypt. And the grown-up Jesus said of himself, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
God’s gift of himself is not some pretty parcel, wrapped and ribboned, delivered to a house, warm and merry, but rather a tired, beleaguered human who walks into a world awfully like this one. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was imprisoned by the Nazis. He wrote that
For a Christian there is nothing particularly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell… A prisoner can understand better than anyone else…that misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man…
And remember that this home which God makes is made in the night, in the darkness. I know well that for some students and others, life can be a place of darkness, night, fear, loss, loneliness and despair. Even a parent’s home doesn’t feel like home. Yet this is the world God came to – and came home to.
Sometimes we miss the obvious. In December 1903, after many attempts, the Wright Brothers were successful in getting their flying machine off the ground. Thrilled, they telegraphed this message to their sister Katherine: “We have actually flown 120 feet. Will be home for Christmas.” Katherine hurried to the editor of the local newspaper and showed him the message. He glanced at it and said, “How nice. The boys will be home for Christmas.”
We are so used to thinking of God in heaven: Our father, who art in heaven… We miss the obvious – the absolutely central truth of the Christian faith, that God is not only in heaven, but has made his home on earth, with us. As a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning puts it, Earth’s crammed with heaven.
To recap, we long to be home for Christmas; but Christmas is the celebration of God longing to be home with us, his beloved creation, not only in joyous places and wonderful times, but in the waste-places, rubbish-dumps and margins of life too.
The question remains: what does that journey home mean for us? Specifically, what does it call forth from us?
Surely an answer must include love for the homeless, the outcast, the lonely, the refugee – telescopes and more.
But it also changes us. We are told that the Magi returned home by another road. On the surface this was to avoid Herod, but more deeply it surely indicates that their lives, their convictions, their way of life had been transformed. We too, on encountering the word made flesh, are never the same again. In going home, much is familiar, but we see our families, our old friends, our peculiar relatives with new eyes. We even begin to see ourselves through the eyes of Christ, eyes of love, eyes of one who left the utterly secure belonging of heaven to make his home with us.
We may be driving home for Christmas, or taking the bus or the train, or thanks to Orville and Wilbur Wright, travelling half a world away by aeroplane – but whether home is here or far away, it is the same home as God’s, not even half a hair’s breadth away from his love.