There are times when a donkey seems a lot simpler. I certainly mean no disrespect toward Mary and Joseph and their flight to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. After all, they were traveling with a baby across the Sinai wilderness (240 miles) to a land where John Wesley claims they were “entirely strangers in Egypt.” At least they didn’t have to contend with snow!
Our son, Garth, was planning to fly from Grand Rapidsback to La Guardia in New York Cityearly on Dec. 26 (748 miles). Unfortunately, his 2 hour direct flight was canceled because of the blizzard on the east coast. Instead, he was rebooked on a series of flights on Dec. 27 that would take him on a 16 hour adventure from Grand Rapids to Detroit to Washington Dulles to Washington Reagan (good luck figuring out how to get between the 2 airports!) to New York LaGuardia (912 miles).
There is a whole lot of traveling going on during Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, isn’t there? Mary goes to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin Elizabeth (90 miles), Mary and Joseph are summoned to Bethlehem for the census (90 miles again), wise men from the East (likely the Parthia region of modern Iran) travel to Bethlehem (1,000 plus miles) to pay homage to the Christ child, and the Holy Family becomes refugees in Egypt (240 miles to Cairo).
When his parents fled to Egypt, Jesus may have been about the age of our 2 year old grandson Ezra, who was traveling with his parents to Michiganthe Tuesday before Christmas. When their flight was delayed for “weather,” even though there was no weather anywhere in the country at the time (code word for “the airline is not responsible”), they missed their connection in Detroit, and all the other flights to Grand Rapidswere booked until the next day. There was room at the Airport Inn for $300 a night but no money to pay for the room. There was a plan to rent a car and drive from Detroit to Grand Rapids (161 miles), but not a single car was available anywhere. The donkeys were all booked, too!
At Christmas, more than any other time of year, there is a deep pull toward family. People travel long distances to be with parents, siblings, children, extended family, and dear friends. Of course, none of us gets to choose our family, and we are often thrown into close quarters together, so tension, resentment, and disagreements are inevitable. Christmas doesn’t magically make all things better. Yet, Christmas does remind us that all of life is a journey and that when we sojourn together as one human family we are better able to change the world.
Life is not a destination to be reached but an adventure whose only purpose is to dispense love. Our call as disciples of Jesus Christ is not to get to heaven but to bring in God’s kingdom here on this earth. Carl Coleman writes, “Mysticism is, ultimately, simply the art of going to heaven before you die – or, perhaps better said, the art of letting heaven emerge within you now.”
This journey toward the kingdom, the call to let heaven emerge within us now, involves risk, adventure, uncertainty, and following the light of Christ, even when the light is not as clear as the star guiding the magi. Isaiah 35:8says, “A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.”
Have you ever wondered what that flight toEgyptwas like for Mary and Joseph or what they did once they arrived? Remember, this was no quick Christmas trip home to see Mom and Dad. Nor was it a move precipitated by a job transfer and the excitement of a new beginning. Mary and Joseph traveled because they feared for their life. Even thoughEgyptwas a place of refuge for Mary and Joseph, I can’t imagine that they felt entirely safe.
The gospels don’t tell us anything about their life inEgypt. However, extra-biblical stories about the Holy Family’s sojourn abound, and the flight toEgypthas always been a popular subject for artists. Many Coptic Christian churches claim to be built over places where the Holy Family stayed or where miracles happened on the journey.
Is it any coincidence that Jesus himself was a refugee? This time inEgypt no doubt shaped and formed Jesus as he grew and matured. Throughout the course of human history hundreds of millions of people have lived on the move because they were victimized by war, oppression, poverty, and climate change. Even today, at the beginning of 2011, there are an estimated 11-12 million refugees worldwide, especially inAfghanistan,Iraq,Sierre Leone,Haiti,Sudan,Pakistan,Cote D’Ivoire, andMyanmar. Could it be that Jesus came to earth so that one day children would not lie down in the middle of the road and die of starvation, parents would not be stricken with deadly diseases in refugee camps, and families would not be torn apart by war in their home countries and unjust immigration policies in the lands to which they travel?
I invite you to join the great cloud of witnesses by traveling the Holy Wayin 2011 and looking for God wherever the path may lead. I pray that we will let heaven emerge within us as we seek to provide hospitality, safety, and justice to all who travel at the same time as we ourselves journey toward greater love and faithfulness. But thisHoly Way is not just an exterior journey, for Christianity has always been an interior journey as well, a journey of the heart. We are ever on the move in our life of faith, always going somewhere, always growing, always stretching, never staying the same.
The journey within and toward God’s kingdom is literally in our blood. Did you know that there are 100,000 miles of blood vessels in our body? Our circulation system is the body’s highway. Having recently seen the new exhibit, “Bodies Revealed,” at theGrand RapidsPublicMuseum, I now know that if we were to line up all the blood vessels in our own body from end to end, they would circle the Earth four times. The average heart beats about 100,000 times a day and pumps about 2,000 gallons of blood a day. Even if we are sitting still, our circulatory system is constantly on the move.
After many adventures, Mary, Joseph and little Jesus made it back to Nazareth(240 miles), where they settled down to nurture Jesus and watch heaven emerge through him day by day. Likewise, the wise men, overwhelmed with joy after seeing Jesus, traveled back home by a different way, a Holy Way (1,000 plus miles).
Erza and his parents finally made it to Grand Rapidsafter our youngest daughter living in Ann Arborcame to the rescue. Because their luggage had been checked through to Grand Rapids, she bought an inexpensive car seat at Meijer and picked them up at Detroit Metro, (20 miles) after which they all drove home (161 miles).
As for Garth, 2 more flight sequences were canceled on Dec. 27 before he drove to the airport (9 miles) and talked face to face with an agent. They finally got him on a Dec. 28 flight from Grand Rapids to Atlanta to Dulles to LaGuardia (1,692 miles). It was the scenic route, but he made it.
Each one of us travels theHoly Wayevery day. Even if we never leave our community or the state ofMichigan, and even if we don’t have to contend with donkeys, car seats, weather delays, or crafty King Herod, we journey because it’s in our lifeblood.
- Where will this new year lead you and your congregation? Do you have a plan?
- Will you dispense love along the way by allowing heaven to emerge through the 100,000 miles of blood vessels that make up the unique individual that is you?
- Do you have the courage to step out in faith and be guided by the light of Christ, knowing that even if things don’t always go according to plan, grace will lead you home?
- Can you say, along with John Wesley, whose covenant service is observed by many United Methodist churches at the beginning of each new year,
Lord, make me what you will.
I put myself fully into your hands:
Put me to doing, put me to suffering,
Let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
Let me be full, let me be empty,
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and with a willing heart
Give it all to your pleasure and disposal. Amen.