Commitment to the Journey — Matthew 2:1-12 and Luke 1:39-44; 2:1-52
Because the Christmas stories in Matthew's and Luke’s Gospels have been romanticised, we can easily miss their radical implications.
A way to come to a fresh understanding of the story is by using the Ignatian practice of inserting ourselves into the gospel stories. Ignatius of Loyola suggests that we contemplate the text “to see the persons, to observe, consider what they are saying, to behold and consider what they are doing” along the way. Both Luke and Matthew thread journeys into their stories about Jesus’s birth. In our own way we can find in these stories strength and hope for our own journeying in the Christmas season and beyond.
Mary Goes from Nazareth into the Hill Country
We’re told that “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” (Lk 1:39). The pregnant Mary either chose to leave town or was sent to visit Elizabeth, her kinswoman who was also pregnant. At the time Mary was betrothed but not yet married to Joseph. Maybe, despite the assurances of the angel that nothing was impossible for God (Lk 1:37), she left to escape the neighbours’ reactions.
Mary and Joseph Go from Nazareth to Bethlehem
Then when Mary was well on in her pregnancy, an imperial decree by Caesar Augustus in Rome announces that everyone in the empire is to be taxed. To bring this about, everyone, regardless of their circumstances, must return to their place of origin in order to register. We can imagine the movement of people criss-crossing the empire. We read that “Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem … to be registered with Mary” (Lk 2:4-5).
Shepherds Journey from the Hills to Bethlehem
Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Throughout Luke’s Gospel there is an emphasis on God’s good news for the poor. It is not surprising, then, that the first to hear of Jesus’s birth are shepherds “living in the fields”. Shepherds were marginalised in society and were probably minding someone else’s sheep. Nevertheless they respond to the news with alacrity: “Let us go now to Bethlehem” (Lk 2:15).
They are the first to announce Jesus’s birth publicly: “They made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them” (Lk 2:17-18). God, Creator of the universe, chose not only to become human but to be among the poor and ignored.
Family Travel from Nazareth to Jerusalem
Jerusalem as a destination features in many gospel journeys. According to Luke’s infancy narrative, Mary and Joseph take Jesus there to fulfil the requirements of purification. They “brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord” (Lk 2:22).
Luke ends the infancy story with a second journey to Jerusalem when Jesus is 12 years old. The family went “up as usual for the [Passover] festival” in Jerusalem (Lk 2:41-42).
Later in the Gospel the adult Jesus and his disciples journey through the regions finally ending in Jerusalem where Jesus is killed (Lk 9:51-19:28). And the Gospel ends with two disciples meeting the risen Jesus as they journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus — then quickly back.
Magi Travel to Bethlehem from the East
Journeying flows, too, through Matthew’s Christmas story. The magi, a high-ranking priestly class of political-religious advisors to the rulers of Media, “from the East came to Jerusalem“ (Mt 2:1). They were regarded as being able to recognise the signs of the times. Being Gentiles they did not get their knowledge from the Scriptures but from other ways of knowing: from following a star they came to Jesus, and by interpreting dreams they foiled Herod’s attempt to use them (Mt 2:12). Matthew’s text highlights that people come to Jesus by many ways — God uses diverse and unexpected means.
Family Flee Bethlehem for Egypt
Matthew tells how the family of Jesus arrive in Egypt as refugees (Mt 2:13-15). They flee the tyrannical regime of Herod, who though Jewish, acted as a vassal of Rome (Mt 2:13). Joseph fled to save his family from the terror of the coloniser. The family stayed in Egypt until they heard that Herod was dead and could no longer harm them.
In these COVID times we’re being asked to limit our travelling and the size of our gatherings for the common good. This brake on our usual freedom of movement is one of the tools being used to stop the virus spreading, especially to those most vulnerable. So while we may not be undertaking long journeys, we can turn our short trips — to the supermarket, school or dairy — with the requirement to track these visits, from a chore into a practice of mindfulness of our solidarity with our neighbours.
The Christmas story invites us, once again, into the story of Jesus beginning with his birth. We can attend to his journeying through cities and villages, alongside the marginalised, the crowds and the critiquing elites, with attention to the heavens and Earth, into suffering and resurrection. His journeying is deliberately border-crossing and border-enlarging as he walks in solidarity with those on the outside drawing them into the kinship of God.
This can challenge us. For example, thousands of people from Afghanistan, Myanmar, from Eastern Europe and African countries embark on perilous journeys to find safe places where they can live. They arrive as refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants. Their deepest hope is that they will encounter peace and safety — the good news of the Christmas story. Our moral, social and political solidarity with them can help bring this about.
Last month, representatives from around the world journeyed to Glasgow for the COP26. They are arriving back among us with goals for the global journey towards climate justice. We need to participate in this journey.
And Pope Francis is asking us to participate in synodality, to walk together as a Church, listening to and responding to the cry of Earth and the cry of the poor. As Vatican II highlighted for us, we are to be a Church in the world — pilgrim people journeying together in kinship in Earth.
Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 266 December 2021: 24-25