My Mum and I have each encountered really bad experiences with travelling to and from Scotland in winter: so bad, in fact, that four years ago we decided not to do so again unless absolutely necessary. Last week – going against my own advice – I went to pay my Mum a short visit. As a still young, able-bodied individual I shouldn’t have been alarmed at the prospect of travelling on my own with a reliable airline in pretty comfortable conditions. But I was absolutely terrified of getting stranded somewhere due to bad weather or to any other unforeseen situations. Actually, despite my fears, it turned out to be one of the smoothest journeys I’ve ever made on that route!
This completely insignificant story sprang to mind when I thought about the journey made by Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem. The distance of 80 miles doesn’t seem huge in modern terms. But they didn’t have modern means of transport, such as that which we take for granted, and Mary was heavily pregnant and close to giving birth. They couldn’t have booked a room at the inn in advance over the phone or the internet. Generally speaking, their journey was quite challenging and at times even dangerous.
According to St Luke, the journey was forced upon them by a political decision – in this instance, a census. The verifiable historicity of the census has been disputed among historians, but the point made by St Luke is that Mary and Joseph’s fate was sealed by powers beyond their control. In due course those powers would expel them from their country, forcing them to flee for their lives and to seek shelter in neighbouring Egypt. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were powerless in the face of those political struggles, the ferment and the turmoil. The story of their enforced exile is one that has been repeated many times over, and even now we are seeing on our TV screens something similar taking place.
But Christmas can give us great hope, a hope shining brightly in the darkness of war, terror and hatred seemingly taking over our world. At the end of the day all those powers, apparently tossing Mary, Joseph and Jesus around and pushing them to the limit, turn out to serve God’s plans. Those people with earthly power, wielding it proudly and arrogantly like the Roman Emperor, his Governor of Syria or King Herod, despite their malice are serving a greater purpose that they themselves fail to see. That’s the story of hope brought by Christmas: that everything, absolutely everything, serves God’s plans of love. Whatever the circumstances, however powerless we feel, or however hopeless our situation seems to be, we are not abandoned by God. He comes to us in our hour of need in many different ways, most of the time in the guise of ordinary people we meet supposedly by accident, or even the closest members of our family whom we would never suspect of that. God came to save our world by becoming man; through you and me He can continue that work. And the more open we are to Him, and the more intentionally we let him work through us, the better.