By Deacon Roger Carr-Jones, Marriage and Family Life Co-ordinator for the Diocese of Westminster
Our Advent journey has begun. We only really know what a journey is like once we have embarked upon it. Until then it simply an idea, only when setting off does it become a reality. I often think that going to confession is not unlike a journey. There is the time given for preparation, the temptation to put off going and then we take that first step. As we cross over the threshold, we are pleasantly surprised that the journey is different to the one we expected. In truth, this sacrament of healing is often filled with unexpected sharing, clarity about our true destination and seeing our life from a new perspective. Confession is a journey that takes us from one way of existence into something new and restored. It requires but one step.
In a similar way how often do we set out on a familiar walk only to discover something new and different? I have walks that I like to repeat: in the repetition though there is always difference: in myself and the path. Being on a journey by its very nature suggests movement, awareness and change. The journey is an important theme in the Bible. In life, if we simply amble along, then we lose out on the opportunity to discover new vistas, encounters and those moments of profound self-revelation. In this life we are constantly journeying on a pilgrimage, slowly making our way home to God. Although at times we might find ourselves travelling on many a path, we only have one life journey so we need to think about where we tread.
In the Book of Proverbs, it says: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (3:5-6). Those words seem very apt to help us understand our journey and to see them made real in the actions of Mary and Joseph who, in trust and faith moved from what was known to tread a new and unique road. The hardest part of any journey, no matter how well-equipped we might feel, is to step away from what is comfortable and place our first tentative step on the path. How will we share the journey of the Holy Family this year?
Our crossing over the threshold into Advent is something which should always be different and fresh each year. Why? Because our lives are not static, we are changed. Otherwise, we would have stopped being a pilgrim and open to being surprised by God. In my home we build our nativity scene gradually, accompanying the Holy Family as they move along a Star Path towards the stable. There is continuity and change. The principal players remain, yet the layout of our display varies, as new features are introduced and others rested. Importantly, our appreciation of, and participation in, the journey of the Holy Family is always different. For the last two years our scene was built in the shadow of the pandemic and now this year we are conscious that our Advent landscape is filled with threats of war, political tensions and economic hardships.
How often do we reflect on the circumstances of the original journey to Bethlehem, which occurred in a country ruled by a foreign power? The road to Bethlehem would be long and cold. Mary is nine months pregnant; the road is difficult and each step is taking them away from what is familiar. In his poem ‘The Turn of the Tide,’ CS Lewis provides, in the words of the Lewis scholar Michael Ward, a meditation upon the cosmic significance of Christ’s Nativity, the hinge point of history , where we turn to hope. It's opening words , however, do not avoid that it was tough.
‘Breathless was the air over Bethlehem; black and bare.
The fields; hard as granite were the clods;
Hedges stiff with ice; the sedge, in the vice
Of the ponds, like little iron rods.’
This Advent how will we respond to the strangers coming to our land, who have embarked on an arduous journey? Like the Holy Family they are not warmly received, although the action of one resident provides some security. What must the residents of Bethlehem have felt when strangers converged on their town for the Census? An opportunity to make money, complain, or to welcome the stranger? Scripture suggests that the welcome was lukewarm. The Holy Family struggled to find somewhere to rest and obtain a place for the baby to be born. The story of the nativity is, as for many migrants, not one of comfort and welcome but overcoming the obstacles and prejudices of humanity.
Mary and Joseph had to travel 90 miles to Bethlehem over unfamiliar ground, in order to register for a Roman Census. It is a reminder to me that when we say ‘yes’ to God this is only the beginning not the end of our journey. We do not decide the path but we do freely give assent by our feet. I like to think of Mary and Joseph talking about their individual Annunciations as they travel. Mary’s future road and that of all humanity was changed by her ‘fiat’ to the words of the Angel Gabriel and, in the words of Pope Francis, “Everyone can find in Saint Joseph, the man who goes unnoticed, the man of daily presence, of discreet and hidden presence, an intercessor, a support and a guide in times of difficulty. He reminds us that all those who are seemingly hidden or in the ‘second row’ are unparalleled protagonists in the history of salvation” (General Audience 21st November 2021).
Back in 2018 we collaborated with the team of Pray-As-You-Go to create ‘Imagining the Nativity’. This resource was a way to help individuals, couples and families to enter into the scriptures reflectively and listen to the different voices of Mary, Joseph, the Inn-Keeper and others. It is worth revisiting these recordings to help us enter imaginatively and prayerfully as we travel on the road to Bethlemhem with them one step at a time.