16th December 2012

 

“Going home for Christmas”.

 

(Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 2:1-7).

 

            Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
            The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
            Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
            The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

            My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
            My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
            A-chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
            My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.

 

Those words were written in the year 1789 by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (and aren’t you glad that I didn’t attempt any kind of Scottish accent?) You can imagine Kenneth McKellar or Andy Steward singing them, can’t you? – and in fact they have been set to music in many different ways.

 

At first sight Burns’ sentiments seem very clear – until you start giving them a bit of thought. For he was not a Highlander at all but spent his life in Ayrshire and Dumfries-shire, not too far from the English border; as far as I could ascertain the furthest north he ever got was Edinburgh! So why should Burns be writing these words of melancholy and longing? One answer is that, in the previous two or three years, he had been actively considering emigrating to Jamaica, a profoundly different country to Scotland! But he never got there, and perhaps this is simply a case of artistic or poetic licence.

 

However, this poem had a hugely poignant meaning for many Scottish people in the years following its composition. For those were the times of the infamous land clearances in Sutherland and elsewhere, when absentee landlords had realised that they could earn more money from the raising of sheep than from the raising of families and crops. Many of the displaced crofters were forced to sail to Canada and other places in the New World. Shockingly, they were often given just half an hour to collect their belongings before their houses were burned to the ground – and at least one bedridden old lady died because she was not able to get out in time. So this song will have struck a chord with many of those poor folk forced out of their houses. Several generations on, Scotland is still the country they call “home”, and many expatriates come back to visit every year, perhaps to view the sad piles of stone which show where their families once lived.

 

So what – or where – is this mysterious place we call “home”? Of course, if we come from generations of Suffolk stock and can trace our family back to the Domesday Book, that question isn’t difficult to answer. But if you’re ever watched the programme “Who Do You Think You Are?”, you’ll know that most families have travelled quite a lot over the centuries, sometimes to and from quite remarkable places. For instance, what place should my own son call “home”? At present he lives in Cardiff with his wife, and he spent most of his childhood in London. But his mother is Scottish (with some Ulster ancestry) while I, though I call myself English, had parents who both came from Germany in 1938. And, to cap it all, Alastair was actually born in Senegal, West Africa, and has the birth certificate to prove it! So where is “home” for him? The answer is far from clear.

 

Please hold that thought in your head as we turn to the Christmas story and, in particular, to the journey which Joseph and Mary made from Nazareth (the place where they lived and which they knew well) to Bethlehem (Joseph’s family’s ancestral home). The distance between the two towns is something like 80 miles – let’s say for or five day’s journey on foot. And even if we strip away the mythical innkeeper and the proverbial donkey, and suggest that the couple may not have arrived in Bethlehem on the very day when Mary was to give birth, we are still left with an awkward and tiring disruption to life at the behest of a foreign Governor whose Emperor wanted to know just how many people were living under his jurisdiction.

 

Now I have to tell you that there are certain historical problems with Luke’s story. We know that censuses were taken at least three times during Caesar Augustus’ reign, in 28 BC, 8 BC, and 14 AD. It seems as if the main aim of these censuses was not just a desire for statistical knowledge but so that citizens could be made to pay their taxes and (as I didn’t mention to the children) be called up for military service. You can imagine that censuses were hardly popular and I wouldn’t be surprised if people tried to “slip under the radar” if they could. So what are the problems I mentioned? Well, one is to do with timing, the other is to do with practice. Let me explain.

 

In the opening of his story, Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem for what we presume was the second census. Even allowing for the fact that orders and edicts travelled fairly slowly in those days, this would imply a date for Jesus’ birth of 7 or 6 BC. This all fits in well with what Matthew tells us about the Wise Men visiting Herod, who died in 4 BC. However Luke there is a catch: Luke tells us that all this happened when Quirinius was Governor of Syria; but unfortunately historical sources tell us that he didn’t take up that role until about the year 6 AD – about 12 years later. Over the years Biblical scholars have tried to reconcile the dating in highly ingenious ways: but the simplest explanation is just to say that Luke got his Roman officials muddled up! This isn’t actually a new idea: Tertullian, writing at the beginning of the third century, suggested that the census had been taken by Gaius Sentius Saturninus rather than Quirinius. I am loath to admit that there is a mistake in a story which is presented to us as historical fact; but we have to remember that Luke was not a local man; he was probably writing half-a-century after the event and using rather garbled accounts as his sources.

 

The other problem may actually be more germane to our theme: it is whether people would really have been expected to return to their ancestral homes for a census. One can see why this is so important to the Gospel writers such as Luke: the Jesus they are describing had to have been born in Bethlehem in order to fulfil the proper credentials of the prophecies about the coming Messiah. If he had been born anywhere else he would not have been the Messiah but just a “very naughty boy”. But did this journey home to Bethlehem really happen?

 

Well, it depends who you ask! James Dunn, the celebrated Scottish theologian who for years was a Professor at Durham University, wrote: “the idea of a census requiring individuals to move to the native town of long dead ancestors is hard to credit”. An American Methodist scholar called E.P. Sanders agrees and considers the idea of any such decree to be “very unreasonable”. On the other hand we do have a papyrus from Egypt – admittedly dating to a century after Jesus – which states that people must return to their homes for a census; however this requirement seems to refer only to migrant workers rather than to everyone (which seems sensible).

 

Perhaps it is Raymond Brown, the distinguished Catholic scholar, who has the best answer to this historical conundrum; he says, “One cannot rule out the possibility that, since Romans often adapted their administration to local circumstances, a census conducted in Judea would respect the strong attachment of Jewish tribal and ancestral relationships”. We simply do not have enough evidence to conclusively disprove Luke’s story – and I, for one, would not wish to do so.

 

So let’s assume that Luke’s story is correct and that Joseph and Mary did go “home” for the census. The problem, of course, was that when they got to Bethlehem they discovered that it wasn’t really home at all: although some folk there must have been family members they didn’t seem to have ever heard of their relatives from Nazareth and were not even willing to offer them lodging. So this young family was farmed out to stay in the cowshed which, as we know, is where Jesus was born. Any illusions that Joseph and Mary might have had about the welcome they would receive had been shattered: Bethlehem might have been the place where the family had originally come from but it was now alien and foreign to them – just as the town of Trzcianka, my father’s birthplace which is now in Poland, would be alien to me. People move on; the reality of home can be so different to the myth.

 

It strikes me that these themes of “family” and “home” have become absolutely central to our modern ideas of Christmas. Indeed, we are horrified at the idea of spending Christmas alone and in a faraway place, which is why Bing Crosby’s song “White Christmas” caught the American national mood so well during the dark days of WW2, with servicemen and women spread far and wide. And so students return home from their places of study (well, they need to use mum’s washing machine and they’re looking forward to a good square meal rather than more pizza or baked beans). Grown-up sons and daughters go back to the homes where they grew up (and provoke the annual debate of whether this is the year when they go to “his” parents or “hers”). Migrant workers jam the trains and ferries in order to eat real Polish, Portuguese or Lithuanian food and enjoy their own people’s Christmas rituals (personally I’m not very keen on carp, as I find it rather tasteless and bony; but it’s inconceivable to think of Christmas in Prague or Warsaw without it). On the last days before Christmas the roads and airports are jammed; then a blessed silence falls. Everyone has finally managed to get home – or have they?

 

For what about people who are rootless and who do not have any real home? I’m thinking of migrant workers and, more especially asylum seekers, living in a foreign land but lonely, cold, trying to squeeze into one grubby room, and totally bypassed by celebrations they do not understand. I’m thinking of young people and women who have fled from their parents’ or their partner’s home because of abuse or violence, living in some dismal hostel. I’m thinking of people in the services who are far from their families and in danger; and of those same families marooned inside a security fence on some bleak military base here in Britain. And, recognising that the great yearning of Zephaniah and the other prophets for Israel to be able to return to its land, let us think of the Jews who have indeed achieved their aim – but at the expense of displacing Palestinians who had regarded the same territory as their home for centuries. That is possibly the greatest unresolved tension of our age.

 

And even for people who do manage to “get home” for Christmas, their expectations often turn to disappointment. That may be because an elderly matriarch, the one person who held the family together, has died. It may be because family members, originally from a similar background, have changed over the years and no longer have much in common. And, worse than that, we know how many family gatherings which start harmoniously on Christmas Eve rapidly degenerate into arguments, ill-feeling and division by Boxing Day; even if no actual violence is committed, people return to normal life saying, “Wild horses wouldn’t drag me back there”, “I’ll never speak to him again as long as a live” or simply, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over for another year”.

 

Well, I don’t want to dampen your anticipation of Christmas! But I must ask why our ideas of “home” cannot bear the weight we place on them. Clearly it is because we have built up a picture of “home” in our minds which is totally unrealistic. But saying that only begs a further question, which is why we have created that mythical picture in the first place. Of course the media – romantic novels and sentimental films – have played their part. But I think there is more. Perhaps the real reasons that make us long for “home” is that we do not feel at ease within ourselves, that the relationships we make are merely superficial, that we do not really possess a strong sense of our own identity, and that we are desperately looking for an anchor to our lives or a resting-place for our spirits. In a world which seems to have lost a great deal of its faith in God, many people have turned their ideas of home and family into some kind of substitute religion: the so-called “real meaning of Christmas”. But I would respectfully challenge that notion: I don’t think that’s the central message of Christmas at all.

 

And so let us not think of Mary and Joseph as people who were returning home, but as pilgrims. Indeed, we can think of virtually all the actors in the Christmas story in this way: the Wise Men, of course, who quite literally journeyed from the East; the shepherds, who made that short trip from the hillside to the stable but had their understanding of God blown out of the water; even Anna and Simeon in the Temple, who knew that seeing the infant Jesus marked the end of their pilgrimage on earth. The one person who stayed absolutely stock-still is Herod in his palace; might a new king have been born? Then we’ll do all we can to destroy him. His mind is set in stone; there is no desire to journey whatsoever. Might I gently suggest that, at Christmas above all times, Christian believers so often want to return “home” to their past, to the cosy security of childhood when everything seemed so simple? But we cannot: the calendar and the world always push us onward, whether we want to move or not.

 

So may I finish by asking us to certainly think of our homes at Christmas; but not just the snow-tinted homes of our childhood dreams. Let us, as Christian people and churches, do all we can to make room in our hearts and homes for those who have nowhere which they can truly call “theirs” – the Night Shelter scheme, which will continue without a break over Christmas, is one example of that, but we also need to remember those folk who may have a rain-tight roof over their head but still feel themselves, for whatever reason, to be excluded outsiders.

 

And let us remember that, ultimately, we are pilgrim people whose final home is not in this world because we’re just a-passing through. For, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “There remains a rest for the people of God”, a heavenly Zion, the new Jerusalem, the place where God will dwell with his people. There won’t be snow there, nor turkey, nor crackers and Christmas pudding; but it will be a place where family feuds, petty rivalries and over-egged expectations will be replaced by perfect harmony and joy. Mary and Joseph went home for Christmas, and found that it was no home at all. But God’s heavenly home offers safe and eternal lodging for everyone who wishes to live there. All you need to do is ask Jesus to open the door.