Mary and Joseph Journey to Bethlehem.
This must be one of the best known journeys, or indeed the best known journey in the Bible. It is redolent with enduring images from the thousands of Nativity plays that have been performed, the multitude of Christmas cards that have been produced, the Carols that have been written and the great masterpieces that have been created by artists over the ages.
The Wikipedia entry for ‘The Nativity of Jesus in art’ begins with these words:
The artistic depictions of the Nativity or birth of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas, are based on the narratives in the Bible, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and further elaborated by written, oral and artistic tradition.
and while we marvel at the skill of the artists, the beauty of their work, the skill of the writers and the ‘elaborations’ that have been introduced there is a real danger that these ‘elaborations’ can detract from the eternal and essential message of the Incarnation.
The Nativity Play has for many years been the central activity for the end of the Christmas Term in Infant and Junior Schools. The Carol Service likewise has been the central evangelistic outreach of Churches and also of University and College Christian Unions and where these two events are gospel centred and gospel driven we need not be too worried about the ‘elaborations’ which will probably not be noticed. However as individuals and as Churches we need to be on our guard lest we embellish things to such an extent that the central truth that the baby in the manger was, in the words of Charles Wesley ‘Our God contacted to a span, incomprehensively made man!’
Sadly for many in the UK, where less than 50% of people now identify themselves as Christian, the lasting images of the Nativity Account are of snow, donkeys, a stable and angels who bear little or no resemblance to the heavenly beings, God’s messengers revealed in the Bible.
Such ‘elaborations’ it is probably impossible to remove for they are too deeply ingrained in many people’s thinking, but as the secular world and consumerism increasingly hi-jack the momentous event of the Incarnation for their own ends, God’s people, you and I, need to be ever more ready to proclaim the true meaning and impact of the event for it is here alone that there is hope for our broken world.
Luke’s account (Luke 2.1-7) of the journey and the birth is brief and to the point although it becomes more dramatic as the shepherds journey into Bethlehem (the focus of the next episode) but it reminds us simply that that which was promised by God through Gabriel has in fact come to pass and in that event the world is on a new course.
So the challenge for all of us this Christmas is to ensure that we see through the ‘folk-law’ that has attached itself to the world changing event that took place in Bethlehem just over 2000 years ago and proclaim to the world by our lives, our words and our service that the message of the Nativity, is a transforming message and one that the world so desperately needs.