It’s only 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, not that far really. In a good car you could do it in a couple of hours. But on a donkey, on foot, pregnant? They tell me it could take four days but even that, I think, would be pushing it. But that was the journey that Mary and Joseph made in order to respond to the command of the Roman occupying force that everyone return to their home town to be registered. They had no choice really. Compulsory registration would be a means of controlling the people not of simply doing a census, counting who was there. Despite the circumstances, they had to go.
Many of us will be attending carol services in the lead up to Christmas or in the days immediately after. Since it began in 1918, just after the end of the First World War, millions of people across the world tune in to hear the famous carol service from King’s College Cambridge, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. That begins, after the opening carol, ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ with its wonderful solo verse, with the Bidding Prayer written by Eric Milner-White when he was Dean of Truro which begins with these lines
Beloved in Christ, be it this Christmastide our care and delight to hear again the message of the angels, and in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which is come to pass, and the Babe lying in a manger.
Mary and Joseph made the journey and we are invited to be ‘Bethlehem Bound’ with them. It is a kind of pilgrimage that we make, but one that doesn’t involve us moving from where we are – physically – but as the Bidding Prayer describes it ‘in heart and mind to go even unto Bethlehem’.
I want to begin this journey – and I hope that you will travel with me – from a particular point in Advent. The 17 December marks a change in gear within our keeping of the season in that this is when we begin to use what are known as the ‘O Antiphons’.
It is thought by some that as early as the 6th century a series of special antiphons were being used in the final days leading up to Christmas. An antiphon in Christian music and ritual is a kind of responsory sung by the choir or congregation, usually in the form of a Gregorian chant, to a psalm or other text in a service. These ‘O Antiphons’ were written for use at Vespers (what we know as Evensong) before and after the Magnificat.
They are called the ‘O Antiphons’ because each one begins with the vocative ‘O’ and a messianic description from scripture follows. They begin on 17 December, a day named as O Sapienta with this text
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
But I don’t want our journey to end when these antiphons end on Christmas Eve. The journey continues because not only Mary and Joseph are ‘Bethlehem Bound’, there are shepherds and Wise Men on the roads as well. So our journey will take us through to the Feast of the Epiphany celebrated in both the eastern and western traditions of the church on 6 January.
Each day we will be meditating on the gospel reading set for the Eucharist. They will be familiar texts – but I hope that, just as in travelling through familiar landscapes we can end up seeing something new, so with this journey, that God will make himself known to us in the scriptures in new ways.
It is not an easy journey to make. That is brought out by T S Eliot in his wonderful poem ‘Journey of the Magi.’ Eliot takes as his inspiration a sermon by our Southwark ‘saint’, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, who in his Christmas Day sermon preached before King James I at Westminster in 1622 says something about the journey that Eliot then develops. Some lines from that sermon give us the memorable beginning to the poem and to the journey we will make
‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
Towards the end of the poem the narrator says
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
What will our journey be like, as we, with them, are ‘Bethlehem Bound’? Who knows – it will be different for each of us. But one thing was the same for them all. At the end of the journey there was gift, and gift lies waiting for us as well. Jesus is God’s gift of himself to us. Every other gift besides this pales into insignificance.
So pray with me please as we prepare to set off on the journey.
Lord of the journey,
with Mary and Joseph,
with shepherds and Wise Men,
I am Bethlehem Bound.
Bring me with them
to worship before Jesus
baby, brother, Lord and Saviour
and so make every journey
a walk with you.