The Road to Bethlehem: Epiphany 2015

Year B. Matthew 2

The road to Bethlehem was barred.
Armed soldiers stood guard and
Stopped our progress.
Our guide skillfully negotiated
Another road into town.

The Church of the Nativity
Rises over the spot where the birth took place
One enters through a narrow and low door
Through which we had to bow
To gain entry.

Within, a stairway led down
Deep under the church,
To a small cave where the child was born
Excavated from ancient sand.

What had we expected to find?
Another stop on a pilgrimage?
A child?
To pray at the site
Where God became

The road into Bethlehem is barred.
Soldiers stand guard.
Whether to block the way
Or to protect us from harm is a mystery.

Both extremes
Can stop the birth
That kicks and turns
Ready to come.

With a good guide we can
Find another way
To the holy child.
Whose first breath is
A cry to be suckled
And to be held
Close and warm.

And to hear the sweet coo
Of His mother’s voice.

I have been struck over the last ten or so years with the image of holding the Christ in my arms. It is for me such a powerful image of the invitation to the life of prayer and the spirit. And to hold the child Christ as we would our own child or the beloved infant of a friend of a grandchild would invite one into the most intimate vulnerability. Epiphany invites us into a whole range of meditations on the journey to the child Christ, to travel with the wise ones, to wonder what obstacles we encounter on the way and to wonder what gifts we bring to the child we hold now in our arms. Of course there is always the issue of whether Mary and Joseph will give the child over to the arms of a stranger. And still that in itself is worth a meditation.

The point, I suspect, of the poem is that the road to birth encounters obstacles. The obstacles that try to block the way and the ones that try to kill any risk by over protection. The infant child needs maximum protection. It is the kind of fierce protection one finds in almost any creature we know. We see it over and over again in the most valiant moments: when teachers in Sandy Hook protected their children from the gun and a student confronted a shooter in her school in Colorado. It risks everything to protect and defend the life that needs to remain safe until it is ready. It is also the great sorrow of the ones who are ultimately unable to protect them from the hurt of life. Neither justice nor revenge can compensate for the sometimes trauma of the loss of innocence.

And yet for the child to grow he or she needs to find both another way into Bethlehem if the road is blocked and needs to find the freedom to take some risks, make mistakes, and be given the confidence that one can pick oneself up, learn and grow in wisdom.

I have been thinking that the three elements of gold, myrrh, and frankincense hold some meaning for the journey to the child. Gold invites us to ask what shall we do with the wealth we have been given, both our money, possessions, and also our gifts, our talents. It’s important to experience the abundance in and around us. How shall we use them to bless ourselves and bless the creation? Myrrh is used for burial. It invites us to ask with Mary Oliver, “What will you do with your one precious life?” And Frankincense is for beauty. How will we both find and seek beauty and how will we make ourselves a thing of inner and outer beauty for God and for the other? How may we be blessed and be a blessing?

I like to live with the questions as well as the answers. These and many other questions arise when we quietly hold the child of God in our arms. It may be that our understanding of this day will be more enhanced by the questions than the answers. I invite you, as you hold the Child of God in your loving, hurt or confused arms, to ask these questions. It will help to begin a new and holy year.

For now carry the carol ”In the Deep Midwinter”* with you as you travel these short dark days of winter, to use as a meditation on your “one precious life”. Blessing to you and to all creatures.

• Last verse:
• “What shall I give Him, poor as I am?
• If I were a shepherd, I would give a lamb
• If I were a wise man, I would do my part.
• What shall I give Him?
• Give my heart.”
Epiphany 2014, Year A. Matthew 2

5 thoughts on “The Road to Bethlehem: Epiphany 2015

  1. Holding a child, wet and squirming, is a test of one’s fortitude and ability to rise above discomfort to see the beauty and innocence there. This never more so than in this modern world where children, toddlers particularly, are vulnerable to those who cannot rise above the crying to see the precious child. Let the children live and grow, understanding the marvel of life and finding, one hopes, love.

    • Thank you Barbara, Also holding the adult child christ is an image I’ve been confronted with. Holding the Christ as he weeps over the creation, over the earth and over Jerusalem. Bob

  2. This is lovely! The image is potent, you show it’s potent by your descriptions (I mean you don’t let it stand alone and expect me to figure it out). And to bring in the elements of gold, frankincense and myrrh … brilliant. The poem at the top is nice and simple, is straightforward and doesn’t require any deep thought to interpret (my favorite kind of poem), how it reflects our journey.

    This is the first one in long time that didn’t make me me cry. That doesn’t make it any less.

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