In our living room hangs a picture of a log cabin in a snow-swept landscape against the backdrop of majestic mountains beside a gentle brook. It is one of my "happy places," the picture of serenity and nostalgic winter beauty, and I sometimes gaze at it in all of its contrasts to life in a smoggy Central Asian mega-city and think what a pleasant place it would be to spend an afternoon. Remote, self-sufficient kinds of settings have always held a certain "homey" attraction for me, reminders of the rural stomping-grounds of my childhood. This time of year in particular, a large part of our hearts yearns to be near the familiar, pleasant, and comforting; to be "home for Christmas," whatever home means for each of us. As we connect with gathered family over the internet, there is an ache experienced in us and them.
In so many ways, however, the story of Christmas is one of being away from home, and in the middle of chaos, danger, and need. The angels announced peace and joy on earth, but peace and joy are better descriptors of what Jesus left than the world he stepped into: one of political upheaval, oppression, darkness and poverty. In order to rescue those far from God, Christ had to go a far distance. And whatever sense of "home" Bethlehem held for Joseph and his family was soon to be abandoned when they fled to Egypt as refugees. (Read the Christmas story according to John in Revelation 12 for a less-serene twist on the event we've tended to domesticate).
So it is fitting that we who follow Jesus should find ourselves in - and even seek out - the unfamiliar, strange, distant-from-home "places" (geographical or otherwise), at Christmas, and in the wider context of our lives and callings. And we may well find, as we sojourn in such places, that there is a fellowship with the Savior to be experienced there which supersedes even the joys of being near familiar people and places - those joys which often end up disappointing us in their temporary nature and inability to really satisfy our deepest longings for all that home is supposed to deliver. Surely this doesn't mean for each of us the necessity of living away from our birthplaces and passport countries, or avoiding nearness to family and friends out of some kind of ascetic or dutiful application of faith. Indeed, home and family are among the most precious of God's earthly blessings to be cherished with thanksgiving. But the ideal of "home" can so easily function as an idol (a very safe, acceptable, even celebrated one) that keeps us from taking the risks of faith and movements toward the uncomfortable, allowing self-centered priorities to dominate the others-centered ones that Jesus modeled. A home modeled on Jesus will become less selfish, domestic, and protective, and more a center of welcome, and even warfare, in a spiritual sense. I thought of this on Christmas eve, as we sat in advent culmination with four sisters from four different cultural backgrounds, each sharing something of the unique Christmas traditions of their homelands, and something of the unifying vision which drew us to a place where Christmas is just another working day. More than once I heard the comment that there is something special and fitting about celebrating the arrival of Jesus in such a place, where his Kingdom is just beginning to break in and his message largely passes people by, as it did on that first noel. The mix of familiar and foreign was a fitting way to prepare my heart for celebration.
One day we will be home for Christmas - our true and lasting home - and there is no place like it for the eternal holiday we will enjoy there. Until then, whether your holiday plans find you near or far from your "home," I wish you the blessing of fellowship with Jesus in all that he is and offers, and the grace to follow him, close to home and hearth, and to wherever he may take you.