As the bumpersticker theology once put it, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” It was meant to separate Christmas as a religious celebration from Christmas as a commercial one, but it can include those of us who celebrate Advent. We prepare for the celebration of Jesus’ birth (even though it more likely happened in April rather than December) with special readings, prayers, hymns and observances. Christmas will be with us for twelve days, not just one, so we have time to get ready. Prophets had foretold the coming of a messiah but the world wasn’t paying a lot of attention. The messiah was supposed to be royal, to be born in a palace, to be anticipated by every person, much like we experienced with the birth of Prince George of Cambridge. What the world got was a quiet birth in a stable to a not-well-off family but whose birth was accompanied not by press releases but angelic choirs. No formal announcement other than a star in the sky and no media event beyond a group of shepherds trooping in to see what the angels had been talking about.
Jesse was the owner of flocks of sheep and who lived in a town called Bethlehem, about 2-1/2 hours’ walk from Jerusalem. He had a number of sons including one named David who rose from shepherd to king of Israel. Jesse’s home town already had one claim to fame, that of being the grave of Rachel, beloved wife of Isaac and the one of the matriarchs and patriarchs of Israel not buried at Hebron. To that distinction Bethlehem could boast of being the home town of the king, Jesse’s son, and Jesse himself is recorded in the genealogies of Jesus. Knowing who you were and where your place in the family, tribe and community were vital and remembering your genealogy was a verification and reminder of that place. Jesus’ earthly genealogies traced through David, as the prophecies had foretold, and also his father Jesse. We remember Jesse especially in the hymn Advent hymn, “Lo, How a Rose E’re Blooming” when we sing “. . . [O}f Jesse’s lineage coming/as men of old have sung.” Not a bad way to be remembered, even millennia later, is it?
Everybody who knows the Christmas story knows who Joseph was. He was Mary’s husband and Jesus’ father, at least, Jesus’ earthly father. There he stands in the Christmas pageant, standing behind Mary while leaning protectively over her and the new baby, and we think we know him. But like many Bible characters, Joseph comes from nowhere and soon vanishes back into the mist. There are two gospel stories, Matthew and Luke, about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and we tend to combine them into one megastory, of which Joseph is an important part but really still a sort of an enigma. He watched over and protected his family even to the point of hightailing it to Egypt when the baby’s life was threatened by Herod. He taught Jesus the work of a tekton, a craftsman and builder who worked with wood. He was present when Jesus was found in the temple in Jerusalem after a family pilgrimage there when Jesus was definitely old enough to discuss scripture and learning with temple officials. After that, though, Joseph quietly slips from the picture, leaving us to wonder about him and his life. Still, we honor him as the patron saint of fathers for his care of a child not of his body but of his heart.
Journey has a lot of connotations, mostly centering around moving from point A to point B. The Advent story is about a journey from individual characters to a couple of miraculous conceptions, Mary’s journey to her cousin Elizabeth’s house, Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem ostensibly for a census and later their journey to Egypt to escape what we call the Slaughter of the Innocents. Advent calls us to make our own journey, a spiritual one, to deepen our faith, more conscientiously practice that faith and spread the light of it to corners of our lives, homes, communities and the world where light is sorely needed. We trace the journeys of the Bible stories and think of our own journeys as a way of understanding where we came from and where we are heading. As each Advent candle is lit, we move a bit further on the road to Christmas and hopefully a bit deeper in our relationship to God. It’s a good time to be quiet and listen for God speaking to us about what God wants us to know and do. It’s our next step on our life journey and it’s an important one.