As I’ve gone about my travels, I’ve been asking people if they have any special plans for the holiday season. And there’s been common theme: “We’re going home for Christmas.” Or “All the kids are coming home to celebrate with us this year; it’s going to be a full house!” Or, “It’s just going to be the two of us, having a nice quiet Christmas at home.”
But I’ve also heard a concurrent theme through some of the answers I get; one with bitter sweet overtones: “Oh, money is kind of tight this year, so everyone’s just staying home this Christmas.” Or, “We usually go spend Christmas with family, but because we’ve both had some recent health issues, we’re not going to try to travel. So, we’ll just stay home. But at least we’ll be together.”
And then, there are many who have lost loved ones, this past year, and are now wondering if Christmas will ever seem the same again.
In the African-American Christian Church, a funeral is called a `homegoing’ service. It’s a lovely tradition that marks the end of pain and suffering in this world and celebrates a loved one’s return to that place from which they came.
Home and Christmas. The two words seem almost synonymous. Together they represent the soulful connection between the sanctity of place and a longing of the heart.
There’s a wonderful episode of the old MASH series, in which has Hawkeye suffering from acture insomnia. He goes for days in sort of a waking nightmare of trying to repair the ravages of war by surgically putting the pieces of young men back together, slowly realizing in his heart that no matter how many surgeries he does, he can never heal all that needs healing.
At one point, burdened with lacked of sleep and dulled senses, and racked with raw emotions, Hawkeye makes a midnight trek to Radar’s office, to asked him to send a telegram to President Harry S. Truman which simply reads, “Who’s responsible?”
As he sat there in the office, waiting for Radar to complete his appointed task, Hawkeye, in what I think is one of the most poignant scenes in the series, starts to sing:
“I’ll be home for Christmas.
You can plan on me.
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree
Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams.”
Maybe the nostalgia we feel at this time of the year is not only about yearning for the past; maybe it’s also partly about yearning for something we have yet to fully experience. Maybe we love those old Christmas songs because they express the longing which is the heartbeat of this season; longing for a place and time as we remember it to be—a place now long gone by. Or, maybe, for some idyllic place we dream of yet finding one day.
Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor shares what home means to her. She writes: “My house is much more than my residence. It is my sanctuary, the place where I rest; where I retire beyond the reach of the noisy world, where I am fed. It is where my bed is and my books and my Great Aunt Alma’s quilts. My house is a promise I make to myself when I get too tired to go on – `you can go home now’.”[i]
“Do you know what I mean by home?” wrote Tennessee Williams. “I don’t regard home as a…well, as a place, a building…a house…of wood, bricks, stone. I think of a home as being a thing that people have between them in which each can…well, nest, rest, live in, emotionally speaking. Home is what that old flannel robe with the corduroy patches on the sleeves symbolizes.”
Frederick Buechner, who thinks and writes a lot about home, says that home is the place “where you feel, or did once feel, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you belong, where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment.”[ii]
Or, as the poet Robert Frost said: “Home is that place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
The whole story of the Bible is really just about a search for a home. The heart of Hebrew Scripture—the Torah—ends with an exhausted Moses and all his weary companions in exile standing on the shores of the Jordan River. Trekking for decades through the wilderness, they long for a place they can call their own; the land where the promises to their forefathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—could find fulfillment at last. But when the story ends they are not home yet. From the threshold of a mountain top they look longingly across the waters. And that’s where the story ends. Not with a homecoming—but only with the promise of home.
Homecoming is at heart of the Christmas story as well.
The story does not begin in Bethlehem. That same longing which drove the ancient Hebrew people through the wilderness, now leads the characters of the Christmas story toward a certain place; a certain light—toward the fulfillment of a promise.
The Christmas story ends with a wandering couple and their newborn Babe in a home that is not really their home—in a manger rude. And the Child under their care would ultimately grow up with “nowhere to lay his head” [Mt. 20:8], for he “came unto his own, and his own received him not” [Jn. 1:11].
Perhaps the longing within the Christian heart which accompanies this holy season emerges from an inherent sense that our search for home is not quite over yet.
And maybe that is part of what brings us here on this most holy of nights.
“Homesickness,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, is “God’s tug at our hearts, a kind of homing instinct planted in each of us.”
And if leaving home is a denial of the spiritual truth that we belong to God, then coming home is the place, `where we can hear the voice of God that says, `You are my beloved, upon you my favor rests.’[iii]
As Christians sojourning through this world, we are in a sense homeless. However, as Fred Buechner observes, “To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless is to have homes all over the place but not to be really at home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no real peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”[iv]
Christian activist Shane Claiborne experienced this truth first hand when he left his home in East Tennessee to take the Gospel message to the slums of Calcutta and the war zones of Iraq. He attests: “I saw one woman in a crowd as she struggled to get a meal from one of the late-night food vans. When we asked if the meals were really worth the fight, she said, “Oh yes, but I don’t eat them myself. I get them for another homeless lady—an elderly woman around the corner who cannot fight for a meal.
“I saw a street kid get $20 panhandling outside of a store and then immediately run inside to share it with his friends. We saw a homeless man lay a pack of cigarettes in the offering plate because it was all he had.
“I met a blind street musician who was viciously abused by some young guys who would mock her, curse her, and one night even sprayed Lysol in her eyes as a practical joke. As we held her that night, one of us said, “There are a lot of bad folks in the world, aren’t there?”
She said, “Oh, but there are a lot of good ones too. And the bad ones make you—the good ones—seem even sweeter.”
“We met a little girl who was homeless and asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. “I want to own a grocery store,” she said. We asked her why, and she said, “So I can give out food to all the hungry people.”
After he returned home, Shane reflected: “Mother Teresa used to say, `In the poor we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.’ Now I knew what she meant.”
Maybe home isn’t as far off as we think it is.
Maybe home is not some prophetic Promised Land where milk and honey flow.
Maybe it isn’t some paradisiacal place free of hunger and want, conflict and confusion, failure and need. Maybe home can be found right where we live; here within our own hearts and souls and minds; right here among the people we care most about. And maybe home can be found wherever – and with whomever – we find ourselves.
Maybe home is found where broken hearts are mended and yearning hearts are comforted. And maybe home is found on those little stops along the way—wherever hopeful souls are following their deepest dreams.
And maybe what we long for most is to have all the broken and scattered pieces of our lives brought back together in ways that we seem unable to do ourselves—but can only be accomplished through Emmanuel: God-with-us. The one the psalmist calls “our dwelling place in all generations.” A place of rest for weary exiles.[v]
The long, arduous journey, which is the story of the Bible ends with this affirmation in the Book of Revelation: “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them.”
It’s been said that, “Home is where the heart is.”
we Christian sojourners – we Christmas exiles – home is wherever the Christ
Child is being born anew in human hearts. May each of us, this Christmas,
discover our true home – and find rest and peace at last – in Jesus Christ.
[i] Taylor, Barbara Brown, The Preaching Life, Cowley Pub. January 1993.
[ii] Buechner, Frederick, The Longing for Home, Harper Collins, 2009.
[iv] Ibid. Buechner.