I have spent time living in South West Uganda and I have returned there on a few occasions. Since 1994 when I first travelled to Uganda, I have been to Kisoro, right on the border with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo 5 times. and I am delighted to name their current Bishop as an important personal friend.
The Christmas story seems to be full of journeys – starting, seemingly with Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem with a donkey, the journeys of shepherd and wise men follow before the Holy Family travel as Syrian refugees to Egypt to avoid persecution.
Today’s gospel focuses on another journey that is perhaps often overlooked … but more of that later. ….
People in Kisoro and the districts around spend a lot of their waking hours travelling. Here, below, are two of the journeys they make on a regular basis. ….
The first is to get to church.
Most of us rely on clocks or watches to sort out when to leave for church – in the past we relied on bells to tell us that the service was due to start. And in those days most of us would have walked to church – perhaps a few hundred yards at the most. …… In Kisoro, 10 minutes before the service starts drums begin to play under a tree outside the cathedral.
In 1994 virtually no one had a watch and people would start walking to the cathedral when they heard the drums.
At the start of the service there would be perhaps 30 or 40 people in church – the services would last perhaps 2 to 22 hours and by the time the sermon was well underway (usually something that lasted at least 3/4 hour) the congregation would have swelled to over 700. Most people had heard the drums and then had a 45 minute to an hour walk to get to church.
That is quite a journey for a Sunday morning. ……….. However, it is nothign compared with the journey that many children and women still have to make in the territory around Kisoro. …… A journey to fulfil a more basic need – the need for water.
In 1994, for the first time, I met children who had to walk a 12km round trip each day before going to school – the outward 6km was relatively easy for the jerry cans were empty – the return journey was more arduous – up hill with full 5 gallon jerry cans. As churches in Ashton-under-Lyne, we’ve been able to be part of a continuing process of making this a thing of the past, but there are still today children and adults that make that kind of journey each day to collect water. It is still shocking!
What’s the worst journey you’ve ever experienced?
Was it a long car journey and did you get stuck in traffic? Was it a train journey that seemed never ending. Since being in Uganda my attitude to what counts as inconvenient in my travel arrangements has changed. But I still manage to get impatient. Many of us will be travelling this Christmas to see friends and family. Some of us, long distances.
Luke reminds us that Mary travelled with haste to spend time with her relatives. She’d just been visited by the Angel Gabriel. She’d accepted a role which could only mean that she would be ostracised by her community, a role which might mean the loss of her fiancée – being pregnant when Joseph knew that the baby was not his.
Was she afraid? You bet she was. Where did she turn? To someone she thought might understand. Someone who was also having a child in strange circumstances.
Can you imagine how she was feeling? This journey she took from Nazareth to the hill country of Judaea would have been a long one. 50 to 60 miles – a pregnant woman travelling alone – not even a railway system to take the strain. Can you imagine what it was like, walking all that way? How long would the journey have taken on foot? What dangers would she have faced? Why did she leave Nazareth in haste? Had people found out? Was she at risk of being stoned (for that was the punishment for women who had sex outside wedlock)? What would she have been thinking during the days that she was travelling?
How will I be received? Will they understand? Will they too condemn me? … So much time to think!
What must it have felt like to hear Elizabeth’s welcome: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb?”
The immense sense of relief – someone understands.
We know the story so well that we can easily miss the strength of the different emotions that Mary must have felt – fear of what others might say and do, joy at Elizabeth’s acceptance and love.
Is it surprising that she bursts into song? One of the most enduring songs of worship.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my
Saviour; he has looked with favour on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed; the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
There are many journeys in the Bible – many have this element of fear attached to them, with questions in the mind of the traveller about how they will be received.
Do you remember Jacob wrestling with God because he does not want to face his brother who is ahead of him on the road?
Or what about the Prodigal Son – wandering home wondering how he would be received?
In both cases the welcome they received far exceeded their expectations.
We’re often told that we can look on our lives as a journey. Its particularly true at Christmas time – whether in reality when we visit friends and relatives, or in our minds and hearts as we revisit significant events in our lives.
For some, Christmas holds out the promise of joy or the promise of renewal; for others, the journey through our memories is long and arduous, and like those Ugandan children we carry heavy loads. The journey brings back feelings of loneliness, of loved ones who have died, relationships which have gone sour. The journey through this Christmas period can be both light and dark, a mixture of joy and sorrow.
As Mary travelled the difficult road south to Judaea, she discovered not the blackness of despair but the joy of acceptance. Elizabeth shared her experiences and rejoiced with her in God’s involvement in her life.
Both Elizabeth and Mary can be models for us this Christmas – Elizabeth offering love and acceptance, offering hospitality, challenges us to make our homes ones of welcome – places were the weary and heavy laden traveller – the one struggling with life or the burden of unwanted memories – can find a resting place of love and care.
Mary encourages those of us struggling with this season to take risks in sharing our fears, our hurts, the loneliness of our journey, with others who will understand. Mary encourages us, perhaps above all, to know that however long or tortuous our journey, just like those Ugandan Christians at the cathedral in Kisoro, when we approach
the communion table we receive God’s loving welcome – we are at home.