The eleventh studio album by the Beatles, released in 1969, takes its name from the location of EMI Studios in London. The cover image of the band striding across Abbey Road quickly became a pop culture icon. That image came to mind as I worked on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas and as I reflected on roads and abbeys. Here’s what I mean…
In new ways this year it occurred to me that nearly all of the stories in this Christmas season feature people who on the move: pregnant Mary with Joseph journeyed from Nazareth to Bethlehem; shepherds left their fields and flocks to go see the baby in a manger; the Magi leave their home to follow a star; and when these stories turn grim, an angel warns Joseph to flee from King Herod’s murderous rage. He then takes Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they become political refugees.
When Herod eventually dies, an angel again visits Joseph and this time tells him that it’s safe for them to return to Nazareth—and so they migrate yet again!
All these external, physical journeys were surely accompanied by internal, spiritual ones. I think Matthew hints at this, in a rather understated way, when he brings the Magi’s story to an end in his second chapter of the Gospel: After the magi presented their gifts to Jesus, Matthew says, they “left for their own country by another road” (2:12).
They went home differently—yes, they did so for fear of Herod but also because they were different people now. We cannot encounter the Word of God in the flesh, Matthew seems to say, and remain unchanged.
Mobility and migration have marked human life from the dawn of time. We are a species constantly in motion, it would seem; whether we have lived in the same neighborhood our entire lives, or whether we’ve lost count of the geographies and communities that we’ve tried to call home, we rarely sit still.
Not all of these migrations are voluntary, of course. We are currently in the midst of a worldwide migration crisis with more displaced people and refugees than at any other time in recorded history—roughly 80 million or so.
That number is only going to grow as our climate catastrophe and ecological collapse push people toward more habitable zones on this planet. It’s already happening around the Great Lakes, the planet’s largest basin of freshwater. Duluth, Minnesota is even advertising itself as a hub for climate refugees!
We are living today in a time of profound, even turbulent change, physical and emotional movements. and chaotic social migrations. We need to face an unraveling world directly because how we live through such a time like this matters. Biblical writers thought so, too, as they frequently linked physical migrations and the spiritual movements of heart and soul.
Theologian William T. Cavanaugh offers some help in making our outer and inner journeys a matter of spiritual practice. In his book Migrations of the Holy, he proposes three different types of human mobility, of what it looks like when humans are on the move.
The first is the mobility of the “migrant,” whose identity is defined by national borders. By controlling who and what crosses those boundaries, nation-states actually control our perceptions of other people. Borders of all kinds create the oppositional dynamics of “us” and “them.”
The second type of mobility belongs to the “tourist.” Borders are important for this type, too, because borders create that sense of “home” and “abroad.” And the tourism industry relies heavily on that distinction between “domestic” and “foreign.” Borders of this type can also exist inside one’s own country, marking the difference between cities and farms, for example, or the industrialized north and the agrarian south, or the establishment East Coast and the Hippie West Coast.
I’m especially intrigued by Cavanaugh’s third way of thinking about mobility, with images of the medieval “pilgrim.” Pilgrimage is a spiritual form of mobility very different from both migration and tourism. Pilgrims embark on a journey of repentance, almost always in company with others, and for the sake of deeper communion with God.
For pilgrims, the destination matters far less than the journey itself; and that journey intentionally joins the outer mode of movement with the inner movement of the Spirit.
Significantly, pilgrims relied on abbeys along their pilgrimage routes, religious communities that were designed as places of hospitality, worship, prayer, and education—which sounds to me like a wonderful model for what it means to be church, and why church still matters, especially at a time of such profound change and disruption as we are living through today.
It is significant that this pandemic has been prompting some truly vital questions that we might not have pondered otherwise, or certainly not to this degree.
I will never say that Covid-19 has in any way been a gift—too many have died, too many are still suffering, too many are debilitated by anxiety; it has been horrible. But it can teach us some lessons, including this: what we used to call “normal” now resides in the pandemic’s shadow, and we’re not going back there, nor should we want to.
That’s an unsettling realization, to put the matter mildly, but journeys of transformation are always disorienting, just as they were for the shepherds, the Magi, and certainly for Mary and Joseph. No one in these stories “returned to normal”—can you imagine those shepherds encountering a heavenly host of angels, running to the stable in Bethlehem, and then just returning to their sheep as if nothing at all had happened?
All of these characters were changed by the journeys they undertook, and for Mary and Joseph, also by the state-sponsored terror they escaped by fleeing to Egypt.
Let us be sure, though, to note this about such stories: God does not make bad things happen just to teach us a lesson—that is not the God of Jesus Christ; set that God aside.
The God we do worship brings good things out of the bad in a process of redemption. Living faithfully with that insight means learning how to trust that God is with us, and that God is coaxing good things out of even the most tragic moments.
That’s a discipline Christians can practice week by week at the Eucharistic Table. We do not give thanks for bad things at the Table; but we do give thanks for the goodness of God in the midst of bad things. At the Table, we remember the Cross as a way to renew our hope in the Resurrection—and that hope is in part made visible by how we live with each other. and the kinds of communities we cultivate together, and the ways we bring new life to blossom precisely where it is least expected.
I am convinced that a lot more than just a few people are hungry for this religious approach to life even when they can’t name it. And just like abbeys were for medieval pilgrims, today’s churches can in fresh ways become places of hospitality, prayer, and education in a time of deep anxiety and stress.
A thriving congregation bearing witness to the transformative love of God would be a truly wonderful thing to emerge from this truly horrific pandemic.
Might it be so, and may all of us, just like those Magi, take that abbey road homeward.