Walking to Bethlehem

Luke 1:26-35, 38, 2:1-4 First Baptist Church, Swan River, Manitoba

by Craig Larson

Here’s a ditty to turn over in your mind as you walk. Written by W. H. Davies it goes: “Now shall I walk or shall I ride?” “Ride,” Pleasure said; “Walk,” Joy replied. I owe many things to my parents, not the least is my love for walking. I would rather walk than ride any day and I want to invite you to come along. But before we go too far down this trail together, I need to tell you up front that walking can become an addiction as deadly as that of any crack-addict, as time-consuming as that of any stock-market trader, as wasteful as watching soap-operas. But even when driven to these extremes, it is a glorious madness, and I recommend it with a passion. “Ride,” Pleasure said; “Walk,” Joy replied.

Here is something to think of as you walk—this time from Gandhi: “There is more to life than increasing its speed.” I carry things with me when I go for a walk—water, a space blanket, and my thoughts. The water I use regularly. The space blanket I have never used, but it represents a great comfort factor should an emergency ever arise. But my thoughts—now those I regularly and slowly ruminate. When I am alone under the sky I nearly always find that I process my thoughts with greater clarity. When my conscience has been over-worked, walking seems to set my mind free. When walking in solitude, it is as if my body’s rhythms oil the hinges of my mind, thoughts that I already subconsciously know burst forth, and the world makes better sense. As I walk, my mind relaxes and ideas fall into place.

That is how it was when I started thinking about Mary this week. Having read and pondered Luke’s words, I was out for a walk across the valley. Suddenly there she was, walking alongside me, on her way to Bethlehem, great with child. As nice as images are of Joseph leading a donkey with Mary riding, there is no evidence to support the image. Historically, most peasants have walked and still do—often until moments of a delivery. I found myself thinking that things were becoming more focused in her life as she walked. “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

Today in North America we are not walkers; we are a race of riders. So today I invite you to dismount. “Walk,” Joy replied. Join Mary and me as we walk to Bethlehem. Here’s another saying to think about as we journey together—this time from the mouth of an angel: “Greetings, you are highly favoured. The Lord is with you.” It’s a fact. Anyone who becomes addicted to walking sooner or later turns their sights beyond the confines of home and neighbourhood, cities or towns or villages. While walking with Mary my mind turned to the time when Jesus had grown to be a man. The Gospel of Mark tells us that he rose early, left the village, and walked alone out across the countryside. There he heard what God had to say to him. I began to wonder if Jesus owed his pattern of walking and listening to his mother, to Mary walking to Bethlehem, mulling over the ways of God as she moved step by step across the earth—stunned(!) that out there, under the sweep of the universe itself, she was special. “Greetings, you are highly favoured. The Lord is with you.”

Another quandary to mull over as we walk to Bethlehem: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” In due course, a person who finds emancipation in walking starts dreaming of truly wild places—locales that are far from any road. But psychological liabilities arise at this point. People accustomed to sleeping in official campsites can lay forth a litany of fears when invited to step into true wildness. What if I run out of food? Or I am chased by wildlife? Or I meet a psychopath? It is true such things might happen in uncharted spaces, but they are highly unlikely. The real barrier to entering uncharted territory is the unknown. I once read a story of a young man who had hiked a trail until it came to the edge of a wilderness. Beyond was only thick, dark undergrowth. To him it looked impassable. As he rested before heading home, he heard a noise. He expected the worst when all at once two men carrying backpacks emerged from that impossible country, tanned and sinewy. What he remembered most about these two was that they were extraordinarily happy. He spoke with them briefly. One of the backpackers made this comment, “There’s some beautiful country back there.” After saying their good-byes, they parted. Our hiker was left sitting there staring at that huge, black, mysterious wilderness, within which lay some beautiful country. Learning to walk anywhere is not so hard once you have broken through that formidable first barrier. Then you are truly free—free to walk into the wildest places you dare explore; free to walk from dawn to dusk with no unnatural interruptions; free to make your way toward some distant goal that’s captured your imagination. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

There are more common things that make walking a delight. So here is our final thought to ruminate as we walk to Bethlehem: “I am the Lord’s servant.” Long before the madness of walking has taught you its greater gifts, you will begin to notice many simple and valuable things. There are comforting constants—the rhythm of your stride over open ground, the creaking of leather and nylon, and the rhythmic bumping of loose items on your pack and person. There’s the deep satisfaction of being conscious of your diverse body parts, each working with singular purpose. These comfortable pleasures come from just being about the business of walking. Conversely, ordinary annoyances also get amplified when you walk. In everyday life you hardly notice your need to take a break, but when you walk, taking a ten-minute rest to boil water with a compact pressure-stove (a miracle!)—and then the refreshment of tea leaves (oooh) brings sheer delight (aaah).

Whether pleasure or annoyance, something about moving slowly across the landscape brings a re-remembering more and more as you begin your life’s journey that happiness has to do with just being who God made you to be. Walking to Bethlehem—how impossible was it for Mary to harbour any crude or crass assumption that the world was made for her! Instead, came the realization that she had been chosen because of her overly-ordinary trust in God—which any walker can testify is miraculous. “I am the Lord’s servant.”

Mary walked with ditties, ponderings, sayings, quandaries, musing as she made her way—as we walk—toward Bethlehem. “Greetings, you are highly favoured, the Lord is with you.” “I am the Lord’s servant.” “How will this be since I am a virgin?” Walking—I recommend it with passion. Sometimes I find myself wondering what my life would be like without walking? What would my relationship to God be without it? Naturally, not everyone understands. I have found few people who understand the kind of walking of which I speak here. I have suggested walking to people who jet from one distant location to another and people who ride from one tourist locale to another. And I have almost been ridden out of town on a rail! For years I have been told that my commitment to walking is none other than a form of “escaping from reality.” But why do people consider chilled ice tea in a restaurant more real than water out of a mountain creek? Why is a town’s sidewalk seem more real than a carpet of mosses or ferns? What makes riding in an airplane more real than a flight of white pelicans gliding in unison across a lake? What makes following culturally prescribed patterns more real than a young woman, nearing the birth of a child conceived as only God knows how, coming closer step by step and phrase by curious phrase, from the lips of an angel, to her own destiny? “You are favoured.” “I am a servant.” “How can this be?”

Luke’s story, objectively speaking, is about Mary. But I found myself considering deeply what it opens up in my own daily life as I walked with her toward her destiny? What about my journey—or your journey? If you desire to go for a walk between now and Christmas, if you choose to mull over God’s words to Mary, if you choose to finally break free on your walkings, if you desire to plunge into the undergrowth of your own spiritual life, there are things that always seem to weigh on one’s mind at the beginning of any journey. “What if I run out of water?” “What if I fall what will become of me?” “What if I don’t hear God?”

With regard such concerns about walking, I have heard the excellent advice that “experience cures nonsense.” I believe it is equally true of our personal walks with God. How much closer Mary must have been to God as time wore on, as things began to work themselves out, as she saw Jesus grow, enter ministry, and be revealed in glory. It all came from first steps, first steps on a journey down an unfamiliar path that looked as though it led into a wilderness. As time came and went, she discovered it was a path that lay close to the marrow of her own daily life­—small towns; premature pregnancy; possibilities of divorce; census; taxes; masses of people on the move; a slow and steady walk to a stable; the dispatching of death-squads; and the flight to Egypt.

Walking to Bethlehem was only the beginning of her journey both as an adult and as a person of faith. She was learning, as every walker know, that the less there is between you and the environment, the more immediate and real life becomes. A person learns infinitely more about the ocean if he or she rows a boat across the English Channel, than if they sit on the deck of a luxury liner. Astronauts are sent into space on the end of an umbilical cord tethered to their space ship because they learn more by doing that than by peering at the craters of the moon through a telescope. And, we learn more about the earth and our place on it if we walk than if we race by in a motorcar—it’s just a fact. A blacktop road takes us only so far into the secrets of a region, a gravel road brings us one step closer, and a footpath is better still. But, it is not until you break free and head out across a rolling plain of waving grass that you get to read the details of life—drifting snow forming dunes across my hay fields, a suspicious coyote a half-mile away trotting toward cover as I approach, or the particular tilt of a patch of trees on a hillside hinting at a recent shift in the underlying rock formation.

In a similar vein, we may choose to hold back from familiarity with God. If we loosen our restrictions on how much we choose to trust God, we come closer to connecting the ciphers of our own lives. Once you begin to connect—merely connect—it becomes easier and easier to seek God day by day by day in all things, in all places, right here and right now. Not surprisingly, then, that we should be making our pilgrimage to Bethlehem, looking for God once again, in of all places, a manger.