“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled….so all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.”
I never gave much thought to that first line of the Nativity story until my own little family moved to Miami almost ten years ago and began to travel—I mean really travel—on Christmas Day. Growing up, Christmas had always been a day to spend at home with family. It included dressing up for Mass and lots of wrapping paper, French toast with powdered sugar in the morning and a ham in the evening. If we got in the car it was to drive a half mile to church and perhaps five miles to my grandmother’s. But in midlife, with my extended family often needing to move the holiday back a couple days for all of us to be there, Christmas Day itself sometimes had to be spent on the road. Miami was a nineteen hour drive from St. Louis. And that was if you hit no traffic or bad weather. (A big “if”!)
On those long Christmas journeys, I discovered that there were many, many people who were not at home on Christmas Day but were filling Waffle Houses—one of the few 24 hour restaurant chains open along the highway. They were staying at the Motel 6 and catnapping at rest stops. One Christmas morning, I met a young man on the treadmill in the Hampton Inn exercise room. He, his wife, and toddler had driven six hours the day before to attempt a reconciliation with his mother-in-law, but the reunion had not gone as hoped and she’d kicked them out.
On the first Christmas, Caesar Augustus prodded the whole world into movement and seemingly it has been that way ever since. To this day, if you want to find Jesus, Mary and Joseph during Christmas Octave, they are still out there wandering the highways and byways trying to get to their families, trying to get to their places of origin.
I came in contact with that reality again this Christmas when my flight to California was one of those thousands of flights cancelled this holiday season. Anxious to be enrolled somewhere, I once more joined all those pilgrims on the road looking for their respective Bethlehems. Drove through sleet in Paducah. Rain in Nashville. Fog in the mountains outside Chattanooga. Saw briefly the path a tornado had passed through near Cadiz. And, once again, passed Jesus, Mary and Joseph at the Quik Stop getting gas and a 16 oz. Pepsi to share.
I pray that your own Christmas travels this year were safe and smooth. That you managed to stay healthy and find an inn with a room. And whether your travels involved a half mile to church or an overbooked flight across the country, I hope you met the Holy Family somewhere along the way and knew that you were part of a story much bigger than your own.
A podcast episode to kick off the New Year: This week many schools are trying to reopen in the midst of record-breaking Covid numbers. Dr. Tim Uhl of Catholic School Matters and I talk here about the challenges school principals and teachers are facing right now and some strategies for talking through those challenges. Feel free to share with your favorite Catholic school friends!
(Photo credit: Durmus Kavcioglu)