The Advent and the Christmas readings are full of journeys. On hearing the news that Elizabeth is expecting a child, Mary sets out immediately to walk to the hill-country of Judea. This is a joyous journey at the end of which we hear the Hail Mary and the Magnificat. This meeting between Mary and Elizabeth is an oasis of love; a refreshment before the births of their sons.
Mary has other journeys before the birth of Jesus. She stays until the birth of John the Baptist, then makes the return journey now three months pregnant. Nothing is said of that since it pales into insignificance alongside the journey to Bethlehem to fulfil the requirements of the occupying forces. Here we see oppressive bureaucracy as a control mechanism, people being compelled to travel, no concessions to anyone. We can imagine Mary being jolted every inch of the way, and saying to herself, ‘Are we not there yet?’
The stable provides a welcome point of stillness where the birth of the newborn Jesus can be celebrated and shared. But it is a point of stillness which becomes a magnet for another journey. The Magi are on their way. The star is giving them the answer to the question, Are we there yet? But then there is no star and the magi find themselves caught up in the ruthless web of the dreams of Herod. He uses the prophecy like a census document to winkle out the information his paranoia demands. Only another journey, the flight into Egypt, saves Jesus from being included in the wiping out of a generation of boy children.
There is an extraordinary irony here. Written into the psyche of the people of Israel is the event of the Exodus. Egypt is the place you escape from, a place of oppression, slavery and the wiping out of the male children. Now Egypt is the place for the escaping male child to find refuge. Was his birth ever registered in the end? Did he need papers, this little refugee? Caravaggio has a wonderful example of the much loved theme in art and carols of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt. There is rest, there is hope, there is a future.
But January is also a month when we are asked to think of journeys which were not characterised by rest, hope and the sense of a future. In the northern darkness of January we are asked to think about Holocaust Memorial Day. We think of all those trains going east: straw-lined cattle trucks a million miles away from the stillness of the Bethlehem stable and its straw. There is no view of the stars on the journey. The wisdom of the east, which sees God with us in the humanity of the child, is submerged in the logic of inhumanity which sees no place for God being with his people. The question ‘are we there yet?’ Now drips with horror. There are some sparks in the darkness, the Kindertransport and Oskar Schindler are memories to warm the heart.
‘Journeys’ is the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day 2014. We are asked to remember not just the journeys which characterised the Shoah (the Jewish word for the Holocaust), but other enforced journeys. Principal among those journeys is the forced depopulation of the cities of Cambodia in 1975 by the Khmer Rouge. One of the speakers at the national gathering in Stirling will be Arn Chorn Pond a survivor of Pol Pot’s reign of terror. Another will be a Jewish survivor called Alfred Munzuer.
These speakers will help us remember. They will help us remember people we never knew, but by bringing them into our hearing and consciousness, we will give honour to their names. They will also help us remember what we can easily forget: human beings’ capacity to be inhuman. We join in the cry ‘Never again’, but do we remain sufficiently alert to where it is happening again.
There is a moment in Luke’s gospel which sums this up for me. In the course of the trial and the crucifixion, people like Pilate, the authorities , the crowds try to stick a name or a title on Jesus. The one whose birth took place in Bethlehem because of the census of recording names, is about to be removed from the register by this most dehumanising of deaths. In the midst of all this inhumanity, the good thief calls him by his simple given name, Jesus. I am remembering who you are, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, can we do the remembering for people who have been forgotten and build a new humanity out of the debris of inhumanity. This is called resurrection. Are we there yet?
James Crampsey SJ