‘Home is where the heart is.’ It’s as true a cliché as any.
One of the consequences of having a rather itinerant childhood is that for me the idea of ‘home’ is not connected to a place. I never know what to say when asked about my ‘hometown’, and I never talk about visiting family as ‘going home.’
While in many ways my life has been very privileged, I do feel like I’ve missed out a bit in not having a ‘home’ in this sense. We are both a social species and one that tends to lay down deep roots in places, so it makes sense that I’ve always longed to feel so connected to a place, its community, its people, and its life that I would feel ‘at home’ in it.
That kind of longing for home comes to the fore in our culture this time of year, and I don’t just mean because of all the war-era songs “dreaming of a white Christmas just like the ones I used to know” or promising “I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.” As important as those ‘home-going’ urges are during the holiday season, on a deeper level, it’s a feeling that pervades the entirely of Advent, particularly in the texts from the Hebrew Bible that dream of the end of the Exile.
Today’s reading from Isaiah is one such text. The prophet offers a vision of a highway in the desert for the throngs of exiles returning home to Jerusalem:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid…
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isa 40.1-3).
I wrote last week about the huge number of images the Scriptures use for salvation. One of the most pervasive is the image of home. Home could actually be said to be the guiding image of the whole Hebrew Bible: the promise of home (Genesis through Deuteronomy), the making of home (Joshua through 2 Samuel), the losing of home (1-2 Kings and many of the Prophets), the longing for home (Prophets), and finally, returning home (Prophets, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah). One could rightly argue that these promises are actually for land, but this land is not conceived of as territory on a map, but as a place that would be theirs, where they would belong — in other words, their home.
The Christian faith both accepts and amends this theme of home-going. It argues that the Bible’s hopes and dreams of a true home were never going to be able to be truly fulfilled by temporal, earthly solutions. A human king, a political state, an earthly home would never truly meet the longing of the human heart.
With this in mind, it’s no accident that when Jesus picks up on the image of home, it isn’t a promise of a land or city stronghold. Rather, he tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” (John 14.2). He’s offering them the promise of home, but an eternal home in God that can never be taken away, from which they can never be exiled. When asked for directions to this home (the disciples never being exactly quick-witted), he answers, “I am the way” (v6). The way home is the way of Jesus.
Many of us will be returning to our earthly homes this season, others of us not. Either way there’s a beautiful lesson for us. For the joy of home is a foretaste of our heavenly home in God; and the longing for home reminds us that no earthly home can ever truly fulfill that longing. For our true homes are in God, and the way there — the way prepared for us in the wilderness — is the way of our humble lord, whose coming we await and celebrate this time of year.