I'm not much of a Chris Rea fan, but at this time of year it's not easy to avoid Christmas pop music, and Rea's Driving Home for Christmas, with its easy-listening ambiance and its feelgood sense of anticipation of a warm homecoming, has won its place in the canon of festive greatest hits. As you listen, you can just imagine it; the frustration of the 'top to toe tailbacks' tempered by the hope that 'soon there'll be a freeway' and home will be within reach. If you're interested, here he is talking about how he wrote the song: 'It just felt Christmassy, you know.'
One little line expresses something of just how deep the need to travel to a place which we know to be our true home is: 'get my feet on holy ground.' The American theologian Frederick Beuchner wrote a book called 'The Longing for Home', in which he simply states that 'joy is home.' It's joy, or the expectation of joy, that keeps Rea going through traffic jam; it's joy that has him singing at a standstill. Homecoming and holiness mingle as one; there is something holy about every homecoming, and holiness itself, the holiness that it is awareness of the presence of God in the midst of human life, is the deepest homecoming anyone could know.
This week's Old Testament reading speaks of another road home, a highway not unlike Rea's freeway. Like Rea, the 'ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing'. Expressions of the return to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon took on many forms in the fifth century BC and afterwards; here, in Isaiah, it is pictured as a singing homecoming. But it's not just the people who sing; the very landscape itself bursts into song, as Isaiah 35:1-2 has it: 'The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the
desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.' In this vision, the hills really are alive with the sound of music. But unlike in this famous song, the ground doesn't sing out because it is so verdantly beautiful that it can't but sing; it sings out because it is so parched and exhausted that its transformation into a route home is miraculous beyond any expectation.
Much has been written about what it means to be in spiritual exile, to be far from home. It's a potent image, especially for a generation who are so likely to have moved around a bit, like I have. Maybe, though, it's one of those metaphors that only makes sense if you know instantly,instinctively, what it's getting at, if you know somewhere hidden within how far from home you've strayed. I suspect that for such people, home is much closer than we think.
Christmas is a time for homecoming, and, just like Chris Rea in his car, we might feel as if spiritually, we are stuck in a traffic jam with no sign of it clearing. But this passage from Isaiah tells us that there is a freeway up ahead, and it is to be found in the least promising of places, in the dry and difficult places in our lives. Take that road, the prophet encourages us, and joy and gladness will find you; sorrow and sighing will flee away. Maybe you might catch yourself humming on the way.