My Grandmother died this past year. So did Kim Jong-Il, Sarah Jane Smith, Christopher Hitchens, Vaclav Havel, Anne MacCaffrey, Muammar Gaddafi, Al Davis, Steve Jobs, Tom Wilson, Cliff Robertson, many Russian Hockey players, and Betty Ford. Also, my friends Giuli and Rich had their first baby a couple of weeks ago. They named him Christopher. He is named, of course, after Saint Christopher. Do you know the legend behind the saint?
According to Wikipedia, Christopher was a big, tough guy, who wanted to serve the most powerful king. So, he found the most powerful human in the world and served him, until he saw the king cross himself at the thought of the devil. So, Christopher went to serve the devil (who was obviously more powerful). But then, one day, the devil shuddered at the invocation of the name of Christ. So, Christopher left his service to devote himself to Christ.
He stationed himself at the side of a wide and treacherous river. When folks needed to cross it, he’d carry them along on his back. One day, a babe (somehow) came to him and (somehow) requested passage. Christopher picked up the child, who has quite a bit heavier than he seemed. He placed him on his back and strode into the waters. With each step, the child grew heavier. Christopher grew worried that he wouldn’t be able to complete the journey, because the burden of the child was overwhelming. Finally, with the last of his strength, he made it to the far side. He asked the child its name. It was, it turned out, the Christ child. It is from this legend that Christopher became the patron saint of travelers (it is also likely the origin of his name, which means Christ-bearer).
The Book of Mormon also tells the story of a group of travelers (several of them, actually). Jared, the brother of Jared, and their family undergo a journey that seems to me reminiscent of Christopher’s. Confronted with a long voyage through the heart of the ocean, in the dark and crushing depths, the brother of Jared requested light sources to make the journey bearable. And God provided (revealing himself in the process).
The good thing about a journey, over a river, through an ocean, across a continent, is that it exemplifies finitude. We start at one place and end at another (or possibly at the same place, but that is still a journey). A sense of a beginning and an ending are essential elements for any trip. Until you reach the destination, the trip has not ended.
Alma gets this. In his sermon to the Ammonihahites, he explains why mortality is so important.
And we see that comes upon mankind, yea, the death which has been spoken of by Amulek, which is the temporal death; nevertheless there was a space granted unto man in which he might repent; therefore this life became a probationary state; a time to prepare to meet God; a time to prepare for that endless state which has been spoken of by us, which is after the resurrection of the dead. (Alma 12:24)
It is the reality of death that makes mortality a journey. We all know our destination. We don’t know the time or the means, but we know where we are headed. Whatever else we may be (infinite? a blip in the universe?) we have a beginning and an end.
The finitude of mortality elevates our mortal experience. If we had all the time in the world, then sin and agency simply wouldn’t matter. If we were infinite, all our choices could be corrected, all our mistakes smoothed over. The possibility of failure is a feature of mortality, not a bug. Choice matters here, because we will most likely not get another one.
And so, we come here and work out our probation, doing one thing and not another, making wise and foolish choices, straining and failing to become like Gods. But we are not alone. As the St. Christopher story tells us, Christ also made the journey. The infinite God (omni-whatever) shed his divinity (mostly) and gave himself a beginning and an ending. And, as the same story reminds us, it began with him squalling in a stable, a newcomer to mortality, just like the rest of us. The Lord God of Heaven (in the Old Testament) clothed himself in mortal flesh (so he could succor our needs, so he could fill his bowels with mercy toward us, so he could take upon himself the lived experience of every man, woman and child) and made his own journey. And, like us, he knew his destination.
As it is Christmas, let us consider that we are all travelers, like the Christ-child before us. Like our ancestors, like our friends and enemies and like the strangers we pass in the street. All immortal beings (or blips on the radar) who briefly enter this world in this way and make ourselves someone by choosing what we do. We can’t help but be lights in the darkness, referents for those who follow. Where we lead is rarely a direct path to God, but that is what Christ, our true light and fellow traveler is for. May you have a year that gets you closer to who you wish to be before you get to where you’re going. Amen.