Journeying to Bethlehem

Journeying to Bethlehem
The star that guided the Magi guides us today, writes Paula Freney


In my family, the Christmas season always began with the crib being taken down from the attic, out of its cardboard box, and placed on the mantlepiece in our front room. It was bought before my parents’ first Christmas together, a small, wooden structure with a moss-covered roof and floor, waiting every year to be filled with what’s left of the old, faded figures.

Our Advent period was spent playing with the figures, my siblings and I would rearrange them in the limited space and would take turns placing the baby Jesus in each year on Christmas morning.

What has always struck me about this crib scene is not the animals asleep, or the humble shepherds standing before Jesus in awe, or even the figures of the holy family. That all seemed to fit. What stood out were the three figures clothed in rich, colourful garments with crowns on their heads, carrying ornate gifts and seemingly unfazed by the squalor around them. These three figures are those of the Magi, the Three Wise Men.

Traditionally these men are named Caspar, Malchior and Balthazar – but in reality, we know very little about them. They left their home, most likely in modern day Iran or Iraq, to make the long journey to Bethlehem, to a cave, a poor family, and a new born child, guided by an unusual star in the night sky.

It’s an amazing story, and yet, what I find most notable about this journey is the way in which the Holy Spirit is working. He prompts these three pagan men, gentiles who were not part of the ‘chosen people’, in their search for truth. Ultimately, he brings them to their knees before the Son of God. It’s a story that we can all identify with in one way or another, that feeling of being guided and prompted by something more to something more.

Before I began my journey as a missionary, I had spent two years studying art and design in college. I gave my all to my work and tied my worth to what I made with my hands. I was skilled and talented and had worked hard since I was 13 with this one goal in mind: to someday make a living from my art.

Eventually, the cracks began to show. It was sparked with the loss of my grandmother, then with the death of a good friend, followed by moving to a new city and being surrounded by new people, all in a short period of time.

It was at this point that I began to feel a draw, a draw away from what was comfortable, what was known. But with no direct end in sight, and only the dim light of this call to follow, I felt frozen. And yet, in this darkness the Lord guided me forward. The call that I felt continued to grow stronger and the desire for more wouldn’t leave me. Eventually, with no view of my next step, I blindly walked forward.

Having taken a leave of absence from college, I was immediately asked: “Have you ever thought about doing NET?”

Even though the woman who asked me this question has no memory of this interaction, it was this prompt that had me think deeper about a year of mission. I decided to apply, and after submitting my application and completing my interview I felt convicted that this was what I was being asked to do. And so, on August 15, 2016, I packed my suitcase and made my way to Donegal the next day to begin my year with NET Ireland.

I was placed on the road team with nine others, travelling and meeting people young and old all around the country, and the even the world. I don’t know what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t what I got.

I found myself removed from all that I ever knew; from my home, my family and friends, my work. It was in this time, travelling from town to town, never knowing where my next home would be, that I saw that light, that star, even clearer.

I came with the certainty that I would give one year, and no more. I was going to give God everything for the 10 months, and then I would return to what I knew and what I loved. But I soon found, when I returned to my course and what I had thought to be my raison d’etre, that what was being asked of me was to sever my relationship with my God in order to achieve success in the world. And so, with no knowledge of where this star would lead me next, I left my course entirely.

Once again, it has led me back to NET, where I currently serve on mission staff as a supervisor of the road team.

In retrospect, this star, this call, whatever you want to call it, has been a constant in my journey – from childhood until today.

The light that shines through the darkness draws me back, repeatedly, to the path that leads me to Jesus. It has taken me longer than I would like to admit, but I now know that this star is the Holy Spirit, leading me, guiding me and prompting me.

I know he will shine throughout my life, and this time in our Church is a yearly reminder of this reality. There are times of waiting, preparation and times of celebration, but ultimately, he is always guiding us back to the God who knows us, loves us, and has saved us.

Paula Freney is a member of the NET Ministries Ireland mission staff.