As I reread the passages of scripture about the birth of Christ and try to imagine living in that time, I am reminded of how many gaps in the story leave me wondering what was happening.
I know about Gabriel’s visit to Mary as well as the angel’s visit to Joseph. I know that soon after Gabriel’s visit Mary made her way to her cousin, Elizabeth, and that she spent three months there. If my imagining were accurate, Mary would have been about three months pregnant when she returned home.
Joseph’s dream and the angel means they are going forward to be husband and wife, but exactly when that happened scripture is silent. To be betrothed in that time and culture was as sacred and as binding as the marriage which is why Joseph could have asked for a divorce when he heard Mary was pregnant. Sources tell us that betrothal could be from six months to a year in length. Did Mary and Joseph go on to be married right after she returned from seeing Elizabeth?
Scripture does not tell me that. The next thing I see clearly is that Caesar Augustus demands the entire world is to be taxed or some translations say, “registered”. This requires a trip to your hometown to be registered.
For Mary and Joseph, it means they need to make preparations to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David, in Judea. The trip of about seventy miles or so would certainly not be easy given Mary’s pregnancy. The trip would require four days minimum if they covered nearly eighteen miles each day, but it seems likely given Mary’s pregnancy that the trip would have been longer.
Pictures in books and Christmas plays portray Mary riding a donkey with Joseph leading the donkey. Usually they are seen alone and yet scripture does not say she rode on a donkey.
If I consider the time and culture, it is likely a group of people traveled together to Bethlehem since the entire world was to be taxed or registered. Neighbors, friends, or family would possibly travel together. This would have provided safety and companionship for the long journey.
The least expensive mode of travel was walking and most people would likely have walked, but perhaps a donkey was made available for Mary given her pregnancy.
Can you imagine the challenge Mary faced?
Her pregnancy seemed to be advanced by then which would make traveling uncomfortable no matter how she made the trip. Walking would be exhausting even if she were used to walking great distances. Riding a donkey (if that occurred) would not be easy either even though donkeys were considered to be strong and sure-footed.
I read about their search of a place to stay in Bethlehem, but what about the nights when they were traveling on the trip to Bethlehem?
I see often in the Old Testament about the importance of hospitality to the Jewish people. A prime example was Abraham. During feast times when the people often traveled to Jerusalem, Jews were expected to take into their homes as many guests as possible to provide shelter, safety and food. Despite all the potential travelers to register, who provided for Mary and Joseph on their long journey?
Scripture does not tell us the route they took. A check of resources suggests there could be two possible routes. The shortest was the trade route through the center of the region, but it was also more demanding. The flatter route was through the Jordan River Valley, but it was longer.
Imagine Mary, perhaps only 14 years old, making this trip during her first pregnancy. It would be reasonable to think it might feel scary.
So many unknowns would have faced her about the trip itself and then there were all those nagging questions about what labor and delivery would really be like. No matter who tells you about it, nothing can quite prepare you for such an experience.
We don’t know how many weeks it was until she was to be delivered. Would she feel concern that she might go into labor and delivery on the trip there?
Visitors to the area can still follow the trek between Nazareth and Bethlehem today and it is known as The Nativity Trail. I think that would be a fascinating walk.
Scripture picks up the story as they reach Bethlehem. We do not know how long Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem before the time came for her to give birth to Jesus. We sometimes get the impression Mary delivered soon after their arrival, but in truth we do not know.
The trip would be a challenge for Joseph as well as he sought to care for Mary, provide as much comfort and assurance as he could. I wonder if Joseph reassured Mary with the stories they both knew well about God’s provision for His chosen people throughout all the generations to that point.
Undoubtedly, they traveled on this incredible journey with many questions, but there were certainties as well. God had chosen them and the Son of God was carried by them to be born in Bethlehem.