NOTE: The Bible gives us very few details on Joseph and Mary's long journey. I've taken liberty here, but perhaps not as much as we might think.
“We have to go,” Joseph said. “I’m so sorry.”
Mary collapsed with exhaustion at the news.
When the angel said she would give birth to “the Son of God,” she imagined an easy pregnancy. That didn’t happen. She gained weight, retained water and felt nauseous just like her friends. In fact, her older relative Elizabeth, also carrying a baby worthy of angelic proclamation, seemed to have it easier.
And now this.
“A census is declared,” Joseph’s distress was clear. “We have to go to Bethlehem. This is the worst case scenario.”
The penalty for missing the census was slavery or an unbearable tax rate – the Romans made it clear this was not to be missed.
Mary’s eyes misted over.
She had never traveled as far as Bethlehem. The journey would take seven days minimum, and that’s for someone who isn’t nine months pregnant.
How long would it take?
It was hard to say. On foot. Through hill country. 90 miles. The census deadline was 14 days away.
“We have to leave tomorrow morning,” Joseph said. Mary and Joseph looked at each other and prayed. “God, we need help.”
She reflected back to seeing the angel who told her about Jesus; by now, it seemed like a dream. What did the angel say again? It would have been nice to get a second visit, especially right now.
Surely I won’t die on this journey, Lord…
The road to Bethlehem was notorious for tragedy, especially in winter. The temperatures dropped into the 30s. Cold, hard rains were common. Other dangers awaited – bears, lions and wild boar lived in the forests beside the Jordan River and attacked travelers. Everyone knew someone who had died along the route.
If death didn’t await, robbery might. The forest provided a perfect home for bandits. If Mary and Joseph had their supplies stolen, they may as well be dead.
“I have a traveling party gathered,” Joseph said. “About ten of us. That should help.”
The wealthy cut the length of the trip in half by riding livestock, but Joseph and Mary did not have that luxury. Her feet and legs, burdened with an extra 40 pregnancy pounds, screamed with pain by the third day. By Day 6 she was facing bouts of dizziness. By Day 10 her co-travelers were taking turns shoulder-to-shoulder with her aiding her every move. Each step was an epic story of courage.
“How can this be God’s plan for us?” she said to Joseph on one particularly cold and miserable evening around the campfire.
The heaviness of the task had settled upon them. They desperately wanted to arrive in Bethlehem, but the purpose of the journey was to register for taxation, not a highly desirable reward for their efforts. Hope and optimism were hard to muster.
They could not have known the census would enable them to escape the bloodthirsty King Herod – a tyrant who would attempt to kill Jesus. The trip southward to Bethlehem would eventually allow them to flee quickly into Egypt-controlled territory. Of course, it would ultimately require another 40-50 miles of walking after Jesus was born.
It’s good God doesn’t reveal what will be required of us until it’s time. He tends to use “unplanned events” to position us for things we can’t yet conceive.
Finally, they arrived. The town was alive with travelers, swelling far beyond its normal size. There was no way to communicate ahead to their relatives to prepare for their arrival. Mary felt alone, overwhelmed by exhaustion and anxious about what was next. Just going through childbirth alone would have been enough of a challenge – but this?
“Joseph, you don’t think God has forgotten us, do you?” Mary asked.
“I don’t,” he finally said. “But my expectations of God sometimes make it seem that way.”
Mary had to admit she expected something different when Gabriel appeared to her. But the trip revealed something Mary hadn’t yet considered: God’s Son would not be the recipient of special favors.
The Son of God would need endurance. He would experience pain and disappointment. Just like Mary. And just like the rest of us. Because He would be one of us.
Emmanuel. God with us.
The prophet Isaiah’s description made sense to her in that moment. She stared at her swollen feet. They pulsed with pain. Her back ached from the nearly 200,000 steps she had made. She realized life with the Son of God would not be a simple one.
Soon she was holding Him. He cried more than she thought he would. But he was beautiful. Joseph marveled at a child he knew was not his own, and yet the love he felt exceeded what he thought possible. As the surprising visitors appeared and presented gifts, their hope soared.
“The road has been hard,” Mary said to Joseph. “But Jesus is worth it.”
Yes, He is. Today, we pray those same words with her.
Thanks for reading these CHRISTMAS POSTS! It's been a joy to write them and I pray they've helped. I have plans to continue writing after the New Year - excited to tell you the details soon. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you at email@example.com and be sure to like or share this post! Merry Christmas! JC