We’ve all seen a thousand pieces of art–from greeting cards to Renaissance masterpieces–depicting the Holy Family on the way to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth: gentle Joseph leading a sweet little donkey with meditative Mary on its back, the beautiful star shining in the night sky above them. So pretty!
Artists have imaginations–that’s what makes them artists. But that road to Bethlehem wasn’t that pretty for Mary and Joseph and the donkey. It’s about 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, along the Jordan River and then through the hills around Jerusalem. One scholar says they couldn’t have gone very fast, maybe about 10 miles a day, what with the terrain, the weather, the fear of robbers, and caution for Mary, so close to her time.
Slowly bumping along
Can you imagine slowly bumping along for miles and miles of ancient roads on the bony back of a short-legged little donkey every day for more than a week? Oh, my own back aches just thinking of it! I can imagine a lot. And I imagine that no matter how kind and attentive Joseph was to the comfort and health of his young wife and her baby (any day now!), Mary must have been beyond exhaustion by the time the little caravan finally, finally arrived at Bethlehem.
My favorite hymn sings of the stillness of the little town, deep in dreamless sleep as the silent stars go by. Such a beautiful poem!
But I imagine it wasn’t such a silent night there, what with the town packed to bursting with people come for the census. Think of all those travelers who’d had to pack up and make the trek from anywhere to this little nowhere town, to satisfy the bureaucratic whim of an oppressive occupying power–no, not so serene there in overcrowded little Bethlehem. I imagine there was a good amount of griping and grumbling, probably some pushing and shoving, and certainly plenty of dirt and dust and noise.
Think about it
I can hardly imagine how miserable poor exhausted laboring Mary must have been. Think about it. The only place for Mary to give birth to her firstborn was in a stable, right next to the tired donkey that had carried her all this way. Would you want to have your first child in some stranger’s barn, surrounded not only by animals but by more strangers? For there were surely other travelers squeezed into that stable alongside Mary and Joseph, others who were just as tired and dusty and disgusted with the whole Roman census mess as everybody else in town.
Like I said, I can imagine a lot. Still, it’s hard to imagine just how miserable poor Mary must have been, straining and sweating in her first labor with no one but Joseph to help her (and kind though he is, there are times when a woman really wants her mother. Or at least an experienced midwife).
God chose this
But what I really can’t imagine is that this, this is how God chose to be born into humanity. Why in the world didn’t God choose to be born somewhere at least a little more comfortable and convenient for that scared young mother and her frantic husband? It wouldn’t have to be a palace–choosing to be born in Joseph and Mary’s tidy little home in Nazareth, with friends and relatives around to help and then to help celebrate, would have been so much easier on Mary and Joseph. Why not?
Well, as God says, God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. Clearly, God had a point in choosing to be born into humanity in such circumstances. What do you think it was?
Maybe one point God was making in that choice of birth was this: No matter how sweaty and scared, no matter how oppressed or displaced or pushed around, no matter how miserable and alone and exhausted we can be, God is there. God has been there. God will always be there. Thanks be to God.
Audrey Riley is director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA.
Women of the ELCA supports AMMPARO, the ELCA’s ministry with and for migrant minors who have been forced from their homes. See elca.org/AMMPARO for more information about how the ELCA works to make the world a kinder place for these tired, these poor, these yearning to breathe free.
You can give to AMMPARO through Women of the ELCA. Please make out your check to Women of the ELCA and write AMMPARO on the memo line. Then mail it to:
Women of the ELCA
P.O. Box 1809
Merrifield VA 22116-8009