An Inconvenient Birth
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
My wife is one tough cookie. With our first child, Christine labored at home for hours before she decided it was time to go to the hospital. When we got there, the nurses were surprised at how far along she was.
Our daughter was born in December at Baylor hospital. It was early morning, before sunrise, when we drove past the manicured lawn of the hospital on our way to the maternity ward. There, on the lawn, was a nativity scene — Mary, Joseph, and some shepherds in quiet adoration of a painted, plywood Messiah. Feeling a painful, maternal kinship with the Madonna, Christine looked out the window and said, “Poor Mary.”
As tough as Christine is, Mary had it tougher.
Traveling during late-term pregnancy is not a good idea. These days, doctors recommend staying home after 32 weeks, and airlines won’t even board pregnant women past 36 weeks. The last thing Mary would have wanted to do would be to ride a donkey for a week.
If you drive from Nazareth to Bethlehem today, it’ll take about two hours. It’s just under 100 miles. But that’s using a fairly straight route along the Yitzhak Rabin Highway. Whatever desert road the Holy Family took would likely have been winding and rocky. And it might have been considerably longer. A straight shot from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have gone through Samaria. But Samaria was an unwelcome place for Jews. A Jew traveling through that region might be refused lodging or otherwise mistreated. So it’s likely that Joseph and Mary traveled east, crossed the Jordan River, then travelled south for a day or two, and then crossed the Jordan again into Judea.
We don’t know exactly how they traveled. An apocryphal gospel called the Protoevangelium of James, written about 145AD, gives us the image of Mary on a donkey. But she might have walked or ridden a camel. Joseph might have had an animal to ride too, though that seems less likely since the young couple was not exactly well-to-do. We don’t know how they travelled, but this much is certain: whatever their mode of transport, it wasn’t cushy. No shock absorbers or air conditioning. Just jostling and jolting and the nagging worry that all that movement wasn’t good for the baby. Are you picturing it?
Thirty-plus weeks pregnant.
More than a week of travel.
Well over 100 miles.
Riding on an animal.
This was a terribly inconvenient trip.
Inconvenient, but unavoidable. When Caesar Augustus issues a decree, you don’t answer with “Yeah, but we’re pregnant.” Especially if you’re a lowly, blue-collar Jew and you want to protect your pregnant fiancé from Roman mistreatment.
And it was unavoidable for heavenly reasons too.
Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and that’s where Jesus would grow up. But the prophet Micah wrote this about the Messiah’s origins:
“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel.”
This is the text Herod’s courtiers quoted him when he asked where the Messiah was to be born. Jesus' origin story had to run through Bethlehem.
The birth of a first child changes every mother’s life. In Mary’s case, it also changed the world. But the joy that came that first Christmas morning followed many nights of discomfort and nervousness. Of wishing to be home. Of anger at Caesar and terror at the vagaries of travel. The Messiah’s birth story that had to include Bethlehem also had to include pain.