Sometimes hearing how difficult things are for others can help us put our own life and difficulties into perspective. I thought it might be good to do a short, somewhat deeper dive into the first Christmas, so that we can look at our own with a little more grace.
Please consider the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It’s about 70 miles if you can fly from one to the other. If you have to walk on ancient roads that meander according to a very hilly topography, avoiding unfriendly Samaritans, the journey was probably between 80 and 90 difficult miles. As for the donkey who shows up in all the art, it’s not impossible that a carpenter would have owned a donkey, but maybe not likely. The Roman military paid for pack animals, but also were known to confiscate them from defenseless peasants ... and yes, both Mary and Joseph were peasants. Do you bother to invest in a pack animal in those circumstances? There is no beast of burden included in the birth accounts of Matthew or Luke. Mary, who was very pregnant and about to give birth, very likely walked the four to six days this journey would have taken. That is tough prenatal care.
As for Joseph, he was likely carrying any possessions or food they brought with them each day. The peasant salary was often paid on the day of work, and all spent that day for food. Saving was difficult when living hand to mouth, so how he came up with the resources for making the trip, in both directions, remains a question. It had to weigh on him, especially as the journey was required so that an oppressive foreign power could tax him more efficiently. I have wondered how that sat with Joseph.
As for archaeological evidence of what kind of town they encountered, we don’t have much. Even the word “inn” is questionably translated, as it wasn’t the usual word for a traveler’s dwelling. Rather, it implied the upper room where local residents might welcome guests in their own living quarters. The implication is that this place was full of people, and Mary and Joseph retired to the ground level room, below, where the local family guarded their animals. There is no mention of a cave or barn. It still seems quite unpleasant, but I can’t imagine that giving birth in a room crowded with strangers would have been any better.
In all of human history, only the God become human chose the timing, the place and the characters who occupy his birth. And he chose a messy, difficult time to drag Joseph and Mary into a pregnancy that would fulfill an ancient prophecy:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, least among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient times (Micah 5:1).
For the great things of Jesus’ birth to happen, Mary and Joseph had to struggle and endure great difficulties. Jesus, who prompted it all, to become Emanuele, “God with us,” obviously thought our
difficult human condition was worth it.
These last years have had their own share of struggles for all of us. But we are pulling through it all.