Thank you for joining this journey alongside the Holy Family this Advent season. This is the first of five emails in the Advent Caravan series delivered each Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. To receive the forthcoming emails, please sign up here.
Passage: Luke 2:1-5
When I was pregnant with my first child, I traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina for work. It was a 10-hour, overnight flight. This lengthy trip would’ve taxed me in any condition, but being pregnant did add another layer. At one point, I took off my shoes to relax and be more comfortable while trying to sleep. When the plane landed, I discovered my feet had swollen so much I could not put back on my shoes! I shuffled off the plane, embarrassed and sock-footed, to take my first steps in South America. Traveling while pregnant is not for the faint of heart.
Maybe that’s why I often find myself a touch exasperated from the start of the Christmas story. The government issues a decree, and so Joseph packs up everything - including Mary - to head out for a lonely, uncomfortable journey. However, Scripture simply says they went. My assumption they were alone comes from years of nativity scenes and Christmas pageants influenced by a Western perspective.
Sometimes what’s not said in Scripture is because it’s so familiar to the culture in which the text was written, there’s no need to describe. The Roman government issued a census, and yes, it impacted Mary and Joseph. However, there was likely a large window during which people could make this journey. In their riveting book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, writers E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien add, “It wasn’t in Rome’s best interest to suddenly require everyone in the empire to travel to their ancestral homeland during one weekend.” In fact, there is a strong likelihood that Mary and Joseph made the journey during festival times, when they may have already been hoping to travel in the direction of Jerusalem. (Richards and O’Brien describe Bethlehem as similar to a suburb of Jerusalem.)
While this realization that Joseph and Mary had some agency in the timing of their trip makes me a feel a little better on their behalf, the real eye-opener for me is that they were likely traveling in a caravan. Richards and O’Brien continue, “But why take Mary when she was ‘great with child’? It wasn’t ignorance; ancients knew how to count to nine. The reason is simple: if Joseph was of the lineage of David, then so were all his relatives. Moreover, in antiquity one’s relatives were the birthing crew. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem when they did because everybody else was going.”
When I reconsider their journey this way, I imagine a more hopeful departure: women laughing and cooking, preparing food for the journey and kids running circles around the donkeys and wagons as men load up supplies. Traveling in a group would be safer, a little easier, and more enjoyable. There would be others to help take care of Mary, and she perhaps could have some comfort, knowing a delivery en route might be possible if the Christ Child decided to come a little early.
There were factors outside of Mary and Joseph’s control: governmental decisions, festival times, pregnancy timelines. But they were also embarking on a new season surrounded by a community of people who loved them and were walking with them. Similarly, today many people are forced to leave their homes based on factors outside their control. Often their circumstances include a complex mix of governmental decisions, personal and religious beliefs, family, violence, and poverty. And yet, many still demonstrate a hope for a better tomorrow. They cling to loved ones and brave the unknown, eager to arrive at a brighter future.
Lord, we know hope exists even amidst the challenges we and others face in our day-to-day lives. Thank you for those in who walk with with us, and help us to walk alongside others who are facing a difficult journey. Our hope is in You (Psalm 25:5).
This is the first installment in the Advent Caravan series, which was delivered via email on the Sundays of Advent and Christmas Eve.