Walking to Bethlehem with the Holy Family

As Christmas approaches, we might ponder the holy that the Holy Family were making a journey, not to some shopping mall, but South to Bethlehem. In the brief reflection that follows, I take liberties and combine imagination with known facts and the cultural context of the time. But in your mind’s eye see a couple setting forth from a tiny village called Nazareth, a town so small (barely 300 souls) that there was not even a road going to it, just a foot path. Perhaps they headed south for Hazor to connect with the Via Maris. We do not know for sure the route they took.

Yes, consider, that even now in this week before the birth, some 2000 years ago, they would be making this difficult journey well into Mother Mary’s ninth month of pregnancy. Mary with Jesus, resting in utero, just beneath her heart. She, with Joseph is walking some seventy miles south through very hilly terrain. These were not small hills. They were more on the scale of the Appalachian Mountains here in Eastern America. (see photo above right taking along the Via Maris near Megido)

The census has been called, and the timing could not be worse. It is certain that they will be away from home for this birth of enormous importance.

Many artists picture of her riding on a donkey. I have my doubts that this was the case. She and Joseph are among the working poor, and is doubtful they could have afforded such a costly beast of burden. I wonder too, if a woman so late in pregnancy, could really ride a donkey. It is possible that Joseph had some sort of wagon for her to ride in. But I suppose quite frankly, she probably walked.

These were hardy people, these ancient Israelites. They were used to make it to long journeys back-and-forth Along the Via Maris, or perhaps along the King’s Highway further West. Either way, lots of hills, lots of steep inclines.

Clearly, great anxiety and concerns accompany them as they headed south. There was nothing sentimental about the first Christmas, it was marked by great hardships, hardships that prefigured the cross.

Ancient travel was not just difficult, it was dangerous. Robbers and other criminals lurked along the traveled paths seeking vulnerable targets. Surely a man accompanying a pregnant woman to be a vulnerable target. And though Scripture mentions no such robbery or assault, neither Joseph or Mary knew this, setting out.

The Scriptures are silent, if any friends accompanied them. But given the dangers, it is unthinkable that people traveled these routes alone, or even in pairs. Rather, people traveled in groups for safety. Yet, it seems likely that Joseph and Mary would have struggled to keep up with the group, given Mary’s condition.

Yet another source of anxiety must have centered on lodging in Bethlehem just ahead. Those were not days of Orbitz, or easy reservations. One set out not knowing precisely the arrangements that would be had.

But onward they go. Perhaps stopping here and there to rest with the group. It was not easy. It was arid, and the terrain was rocky, and hilly. Carrying water along was critical but heavy, as were the other essentials of clothes, basic food and a cloak in which to sleep on the chilly evening. Even if the day is hot, the temperature drops rapidly in the arid climate of the Middle East. Joseph carries a walking stick, not to lean, but for defense.

Most of us moderns can barely walk a mile, even on flat terrain. But, as we have noted, these were hardy people, accustomed to hardship, and difficulty.

Spend some time praying and journeying with the Holy Family these next days. They journey for us. Walk with them, pray and ponder what lies ahead. Christ is near, even at the gates.

This video contains further reflections, some of them different from my own, but much of what we must do on these spiritual journeys is speculative.

15 Replies to “Walking to Bethlehem with the Holy Family”

  1. I was thinking about this journey a while ago, and I was impressed by the thought that Mary did accompany Joseph. Certainly, it would have been easier for him to go alone, but as I recall after the Ephiphany, Joseph and Mary escaped to Egypt based on Joseph’s dream. I wonder what holy inspiration brought them to go together, then to essentially abandon everything and flee. Woe to us moderns who could not consider leaving the comforts of our homes or our material possessions to follow such inspiration.

    1. If you read Matthew and Luke together carefully, you’ll see plenty of confirmation for the idea that the family spent Jesus’ first couple of months in Bethlehem and then returned to their hometown (Nazareth). [Luke] Some two years later the three were again in Bethlehem, were put in danger from Herod by the well-meaning ignorance of the “wise men”, were protected by God’s specific and timely messages, and escaped to Egypt for some time. [Matthew] Then back home, for good.
      What did they live on in Egypt? Perhaps their coinage had the suggestion, “In God We Trust”. Or … “gold, frankincense and myrrh”, easily sold on eBay. πŸ™‚

      1. I’m a little less convinced of this scenario than you, though I do not doubt it is plausible. But I think it can also be argued that the Magi visited more shortly after the birth, say within days or weeks. We know that forty days after Jesus’ birth Joseph and Mary were in nearby Jerusalem in the Temple for the purification. and the visit could have happened shortly thereafter back in Bethlehem after the purification. I just don’t think the time references in the Gospels is clear enough to know with exactitude, though I personally think two years is pushing it all a bit too far apart.

  2. Great reflection. Perhaps there were many people moving to and fro between Egypt and Israel and the charitable ones in the dromedaries and caravans, upon noting Mary’s condition, would have offered assistance to Mary and Joseph. Who knows what happened but is not written…?

  3. ” (barely 300 souls) “–I think this is an interesting fact. I would like to know about the population of the towns Jesus and the Apostles preached in.

  4. It was suggested to me, a long time ago, that Joseph and Mary made this journey, at this time, because it would have been the slack time of the year in regards to Joseph’s work. The census would have been open for a year and Joseph undertook this journey at this time because he could least afford to do so at any other time. They were a poor family (financially)!
    As for the “no room at the inn”, indeed the Inn was no maternity hospital and the innkeeper, seeing Mary’s condition, suggested that the stable would be the best place for them to give Mary the privacy which she needed. Living with animals was no strange thing to people right up to the Middle Ages. The animals were a source of warmth and we are animals too!

    1. The census was a big deal, of course. (“Render unto Caesar …”) No doubt tiny Bethlehem was crowded, being a source of Jewish families decades before Jerusalem was conquered by David. Many inns had attached stable buildings with niches cut into stone walls or shelves built onto wooden ones, for feeding the animals (“mangers”) . A sharp ‘motel owner’ could have (a) cleared out any animals, (b) cleaned up [we hope!], and (c) rented out the stall to overflow travelers. Therefore, without any implausibility, there was ‘no room IN the inn’, so the couple were given a stall, where Joseph slept on the floor and Mary and Jesus together ‘lay in the manger’. (The wooden shelves are gone of course, but stone stables and niches from the day still are found.)

      1. I don’t know. You might check it out on ITunes. Or check out YouTube and see what other versions they have and whheetr you can find it by the artist.

  5. Google claimed 2,960,000 results and gave me 510 for the search:
    pregnant donkey “nazareth to bethlehem”.

  6. I enjoyed reading this reflection. Thank you. I’m 37 weeks pregnant presently. When I feel overwhelmed and worn out by the extra expectations and all the “stuff” that goes with the holiday season, I try to remember Mary and her hard journey.

  7. We, moderns, especially here in the US of A, so comfortable, so snug, always looking for pleasure, always pursuing the inalienable right of happiness. We expect everything instant, we could not find our tv remote control and we are all stressed out. The kids all deeply concerned and engaged in the virtuallities of Internet games. Women adamantly discussing reality shows, men profusely recollecting the previous last night games. All of which has nothing to improve our integrity as a human person, as a child of GOD. Deny yourself, carry your daily cross and come after me. LORD, let me always see the Light of YOUR Love.

  8. Msgr Pope’s comment on the 2 years, I believe that matching the command from Herod to kill all 2 year or younger boys can be easily dissected to mean that the Maji did not arrive until then as the conferred with Herod on the way to me Jesus- the direction and comments they gave to him was the reason that he selected boys 2yrs the operative word , to be slaughtered. Had to understand any meeting sooner unless Maji visited twice?

  9. Good article.

    I sense though, Mary did ride on a donkey, remember, Our Lord, just before he came into the world, right afterwards, and on the Sunday before his passion, he once again had ride on a donkey.

Comments are closed.