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.