In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
I ponder these words of the Christmas story and am reminded of John Lennon’s words about how “Life is what happens to you while you are busy making other plans”. Mary is going on a journey that she did not want or had planned to take. It was not the way she imagined things would be. But God is leading her on a journey, not of self-actualization, but of service.
This will not be the last of Mary’s unplanned journeys. When King Herod tries to kill baby Jesus, she and Joseph will take Jesus in the middle of the night and flee to Egypt. Then years later there will be another journey Mary will take with Jesus, as she follows Him down the Via Dolorosa to the cross.
“Great with child” is how The King James version charmingly describes Mary as she and Joseph begin the journey to their ancestral home of Bethlehem. Mary likely had the fear and anxiety that go with pregnancy and childbirth, especially the first-born. And Joseph must have worried for the birth itself, and Mary’s health, and the health of God’s Child entrusted to them. He knew they ran a great risk of having their Child on the road.
The 90-mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a four to six day trek over rough road; if Mary was not feeling well it might take longer. The Bible says nothing about Mary riding on a donkey so we can’t be sure. However Mary made the trip, whether on foot or on a donkey, it was an ordeal any mother can imagine.
They packed their few provisions for the long journey south, a change of clothes, water in wineskins, and lots of bread. They first descended from the hills of Galilee, then passed through the lovely Plain of Jezreel, the breadbasket of Palestine, then took on the heavily forested valley of the Jordan River, where lions, bears, and wild boar frequently prowled.
Mary and Joseph likely sought to travel in a group for some protection from the robbers and hooligans that prowled the unpaved trail. A trip through the Judean desert in winter could mean freezing temperatures at night with possibility of blankets of rain. Only for the last five miles of their journey would they reach a Roman road worn smooth by Roman troops and travellers from Jerusalem to Bethlehem.
Empire-wide registrations were not infrequent in the Roman world to determine responsibility for taxes and military service. Roman registration required an oath of allegiance to Caesar Augustus and Roman rule. The Jewish historian Josephus and the New Testament Book of Acts see this registration as the cause of an armed revolt led by “Judas the Galilean” (Antiquities; see also Acts 5:37). Mary and Joseph travelled in dangerous and revolutionary times.
This perhaps explains why Mary had to accompany Joseph to Bethlehem for the registration; women didn’t usually count. But both Mary and Joseph were descendants of King David and, therefore, legitimate claimants to Israel’s throne. Mary was likely singled out to give an oath of allegiance, as well as for Rome’s puppet King Herod to know where royal claimants were. Roman troops were on high alert throughout Judea and Galilee; crosses were readied for crucifixions.
A Christmas story that began with “Imperator Gaius Julius Divi Filius Caesar Octavianus Augustus” in Rome is about to be fulfilled in a tiny Baby in Bethlehem. The Roman imperial palace lined with marble and gold is about to give way to manger straw and swaddling clothes. God has remembered His promise to Abraham and to His descendants forever: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…so that we might receive adoption as children” (Galatians 4:4).
- Imagine what it was like for Mary on the road to Bethlehem. What were her feelings? Her thoughts? Can you imagine her singing “Mary’s Song”?
- Imagine what it was like for Joseph on the road to Bethlehem. What were his feelings? His thoughts? How do you think he might have prayed?
- Can you think of a time when you had to give up your future and your plans to God for Him to handle as He pleases? Do you need to reaffirm that commitment to God?
- The first Christmas did not turn out as expected for Mary and Joseph. What are “expectations” for Christmas Day you might need to surrender to God?