How we get to Bethlehem

December 16th, 2020

Mary and Joseph got imperial notice that they had to make their way to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had ordered a census. The authorities were forcing everyone to return to their hometown. Magistrates would add their names to the tax roles there.

I imagine Joseph looking at Mary and saying, “How do we get to Bethlehem?” It’s not like they could jump in their car or even hitch up their wagon. In response, Mary shrugged and said, “By foot, of course!”

Walking roughly 20 miles a day, the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken Mary and Joseph four grueling days. Over the years readers of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth have concluded that Joseph must have brought along a donkey for the very pregnant Mary to ride. That’s not how I see it.

Set aside the fact that Luke says not one word about a pack animal. Consider who Mary was and who Joseph was. When the angel Gabriel appeared to tell her about bearing the Son of God, Mary says, “I’m all in! Give me a few details.” When she visited her cousin Elizabeth, Mary said, “This kid and I are on God’s unstoppable mission. We’re going to turn the world upside down.”

This doesn’t sound like a meek and delicate little thing that Joseph would’ve had to pamper. It sounds more like Joy’s pilates instructor who happens also to be a kickboxer. In the eighth month of her pregnancy this young woman made a video of herself hammering away at a heavy bag with chin-high kicks that would lay out an LSU linebacker.

In other words, hardened physically by manual labor and constitutionally bold and courageous, Mary was a force to be reckoned with.

Joseph, by contrast, was considerably older than his bride. A number of Renaissance paintings portray him with a gray beard and a balding head. Tradition tells us that he had older children by a previous marriage. Tragically, many women died in childbirth in that era. This or some other cause had left Joseph widowed.

This Joseph I imagine huffing and puffing along the dirt paths to Bethlehem. Mary would have been pushing ahead, remembering from time to time to pause and let Joseph catch up or stop to give him a breather. If there was a donkey, it was likely Mary who said to Joseph, “Sweetie, you’re looking beat. Why don’t you hop on Bessie for the next few miles. I’ll carry the tools so she won’t be overburdened.”

Strong and fit as I imagine her, Mary would still have struggled to waddle her way to Bethlehem. It is no small thing to walk nearly 100 miles. Carrying a child in her womb added to the physical and the emotional strain.

She too had asked in her own heart, “How do we get to Bethlehem?” But she had meant something different when she thought of Bethlehem. Something more like you and I may mean as we celebrate the Nativity. Bethlehem stands for where God gathers things earthly and heavenly. Where the divine shines through and illuminates the holy truth embedded deep within ordinary things.

“How do we get to Bethlehem” means “How do we fulfill our longing for God? How do we draw near to the holy? How do we get to the face, to the very heart of God?”

The Joseph I’ve imagined had heard Caesar’s decree and thought, “How do I get from here to there?” The journey was his to accomplish. It was up to him to reach the required destination. Punishment awaited those who failed to make the trip in the allotted time.

I wonder if Joseph represents how some of us think about how to approach God. We have to pray the right way, think the right way, follow the right rules to get near God. And life is short. We only have so much time to reach our destination. Or else.

A very different idea had dawned on Mary. Bethlehem — the place where heaven bends low to touch the earth — had already come to her. Heaven in its fullness was dwelling in her womb. And in Jesus, the holy has already embraced the earthly. Bethlehem is wherever we are.

That’s the message that a motley group of shepherds heard on the night that Jesus was born. Heaven has shown up right here where you are. This cold and muddy field flooded with the holy. And now, at last, you can see it.

You will find the holy in a barn, wrapped in old rags sleeping in a feed trough, the angels said. And sure enough, that’s just what they found: God bound in scraps of wool and burlap.

Many of us yearn for a breathtaking, life-changing encounter with the Holy One. Oh, sure, our busyness and our distraction and our soreheadedness push that yearning aside from time to time. But it is never extinguished. We want to know how to get to Bethlehem.

And we know the answer. We are already there. We need only learn to stop long enough to open our eyes and our heart:

To see a unique, irreplaceable person instead of sizing up someone as one of us or one of them, as black or white, as gay or straight or transgender, as progressive or conservative, as winner or loser.

To feel the hunger and the sorrow, the loneliness and the fear of the poor and the grieving and the marginalized and the oppressed.

Bethlehem, you see, has already come to us.

Video: Jake Owensby/YouTube

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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