It’s likely that Mary and Joseph had remained in Nazareth so Mary could give birth in her hometown before moving to Bethlehem. But just weeks before Mary was to give birth, a Roman census make it necessary for the young couple to make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
Most scholars say there were two routes Mary and Joseph might have taken to Bethlehem. The first route would have taken them to the east along the Jordan River, then west to Bethlehem. The second route, and the one I think likely, is shown on the map as a solid line and was the more direct route. It went through the Jezreel Valley and along the Way of the Patriarchs, right through Samaria and the heart of the country.
The first part of their trip would have taken about three days, over sloping mountains and hills, with nothing really difficult in the terrain. They would have traveled past hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of olive trees. It certainly was fitting, for olive oil was used to anoint the high priest and the king, and Jesus had been chosen by God to lead his people and rule forever on the throne of David. The very word Messiah, or Christ, means anointed one.
Soon they would have come to the village of Sychar, in the heart of the ancient Samarian countryside. After leaving Sychar, their journey would have become more difficult. After perhaps nine days, the holy family would have found themselves in the beautiful but treacherous Judean wilderness.
How do you think Mary felt when, just a day and a half short of their destination, she and Joseph arrived at the wilderness? I can almost hear to say, “I can’t go any farther, Joseph. I can’t do it anymore.” This was a trip that she was Joseph didn’t want to make. Yet, in the midst of the exhausting journey, amid the deferred dreams and the dashed hopes, God was working to redeem the world.
After a difficult day and a half, they reached a stable in Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. In hindsight we can see what Mary couldn’t as she entered that stable, her contractions getting closer and closer together. She couldn’t hear the angels sing, couldn’t see the shepherds run to the stable, couldn’t know that the magi were on their way with gifts to the little king. But she had hope.
Hope is a decision we make, a choice to believe that God can take the adversity, disappointment, heartache, and pain of our journeys and use these to accomplish his purposes. This is precisely what happened in Mary’s story, where, on the road from Nazareth to Bethlehem and then in a stable among the animals, we see hope born in the midst of disappointment. We want to whisper to Mary, “don’t cry. God is here, even among the animals. People will draw hope from your story until the end of time.”
I invite you, regardless of where you are on the road, to choose hope, to have faith, to trust that your difficult journeys will never be the end of the story because God is by your side. Hear the song that all heaven and nature sing as the Christ-child is born. Invite God to use your disappointments to accomplish his purposes.
It was just such hope, I believe, that kept Mary going on that long, difficult journey to Bethlehem.