I have always been intrigued by the journey that Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem just before the birth of Jesus. What was it like to travel the distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem, about 70 miles, to be counted in the census that Caesar Augustus had ordered? For Mary, nearly nine months pregnant and seated on a donkey mile after weary mile, it must have been uncomfortable and exhausting. For Joseph, on foot and leading the donkey, it must have been a test of endurance.
But they had no choice. Neither did anyone else. As the Gospel of St. Luke relates, “And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.” Discomfort and inconvenience did not excuse anyone from making the trip. You didn’t say no to Caesar.
Weariness was not the only problem along the way. The roads could be dangerous; travelers often were beset by thieves. Perhaps Mary and Joseph were made less vulnerable by the presence of others making the journey at the same time, but that doesn’t mean that people traveling in a group could not become separated. The travelers also would have had to stop for food and lodging because the trip likely lasted several days. That would have added to the expense for Mary and Joseph and other poor people.
What strikes me this year about the journey to Bethlehem is that Mary and Joseph and their fellow travelers were called by an official decree to leave home and go to crowded towns and cities. How different from our situation for the past nine months, when we have been strongly encouraged to stay home, stay indoors and stay away from others as much as possible because of the coronavirus pandemic.
I don’t say that the warnings and restrictions aren’t justified, but I think that sometimes they have been overdone. The virus, however, is transmitted by airborne microbes, so it makes sense to isolate ourselves when we can, and to limit or for contact with others.
There is irony here, and it’s made sharper by the spirituality of the Advent season.
Mary and Joseph are called out, to a place away from home. We are sent home, to a place away from others. Mary and Joseph are on the move. We are confined and told to restrict our travels. Mary and Joseph must face the uncertainties of the open road and unfamiliar people. We must remain in familiar surroundings, with the same people (or perhaps with no one at all) as we try not to let routine turn into tedium and depression.
Mary and Joseph had to turn outward. We must turn inward. Yet we are called, two millennia later, to do exactly what Mary and Joseph did in Bethlehem: bring Christ to the world. Advent, with its surpassingly beautiful Scripture readings and music, is a time of preparation for that mission. We are called not only to prepare ourselves inwardly, spiritually, to receive the great gift of the Son of God, the Savior. We also are called to prepare ourselves to go out to others and make him known, and to share his Gospel and his love with the world.
How do we do that in these times? Our travels are circumscribed. We might not be able to go to church and participate in the Mass. Our patience is tried by the limitations we must live with. I think the answer is there, in our restrictions.
The Son of God, divine and begotten by God without limitations, took on human nature for us, to teach us how to live, to forgive our sins, to save us and to enable us to share in his life forever. If he could take on our limitations, even unto death, then we can draw on his strength and his promise of eternal life to endure our limitations, and encourage others to do so, in every way we can.
Merry Christmas, and may the new year bring us the healing we long for and the new life that only Christ can give.