And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. [Luke 2:4-5 (NLT)
Until learning about Las Posadas, I hadn’t given much thought to the difficulty of Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem or to how frightened and desperate the couple must have been that night so long ago. As the crow flies, it’s only a 70-mile trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem but Joseph and Mary weren’t crows and the route was not a straight one. Because of the hilly terrain, the most direct route south was the most physically challenging and, because it led right through Samaria, it also was the most dangerous. Wanting nothing to do with Samaritans, Jews typically detoured to the east before going south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, turning west at Jericho, going over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on south into Bethlehem—a trip of 90 to 100 miles. The trek from Jericho to Bethlehem would have been the hardest since it was an uphill hike with an elevation change of 3,500 feet! In good circumstances, people could walk about 20 miles a day so Mary and Joseph feasibly could have made Bethlehem in five 8-hour days. Mary, however, was about ready to give birth so a trip of seven to ten days is more likely.
Since the Bible quickly moves from the miraculous conception of Jesus to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and then to Jesus’ birth, we probably don’t give much thought to what those nine months of pregnancy were like for Mary. Each day of the nine days of Las Posadas, however, represents a month of Mary’s pregnancy. When Scripture says Mary “hurried to the hill country of Judea” to see Elizabeth, we assume she lived nearby. Rather than right around the corner, Elizabeth lived about five miles southwest of Jerusalem in Ein Karem, meaning the newly pregnant girl (who may have suffered from morning sickness) took a similar walk to the one she’d make nine months later! Three months later, she made the same 90 to 100-mile journey north back to Nazareth. Even if Mary traveled in a caravan, it was a dangerous journey for a young woman alone! Ancient travel was no walk in the park.
Pregnancy is a blessed thing but it is a life-changing event full of physical and emotional challenges. Along with the normal mood swings accompanying changes in estrogen and progesterone, Mary had the shock of an unexpected pregnancy, saw her wedding plans turned upside down, lost her reputation, and endured the whispers of the town folk about how she betrayed her fiancé. We know how Joseph reacted to her pregnancy but we don’t know about Mary’s parents or the rest of their family and friends. Were the couple shunned or snubbed? Pregnancy is a blessing but there’s a downside to growing another being in one’s uterus: fatigue, shortness of breath, discomfort as the growing child pushes against internal organs, trying to find a comfortable position in which to sleep, back aches, bloating, frequent urination, and swollen feet (to name just a few). Pregnancy isn’t easy—even when you’re carrying the Messiah!
Once Mary and Joseph found lodging, what of the baby’s birth? Because our nativity scenes focus on the lovely scene of the Holy Family after Jesus’ arrival, we tend to forget the hours of labor leading up to that scene. The conditions weren’t sterile, there were no epidurals, and Scripture makes no mention of a midwife’s presence. Without question, there was discomfort, pain, sweat, aching muscles, tears, fear, mess, and blood. Surely, giving birth away from family, in a cave, in a strange town, and placing her newborn in a feed trough wasn’t what Mary envisioned for the child who would be called “Son of the Most High.”
Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, people like you and me, people who hurt, worry, bruise, get tired, bleed, complain, cry, throw-up, get blisters, and suffer—people who can get upset, frustrated, troubled, doubtful, surprised, disappointed, and sad. Today, consider what those nine months were like for Mary, a girl barely into her teens who became the mother of God, and Joseph, the man who would act as the earthly and legal father to God’s son. They were two ordinary people who did an extraordinary thing! Thank you, God!