Wednesday, December 7, 2016
Bible Road Trips: Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem
The Bible has many stories of roads and highways. This is an occasional series of meditations based on those scriptures.
This story is so familiar:
"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. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:1-7, NRSV).
Just prior to his birth, Jesus' parents had to make a road trip of about eighty miles. Most of us have likely added details to the story in our imaginations. I tend to picture Mary riding on a donkey, for instance, but the text doesn't specify the way they traveled. I also think of the circumstances as harsh and heartless, as if they tried to check into a modern motel but, with no vacancy there, they were turned away and found refuge in the groundkeeper's shed. At the time, the stables would have been a reasonable overflow space. Nevertheless, Jesus was a longed-for king, but the place of his birth was very humble and unassuming.
A few years ago, I read a Catholic author who made a Eucharistic connection that I found interesting: Jesus was laid into a manger (a trough from which the animals were fed) as a precursor to the time when we would share his body and blood in the mass. Protestants don't believe in transubstantiation but instead believe (with nuances among denominations) in the spiritual presence of Jesus in sharing of the Lord's Supper. Still, it was a meaningful insight, and we're liable to emphasize the humility of Jesus' birth and miss the subtle implication (perhaps not even realized by the gospel authors) of his first bed, a feeding trough. "Take, eat, this is my body, this is my blood..."
There are scholarly questions about the historicity of the story's Roman census: whether it happened, and if so, whether it happened at the time of Jesus' birth. But it is a wonderful story that explains the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem (necessary, according to the prophecy of Micah 5:2) when his parents were actually from Nazareth. Recently I enjoyed a Howard Zinn essay about the human history and the possibility of optimism (https://www.thenation.com/article/optimism-uncertainty/). Even if we don't think about God's providence, history has an unpredictability that gives us reason for hope amid difficult times. In our story, an event authorized by the politically powerful of the world becomes the unpredicted way a 700-year-old prophecy came to pass, forcing Jesus' parents to make an 80-mile trip they otherwise would not have made.