I just finished reading Chapter Five of Go to Joseph (reviewed here), which examines Mary and Joseph's journey to Bethlehem. This seems the perfect section to share with y'all especially since this is Advent. I will do this as a series, as is my wont. I think you'll see what a really remarkable little book this is from this chapter. This first section is rather long as I couldn't find a good breaking point until after the discussion of the timing for Mary and Joseph's journey.
Next we will discuss preparation for the journey.Chapter Five
The Greatest Journey
And Joseph went from Galilee out of the town of Nazareth into Judea to the town of David, which is called Bethlehem--because he was of the house and family of David--to register, together with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child."
Meister der Kahriye-Cami-Kirche in Istanbul
The Bible is laced with special journeys. Think how our father in faith Abraham journeyed from Ur along the arc of the Fertile Crescent to what we now call Israel.1 Even more pivotal was the Exodus, where Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt, a journey that is a type of our Christian redemption and is consistently echoed in the Gospels.
Then there was the Jews' joyous return from their Babylonian captivity, made possible by the tolerance decree of the conquering Persian Emperor Cyrus (559 BC-529 BC). There are others on a smaller scale that are also significant in a religious and symbolic sense.
We have already mentioned the virtuous mission of the pregnant Mary when she rose up in haste to visit and assist her cousin Elizabeth in Ein Kerem.
But of all these travels, only one deserves to be called the greatest, the holiest, and the loveliest of all: The journey to Bethlehem. Perhaps we should call it a procession.
Earlier we mentioned the chronology proposed by Fr. Gaechter. He conjectures--from reasons of suitability--that Joseph prudently made this journey to Bethlehem very soon after his formal marriage to Mary. The motive, he believes, was to spare Mary from the questions of the inquisitive Nazarenes once her pregnancy became visible. We later learn that the people of this village were capable of angry rejection of Jesus--"Is this not the carpenter's son?"
Another argument to favor the theory of an early arrival (rather than their arriving just before Jesus' birth) is that in the final weeks of gestation, Mary would have traveled the long rugged way with great discomfort and danger.
While this early date sounds logical and prudent, it would place the journey several months before the birth of Jesus. In this scenario, Joseph took Mary directly to Bethlehem, where he was able to obtain temporary housing and make advance preparations by his labor.
Once Mary reached her term and the birth was imminent, Joseph sought more suitable shelter and privacy. He failed to find shelter in private homes. The inn itself was no place for them in the sense that privacy and decorum were impossible, so he found refuge for them in the stable of the inn.
This is possible. It does not contradict the Gospel account nor does it fail to recognize the zeal, love, and prudence of Joseph. Nonetheless, it all remains mere conjecture.
Other less drastic solutions to the obvious problems could be offered. Perhaps Joseph owned or established temporary quarters elsewhere in the north. The acclaimed Fr. Rene Laurentin calls Fr. Gaechter's work "the most daring and painstaking reconstruction," yet his conclusion is as follows:
As interesting and penetrating as the many observations of Gaechter may be, the reconstruction belongs in the realm of science-fiction. The author boldly reconstructs the events: Mary, betrothed in October 9 BC, went to Bethlehem immediately after her marriage with Joseph, five months before the birth of Jesus, which Gaechter located in March 7 BC.Some readers may not be aware that the first Christmas did occur some years before 1 AD. We only mark Christ's birth in that year because of miscalculations by the monk Dionysius Exiguus (c. 470-c. 544), who was entrusted with revision of the calendar.
Complex as all these considerations may be, pondering all this seems very helpful even in our booklet of meditations since it often highlights the overlooked problems and decisions Joseph had to face.
Nevertheless, we will be on safer footing to follow the simpler, traditional interpretation suggested by the inspired biblical data that has nourished pious reflection throughout the centuries.
1 According to The Columbia Encyclopedia (Sixth Edition, Columbia University Press), the Fertile Crescent is a "well watered and fertile area [that] arcs across the northern part of the Syrian desert. It is flanked on the west by the Mediterranean and on the east by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and includes all or parts of Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq."