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“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days,” writes the prophet Micah (Micah 5:2).
Even though Joseph, a descendant of King David, was from the small town of Judea, he and Mary were living in Nazareth in the north of Galilee when she was pregnant with Jesus, as Luke’s Gospel recalls.
A journey of more than 90 miles
But when Mary was almost at the end of her pregnancy, the emperor Augustus ordered a great census that obliged everyone to go to their hometown. Thus, “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” (Luke 2:4).
A 97-mile journey, which represented a real ordeal for the couple at a time and place when the roads were not paved—as they were in a good part of the rest of the Roman Empire—and when the only means of transportation for them could be a donkey or a camel. In addition, Mary was almost nine months pregnant.
Bethlehem, also called Ephrathah, is located 4 miles south of Jerusalem and is nearly 2500 feet above sea level. Although it’s the city of King David, and the matriarch Rachel (Jacob’s second wife) is buried there, it was considered minor at the time. The route, which is very mountainous, was nevertheless used by many caravans going from Jerusalem to Egypt.
The canonical gospels say nothing about the means of transport used by the couple, but we can assume that they had a donkey at their disposal to carry food. They probably also slept three or four nights under the stars or at inns. It was a tiring journey at the end of which the couple found nowhere to sleep but a place where animals were kept.
The celebration of Christmas should remind us of the courage and dedication of this exemplary couple. It might make us think twice about the “hardship” of traveling by car or plane to visit family during the holidays.