At this time of year the liturgy is given over largely to the so-called infancy narratives – those texts from the gospels, mostly from Luke’s account of the story. Strictly speaking, these are not Christmas stories: they are stories about Mary and Joseph, both subject to something they never dreamt that would be part of – messages which are recorded mostly in the gospel of Luke, but with input from the gospel of Matthew. It’s a story from around 2,000 years ago – a story known throughout the world and in circulation right up to the present day. It is, of course the story of Mary and Joseph on their journey to Bethlehem, a journey that could not be put off, because none other than the Roman Emperor Augustus demanded that a census of all people in the Roman Empire be taken. For this to happen, each male born in the Roman Empire had to make the journey to his place of birth. Notice there is no mention of women taking part in any census!
What we can conclude is that a very long journey lay ahead for both Mary and Joseph. Luke’s Gospel is the only biblical source of information about their journey. Even so, we’re not really given great deal of information; but Luke’s gospel makes clear that this was a journey Mary and Joseph did NOT make together. According to Luke’s gospel, and as we’ve already mentioned, around the time of Jesus’ birth Mary was able to travel started from Nazareth. Nazareth seems to have been the main route for travel from north to south – specifically from Nazareth to Bethlehem – or at least to Jerusalem, which was very near Bethlehem.
We have to ask the question, why was there so much travel between Nazareth and Jerusalem or Bethlehem at that time. As usual, there is a very practical answer to that question. The short answer is probably that the Herods generated a whole lot of travelling between Bethlehem and Nazareth, or to put it more simply: the Herods, and perhaps the seriously megalomaniac who was Herod the Great. He and his successors were paranoid about people trying to kill them. Around the city of Jerusalem and the town of Bethlehem, Herod the great had built castles, fortresses, walls, indeed any system which could keep the Herods and their followers safe. The Herods were paranoid and constantly moved from fortress to fortress. The Herods and their entourages constantly moved around to avoid assassination! Good roads were needed when escape was desirable!
JESUS OF NAZARETH? WHY NOT JESUS OF BETHLEHEM?
Jesus now comes to be known as Jesus of Nazareth rather than Jesus of Bethlehem, though that was where he was born. Now, Joseph was from a family with its roots in Bethlehem. That, as we have seen, is why Joseph and Mary both had to travel for the census. It seems that there was plenty of travel between Bethlehem and Nazareth – enough to ensure there was a reasonably regular possibility for people to travel together, on camel, donkeys or even on foot. There must have been a lot of travel between Judah and Galilee, travel on donkeys and camels. According to ancient sources, as well as the completion of the building programmes of Herod the Great and his successors.
Why would Jesus want to begin and extend his ministry so far north? Well, he did live in and around Nazareth for much of his like. Presumably after Jesus’ foster father Joseph found work in Nazareth where the great building programme. Workers in wood and stone were in great demand – Joseph probably travelled to Nazareth when word first began to circulate that tradesmen were in demand for the building programme instigated by the Herods.
Of course, we might just remember that near Nazareth, there was a thriving fishing community, which of course turned out to be the focal point for much of Jesus’ teaching. This gives the great basis for Jesus’ Galilean ministry, or at least part of it. We could say that the Sea of Galilee provides just about all the props and images that the gospel rests on. That however is a story for another day!
Neither Mary’s nor Joseph’s parents are mentioned in this part of the infancy narrative. There’s often something poignant in the way Luke writes, and this story is no exception. There is a symmetry now in the characters four characters we’ve met so far. Luke seems to love order in his writing, and he takes the story so far and writes a lovely balanced and almost poetic account of the people who are present at or near the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Although he doesn’t exactly say so, Two women and two men; two couples betrothed to each other. None of this four should be expected to solve the problems they’ve encountered.
The men are not able to provide a child, let alone a male child. Elizabeth is too old to give birth to a baby; Mary on the other hand is too young and not yet settled in married life.
The men are no help either. Zechariah, like his wife, is too old; Joseph has just caught up with Mary and they have into yet had time for the betrothal to take place. Both women have already conceived. Again however, we are made aware of the vulnerability of the four humans (and one on the way) in this story. Elizabeth knows she’s had her prayers answered, so does Mary, who breaks into the famous song known to us which begins, “My soul rejoices in the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour”.
It is remarkable that God has planned for the Son of God to dwell among humans. It is even more remarkable that God is prepared to place His entire plan in the hands of humans. This sounds more hopeful – for a short moment, but very quickly we find more problems, still to do with finding accommodation! Even if this could have solved the problem, the family would still have no proper place to stay. We are soon made awareof the consequences of this. They cannot even find accommodation in the places that merchants and others used as a place for the night. These places were known as caravanserie, notorious for rough men and their animals to be sold. Imagine the noise and smell of rough and unkempt men and their animals! The place must have been stinking to high heaven! Mary and Joseph might have been lucky not to have found a place in one of these establishments.
This is of course not the end of the story. First, there is the consideration of finding a place to spend the night, during which the baby who will be called Jesus. There is no shelter. The feeding troughs are all there is at hand to serve as a bed for the baby.
In the birth of Jesus, the Word of God does become flesh as the words of the prayer we call the Angelus makes clear, and humans are also messengers – in this instance the shepherds. It is perhaps worth remembering that humans are now ther most powerful communicators of the Words of God. This will not be overtaken until the adult Jesus, the world made flesh!
And then, there is how Luke rounds up the rest of the narrative. The Prince of the Universe has no place to lie during his first night on earth. JEsus and the adults are not alone for long. The shepherds get to work. It seems that the shape of the field believed to be the sheperds’ field had wonderful acoustics, ansd would have made verbal communication very effective. This would be useful for the angels who haven’t been part of the narrative yet. Angel is NOT a word which describe a type of being: angel is the FUNCTION exercised by those who are messengers from heaven. Because of their heavenly credentials, they carry more weight than anyone else (Jesus at this point is divine, but their ministry is to proclaim the message of God).