The Journey and the Joy

The Bible account of the approaching birth of Jesus Christ tells us all we need to know, but not as much as we would like to know. Some extra-biblical sources help fill in the blanks. Reliable records of customs and conditions of the time help the pieces fit together. 

Artists, not the Bible, depict Joseph leading a donkey ridden by Mary on their journey to Bethlehem. Not so. Donkeys were for village and urban use, not journeys. Camels were for commerce, horses were for the wealthy and Romans. It is highly likely the poor couple had no animal, but walked. If they had an animal, it would have been, are you ready for this, a mule. Mules were in common use for such purposes. Incidentally, no self-respecting Magi would have ridden a camel. That would have been like an eighteen-wheeler, and beneath the dignity of their office. They would not have used horses because Romans used them. They, too, would have ridden mules.

To avoid the desert heat, they would have traveled at night. As an aside, that made it easy to follow the star. Scripture notes they saw the star in the east. It was they who were in the east, not the star. Bethlehem was west of them and the star would have been to their west, thus it was actually a western, not an eastern star.

Mary and Joseph in their journey would have left Nazareth and rendezvoused with a group at the south end of the Sea of Galilee. Robbers and wild animals made it essential to travel in groups. Small militias were paid to escort groups. They would have walked along the east bank of the Jordan River through the area of Perea, to Jericho, where they would have crossed back to the western bank. They would have ascended to Bethlehem through the Wilderness of Judah by way of a deep  foreboding perilous valley named years before by David as “the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” That ascent would have been approximately 2,000 feet.

The date of Jesus’ birth is not known. However, those who say it could not have been in December, winter, because shepherds are not in the field during winter are incorrect. I have been in Shepherd’s Field on Christmas Eve and shepherds were there watching their flocks by night. One led his flock within fifty yards of our campfire. 

The inn had no innkeeper. Actually, there was no inn as we know them. Inns were carvanceries. They often consisted of an open space bordered by rock walls made from the area of the infield. These often had caves along one perimeter. Such was the “stable” in which Jesus was born. Though primitive, it was one of the better places under the circumstances. The animals would have been in an outer chamber, and the people in an inner portion. The animals helped provide heat for the people. In addition to providing shelter for the birth, it would have also allowed privacy.

We have visited that cave more than fifty times, every time being the first. Tapestries line the walls, and ornate oil lamps hang from the ceiling. All are gifts of heads of state and notable individuals from all over the world who have visited there through the ages.

It is a moving moment to stand there and think, “Here, right here, the Word became flesh and came and dwelt among us.” That makes for a Merry Christmas.