Summary: Like Mary and Joseph, all of us find ourselves forced to take journeys we do not wish to take. These journeys are not prescribed by God, but God is with us in the midst of them, and that is what we celebrate at Christmas.
I’ve heard it said that our sense of smell has the greatest power to evoke memories. That is, certain scents can recall to mind memories, even distant memories, associated with that smell. I have had this experience before, but I think for me, music does this more powerfully. I feel like I have a soundtrack for my life. There are certain songs or pieces associated with certain points in my life, or even specific events. This is true of the song we just sang (the popular hymn and Christmas carol) “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” My sister and I discovered a few years ago this song calls to mind for both of us a young man named Darren. Darren was the 16-year-old son of one of my Dad’s work colleagues. It was early December probably about 20 years ago that Darren was killed in a car accident. He was street racing with some of his friends and he lost control of his car. He wasn’t buckled.
I think it must have been that “O Little Town of Bethlehem” was playing in the background when my parents told my sister and me about Darren. We had only met Darren and his family once or twice before; but without fail, Darren is the person my sister and I think of when either of us hears that song. I remember going to Darren’s receiving of friends and seeing the great sorrow of his parents. I also remember that they parked his wrecked car at a busy intersection in their hometown with a sign urging young drivers to be careful and buckle up.
I think my family long ago lost contact with Darren’s parents. But I can imagine that the loss of their young son still brings them sorrow even today. The loss of a loved one is always very sad, but that sadness seems to be magnified greatly when that loved one is your child. Darren’s parents have had to deal with something that none of us ever wants to experience. They have had to take a journey that no one wants to take.
The same was true for Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ earthly parents. We have spent the last few weeks following Mary and Joseph as they have prepared for the birth of the baby who would be known as Jesus Christ. We’ve talked about how risky this was for both of them because they were not yet married. And we have seen how Mary and Joseph, being righteous and humble servants of God, opened themselves to the great work of God in their lives so that God’s will might be done. Then, last week, we went with Mary to Ein Karem and the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah, and we watched as Mary’s spirits were lifted by Elizabeth and Mary praised God for the work he was doing through her.
Mary’s visit to Elizabeth took place at the beginning of her pregnancy. Today we pick up the story at the end of Mary’s pregnancy. Based on Matthew and Luke’s telling, it seems that when Mary returned to Nazareth after visiting Elizabeth, Joseph returned with her, and they were married. Now this wedding would have been something like what we call a “hurry-up” wedding these days. Mary and her family wouldn’t have taken time to plan an elaborate ceremony and festival. Mary was pregnant, and she and Joseph needed to be wed quickly, so they were.
Now, it was custom that the man and wife would live in the man’s hometown, but we must assume that because Mary was at this point halfway through her pregnancy, they thought it best not to try and travel the ten days back to Bethlehem yet. Instead, Mary and Joseph began making preparations for the coming baby in Nazareth. Mary had probably made plans with a midwife. She and Joseph had surely determined where the baby would be born. By the time the eighth month rolled around, they had everything laid out. And then something unexpected happened. The Roman Emperor called for a census of the entire Roman world. Now, this census was surely for purposes of levying taxes, but it didn’t change the fact that a now very pregnant Mary, due any day, would have to travel with her husband Joseph to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. They would be taking that ten day journey...again!
Can you imagine how Mary must have felt?!? Here is this woman who has given herself over completely in service to God. She has risked ridicule, and even death, in order to humbly serve God’s will. And now, just as it is time for the baby to be born, she has to travel to another town, ten days away. The baby could be born on the road, at great risk. And should Mary and Joseph happen to get to Bethlehem before the baby is born, she hasn’t made any arrangements there. Who will help her birth the baby? Where will it be born?