It’s 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. One foot placed in front of another, from morning until night began to close in. A week’s travel if you could keep up the pace, perhaps 10 days if you could not.
I wonder what Mary and Joseph talked about as they walked, in these last few days before their child was born. Did they turn over the events that had set them on this path together? Visits from angels, dreams. Did they wonder if they were prepared for this baby to finally arrive, ready to parent a child who will be called Son of the Most High? Did they talk about their hopes for this son promised to them, who would be God-with-us?
Hark, hear the bells, we carol as these last few days of Advent evaporate almost before our eyes. The day-to-day world is blaring a Christmas countdown; “only seven shopping days left,” prattled the radio when I got in the car this morning — to make in 90 minutes a trip just a shade shorter than Mary’s arduous trek two millennia ago.
(Watch Michelle-Francl Donnay’s video reflection for Advent:)
The readings at daily Mass in this last week of Advent bound across the months, leaping from Gabriel’s unsettling visit to Zechariah in the sanctuary one day to the Annunciation the next, and we rush to hear the news of the birth of John the Baptist. Haste, haste, we hurtle toward Christmas.
Yet I keep coming back to Mary and Joseph’s long walk. It was not a headlong rush through the final days of her pregnancy, but a deliberate placing of one foot in front of the other. A tacit acknowledgement that whatever was to come, they were here, now, in this place. Waiting. Wandering. Wondering.
St. Cyril of Alexander, writing in the fifth century, says of the journey: “the occasion of the census conveniently caused the virgin to go to Bethlehem, so that we might see another prophecy fulfilled.”
Convenient isn’t quite the word I would use for an 80-mile trip whether on foot or aback a donkey while nine months pregnant. I confess, too, that I have a difficult time seeing this journey to Bethlehem as one leg of a Divine scavenger hunt.
I wonder rather if Luke was inspired to set down this one bare line about Joseph’s response to the census called by Emperor Augustus, “he went to be registered with Mary … who was expecting a child” (Lk 2:5), to remind us not to rush through these final days of Advent, visions of mangers and choruses of angels already dancing in our heads.
Instead let us hear God’s invitation to walk these paths slowly with Mary and Joseph. To wonder again at the events set in motion so many centuries ago. To ask ourselves if we are prepared to welcome Christ not as a babe, but in those who are hungry, those who thirst. To dare to hope that God might yet come to dwell in us.
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.