“But You 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” (Micah 5:2)
MARY shifted her weight uncomfortably atop the little beast of burden. She had been riding for hours. Just ahead, Joseph walked steadily onward, leading the way along the road toward distant Bethlehem. Mary once again felt the stirring of life within her.
Mary was well along in her pregnancy; the Bible describes her at this time with the expressive phrase “heavy with child.” (Luke 2:5) As the couple passed by one field after another, perhaps some of the farmers looked up from their ploughing or sowing and wondered why a woman in such a condition would go on a journey. What had led Mary so far from her home in Nazareth?
It all began months earlier when this young Jewish woman received an assignment that was unique in all human history. She was to give birth to the child who would become the Messiah, the Son of God! (Luke 1:35) As the time to give birth approached, the need to take this journey arose. In the process, Mary faced a number of challenges to her faith. Let us see what helped her to stay spiritually strong.
Joseph and Mary were not the only ones on the move. Caesar Augustus had recently decreed that a registration be carried out in the land, and people had to travel to their town of origin in order to comply. How did Joseph respond? The account reads: “Of course, Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because of his being a member of the house and family of David.”—Luke 2:1-4.
It was no coincidence that Caesar issued his decree at this time. A prophecy written down some seven centuries earlier foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, it so happened that there was a town named Bethlehem a mere seven miles (11 km) from Nazareth. However, the prophecy specified that it was “Bethlehem Ephrathah” that would produce the Messiah. ( Micah 5:2.) To reach that little village from Nazareth, travelers covered some 80 hilly miles (130 km) via Samaria. That was the Bethlehem to which Joseph was summoned, for it was the ancestral home of the family of King David—the family to which both Joseph and his bride belonged.
Would Mary support Joseph in his decision to comply? After all, the trip would be hard on her. It was likely early in the autumn of the year, so light rains were possible as the dry season gradually ended. What is more, the phrase “went up from Galilee” is appropriate, for Bethlehem was perched at a lofty altitude of over 2,500 feet (760 m)—quite a climb, an arduous end to a trek of several days. Perhaps it would take longer than usual, for Mary’s condition might require numerous periods of rest. Now, of all times, a young woman might yearn to stay close to home, where she had family and friends who were ready to help when her birth pangs began. Without a doubt, she needed to have courage to take this trip.
Nonetheless, Luke writes that Joseph went “to get registered with Mary.” He also notes that Mary “had been given [to Joseph] in marriage as promised.” (Luke 2:4, 5) Being Joseph’s wife made a great deal of difference in Mary’s decisions. She viewed her husband as her spiritual head, embracing her God-given role as his helper by supporting him in his decisions. So she met this potential challenge to her faith with simple obedience. What else may have motivated Mary to obey? Did she know of the prophecy about Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah? The Bible does not say. We cannot rule out the possibility, for the fact was evidently common knowledge among religious leaders and even people in general. (Matt. 2:1-7; John 7: 40-42) When it came to the Scriptures, Mary was far from an ignorant girl. (Luke 1:46-55) At any rate, whether Mary decided to travel in order to obey her husband, a secular decree, or Yahweh’s own prophecy—or because of a combination of factors—she set a splendid example. Yahweh greatly values a humble, obedient spirit in both men and women. In our age, when submission often seems to be among the most disregarded of virtues, Mary’s example stands as a beacon for faithful people everywhere.
Mary must have breathed a sigh of relief when she first caught sight of Bethlehem. As they mounted the hillsides, passing by olive groves—among the last of the crops to be harvested—Mary and Joseph may well have thought about the history of this little village. It was too insignificant to be numbered among Judah’s cities, just as Micah the prophet had said; yet it was the birthplace of Boaz, Naomi, and later David, all more than a thousand years earlier.
Women everywhere can empathize with Mary. Some 4,000 years earlier, Yahweh had foretold that it would be the common lot of women to suffer pain during childbirth because of inherited sin. (Gen. 3:16) There is no evidence to suggest that Mary was any exception. Luke’s account draws a discreet curtain of privacy around the scene, saying simply: “She gave birth to her son, the firstborn.” (Luke 2:7) Yes, her “firstborn” had arrived— Not only was he her firstborn but he was Yahweh’s own “firstborn of all creation,” the only-begotten Son of God!—(Col. 1:15).
It is at this point that the account adds a famous detail: “She bound him with cloth bands and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7) Nativity plays, paintings, and scenes around the world sentimentalize this setting. Consider, though, the reality. A manger is a feeding trough, a bin from which farm animals eat. Remember, the family was lodging in a stable, hardly a place to be noted for good air or hygiene—then or now. Really, what parents would choose such a spot for childbirth if there were any other options? Most parents want the best for their children. How much more so did Mary and Joseph want to provide the best for the Son of God! However, they did not let their limitations embitter them; they simply did the best they could with what they had. Notice, for instance, that Mary herself cared for the infant, wrapping him up snugly in cloth bands, then laying him carefully in the manger to sleep, ensuring that he would be warm and safe. Mary was not about to let anxiety over her present circumstances distract her from providing the best that she could. She and Joseph both knew, too, that caring spiritually for this child would be the most important thing they could do for him. (Deuteronomy 6:6-8.) Today, wise parents cultivate similar priorities as they bring their children up in this spiritually impoverished world.
A Visit Brings Encouragement
A sudden commotion disturbed the peaceful scene. Shepherds rushed into the stable, eager to see the family and the child in particular. These men were bubbling over with excitement, their faces radiating joy. They told the wondering parents about a marvelous experience they had just had. On the hillside during the night watch, an angel had suddenly appeared to them. Yahweh’s glory had gleamed all around, and the angel told them that the Christ, or Messiah, had just been born in Bethlehem. They would find the child lying in a manger, swaddled in cloth bands. Then, something even more spectacular happened—a mighty host of angels appeared, praising God!—(Luke 2:8-14.)
No wonder these humble men came rushing into Bethlehem! They must have been thrilled to see a newborn infant lying there just as the angel had described. They did not keep this good news to themselves. “They made known the saying . . . And all that heard marveled over the things told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2:17, 18). How, though, did this visit affect Mary? Mary was surely exhausted from the rigors of childbirth, yet she listened intently to every word. And she did more: “Mary began to preserve all these sayings, drawing conclusions in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) This young woman truly was thoughtful. She knew that this angelic message was vital. Her God, Yahweh wanted her to know and to appreciate her son’s identity and importance. So she did more than listen. She stored away the words in her heart so that she could ponder over them again and again in the months and years to ome. Here is an outstanding key to the faith that Mary showed throughout her life.— ( Hebrews 11:1.) Like Mary, we need to store up spiritual sayings in our heart, drawing conclusions. If we meditate on what we read in the Bible, contemplating ways that we can apply Yahweh’s counsel more fully, we will give our faith the nourishment it needs to grow. The Christmas story is a story of a family that connects heaven and earth. Each member of Jesus’s earthly family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—stands as supernal examples of God’s Christmas gift to all mankind. The Christmas story should spiritually motivate us to emulate the attributes of this holy family. This family was unified in seeking God’s glory; unified in serving one another; unified in fulfilling God’s will; and unified in sacrifice, obedience, and love. This holy family provides us a pattern of attributes that, when emulated by our own families, will enable us to enjoy the same blessings of unity and love they enjoyed.