And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be enrolled, everyone to their own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Luke 2:1-5
One of the items on my bucket list is the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), a pilgrimage that begins at the French border and runs across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela near the coast, where legend has it the remains of St. James are buried. The Camino de Santiago dates back at least to the Middle Ages, but as late as 1985 fewer than 1,000 people made the trek. Recently, thanks in part to several movies, it has become very popular, and last year nearly 300,000 people received compostelas, or Pilgrim’s passports, which entitled them to walk the route, and to make use of hostels and other accommodations along the way.
As I imagine myself undertaking what would for me be a pretty formidable journey, I think about all the uncertainties. How far will I get today? Will it rain? If I make it to the next town, will there be any place to stay? Can my body hold out? But I also think of the people I will meet along the way, the friends I will make, all the things I will learn about place and culture, and of the joys of nature and the perspective on the world that can only come to those willing to walk through it.
Mary and Joseph must have experienced all this (and more) on that arduous trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Their likely route would have been about 80 miles and have included traversing the Judean mountains. Pictures often show Mary riding on a donkey, but it seems to me that strong, young, and determined as she was, she walked the entire way. (Besides, have you ever tried to ride a donkey?) As a husband and father, I feel a lot of empathy for Joseph. He was surely worried about the same things I would be on the Camino de Santiago, but much more. Would they be safe from bandits, especially in the mountains? Could they find shelter if they needed it? Would Mary deliver on the open road?
But they did make it to Bethlehem. And while we tend to think of Jesus’ story beginning there, on that remarkable night, I think if we could ask Mary and Joseph, they would want to tell us not only of his birth, but of the journey the three of them made together to get to that manger outside the inn. I imagine we would be enthralled by their stories: stories of difficulty and hardship, of doubts and fears, but also of faith and friendships, and newly-discovered wonders along the way.
The season of Advent was designed to be a spiritual pilgrimage. Some traditions have added a physical dimension by suggesting a period of fasting…and it is true that some of the most profound moments for the soul come in times of discomfort, even pain. But, fasting or not, Advent proposes that the road to Bethlehem is best traveled, and the rewards the greatest, when we are willing to invest our time and energy in the trip. There are many ways this can be done, through a daily discipline of prayer and Bible readings, or making a special effort to help needy people (as Mary and Joseph certainly were). I might suggest reading (and ideally singing!) the beautiful Advent hymns in Glory to God. There are 25 of them, one for almost every day in Advent. I might also suggest doing that before you indulge in the familiar Christmas hymns and carols. Whatever way you choose to observe the season, consider the possibility that the longer road to the nativity might be the best one to travel.
Prayer: God, help us to follow Mary’s and Joseph’s example and take the trip to Bethlehem on foot. It’s not the easiest way to get there, but we know it will be the most meaningful. Amen.
About the Contributor
Holt Andrews is Music Director at FPC. If he actually completes the Camino de Santiago, it will exceed his previous longest hike by 280 miles.