Mary's Ordeal

A Reading for Christmas


The reading tells what it was like for Mary to journey to Bethlehem and then to give birth in a village stable.

Tradition imagines that Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey, but tradition is not always truthful. We must remember that Joseph was a poor man. His failure to secure good lodgings in Bethlehem and his meager offering of turtledoves at his son's dedication strongly suggest that a donkey was beyond his means. How then did Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem? Women in primitive societies have often done hard work until the hour of giving birth. So it is possible that Mary accomplished her journey by taking one plodding step after another over the whole distance of about eighty miles. How tired she must have been by the time she came to the southern end of the Jordan Valley! Yet before her still lay the road's merciless last stretch, requiring an ascent of more than 2000 feet, for Bethlehem was perched on a side spur of a high ridge overlooking the Dead Sea and the distant plains of Moab.

As the couple trudged upward toward the village, they passed terraced olive groves and vineyards. Ahead, just south of their destination, they could see an imposing castle, one of Herod's monuments to his own pleasure. Bethlehem itself was far from imposing. All that greeted the travelers when they reached the end of their climb were a few dozen simple, gray-roofed dwellings huddled on the hillside.

We know nothing about the inn at Bethlehem, except that the usual accommodations available in Jesus' day were crude by modern standards. Separate rooms were unknown. The best a traveler could purchase was a small chamber without a door. The inn at a small village like Bethlehem must have been especially undesirable. But it was full anyway, and the couple spent the night with the animals. At most Jewish inns the animals were kept in an adjoining open courtyard. But tradition says that in Bethlehem they were sheltered in a cave. In such a place, the water would have been contaminated, and the surroundings would have been befouled and smelly. Yet the overnight refuge of Mary and Joseph was probably no more unclean than the houses nearby. And a stable had the advantage of allowing the couple more privacy than they would have found inside the inn.

On the night of her arrival in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her child, a little boy who would be named Jesus. Perhaps Joseph found a midwife who was willing to come at a late hour and work for little pay. But it is more likely that Mary was unattended—again, not an unusual circumstance in primitive societies. The mother of our Lord must have been a brave and resourceful young woman. Though faced with difficulties we would never tolerate, she meekly accepted them and did the best she could. If she obeyed custom, she washed her baby and rubbed Him with salt before wrapping Him tightly in swaddling bands, which encased even His arms. Then, not willing to lay Him on bare dirt, she converted the hay-filled manger into a rude crib. No one was there to object. Certainly the animals did not object.


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