To Jesus Through Mary at Christmas: The Journey

ADVENT RETREAT: As we reach these last days before Christmas Eve, let us pray that there be room for Christ — and every child — in the human souls of those who bear his name.

Simon de Vos, “Mary and Joseph Seeking Refuge in Bethlehem,” 1664
Simon de Vos, “Mary and Joseph Seeking Refuge in Bethlehem,” 1664 (photo: Public Domain)

We’re in the final week of Advent. Two weeks away, we reflected how Mary, in her first trimester, “hastened” to Ein Karem to help Elizabeth, in her third trimester. John the Baptist is now almost six months old, and Mary is in her last trimester. The year has advanced: Jews have celebrated a new year and the Day of Atonement. 

And a decree has arrived from Rome. Everybody is to sign up for a census, registering in his ancestral town.

It’s likely that the decree generated no small measure of consternation in the home of Joseph and Mary. Joseph, of “the house and line of David,” traces his roots to Bethlehem. Bethlehem’s about 95 miles south by donkey, and Mary is in her last months of pregnancy. By the natural order of things, her delivery date should be imminent, and who knows how the travel will affect her and the Baby?

While Joseph may have been ancestrally tied to Bethlehem, how “actual” were those ties? The fact he would find nowhere to stay on his arrival suggests maybe there were at best some distant relatives in the town, but ones not likely with whom lively contact has been sustained. If there had been, wouldn’t Joseph have gone directly there upon arrival? 

Finally, the very idea of a census probably made Joseph’s blood boil. The fact that we have a book in the Old Testament called “Numbers” (because it records a census) testifies to the fact that Israel had a certain antipathy to enumerations. Why? Simply because Israel differentiated people from things. You could count the goats or the sheep or the cattle in Israel as indices of the country’s prosperity. But people are not goats or sheep or cattle. Goats, sheep and cattle are owned by people, but people belong to God. For a ruler, then, to enumerate people implied a certain degree of hubris, as if the king or emperor “owned” God’s People or at least contested co-sovereignty with Yahweh. That would have made any devout Jew angry.

But, like all the insults and injuries Israel bore at the hands of its Roman occupier, from taxes to coinage with Caesar’s image, from Roman soldiers in the Holy City to pagan cities like Caesarea, the Jews had to decide which fights were worth picking. So, doing what he could to make her comfortable, Joseph saddled up the donkey and set out on the road to Bethlehem with Mary (“his betrothed” Luke 2:5; cf. Matthew 1:24b). 

Winters in Judea can be cool and rainy. What pace might Joseph have been able to keep, traveling with a pregnant woman? Twenty miles per day would be extremely brisk; 15 probably more realistic. That would make a trip of 5-6 days. 

They arrive in Bethlehem: old memories but no room at the inn. Or any inn. For a man who has taken responsibility for this woman and her Baby, he’s now confronted with her delivery being imminent and no place for it to happen. 

Theologically, we reflect on the Lord of the Universe, Creator of Heaven and Earth, not having a place to be born into that world amid human conditions. Even Bethlehem’s inns would have been no Holiday Inn Express: they would have been a central courtyard crammed with an influx of people claiming a corner or a piece of the floor to sleep on until they could get up in the morning, sign up, and get out of Dodge … or Bethlehem. 

Even that modicum of humanity would be denied to the Holy Family.

Somehow, perhaps by the mercy of an innkeeper who directed them to his stall or Joseph’s industry, they find a stable and a feeding trough for animals. In those conditions, on a mat of hay, would be born the Son of God.

The event does teach us something. For all the complaints about being “ready to be a parent” or “having the right conditions to be a parent,” Jesus, Mary and Joseph show us on just how very little life can be brought forth. Nobody is romanticizing this. Neither, however, are they canonizing contemporary standards where, amid relatively comfortable prosperity, we still are stingy about giving life. 

Poverty is often an excuse to justify abortion: “How can we bring a child into such a world?” Christmas Eve is the response to that question. If the Son of God, who created that world, could be born as he was in backstreet Bethlehem, then by what authority can we deprive any other child of the right to be born by using the material circumstances of his birth against him? 

The future Pope John Paul II captured it well when he observed, in the heyday of Zero Population Growth, that reaction against Humanae vitae was “in inverse ratio to proximity to the ‘hunger belt.’” An Indian cartoon also captured it well: in a country of broad illiteracy and multiple languages, the government wanted to promote limiting childbearing but was forced to convey its message by illustration. One panel showed an Indian couple with one child in a beautiful apartment outfitted with all manner of things; the other, a couple with lots of kids in a typical slum dwelling. The elites thought their message was clear. Ordinary people’s reaction was to look at the elegant couple and say, “Look at those poor people! Only one child!”

Are our reactions, and the values they express, much different?

In that poverty, in that stable off those “dark streets,” came “the everlasting light.” And all history changed forever and irreversibly because of one Baby born in a one-donkey town to a poor Jewish girl who almost got divorced because she trusted God.

To enter the mystery of Christmas makes it impossible to be indifferent to the right to life as an issue played out in our own times, because the rationales and ethics advanced to justify prenatal killing today would certainly discard the faith and prolife witness Mary and Joseph made 2,000 years ago amid circumstances far more dire than those a typical American — even in poverty — experiences today.

All the usual arguments amassed today to allow abortion — poverty, unwed mothers, abandonment by men, ill-repute — could also be used to abort Jesus Christ. And I dare say nobody who bears the name of “Christian” would admit – even if in their deepest hearts they might think it — that such would be a legitimate “choice” of Mary’s. So, either our faith guides our lives and the kind of world we build in it, or our Advent and Christmas is one big waste and joke.

So, which is it?

A Polish Christmas carol expresses the reality of Christmas Eve in Bethlehem: “Nie było miejsce dla Ciebie” [There Was No Room for You]. The second verse captures the reason why a prolife Christmas might be a problem for some:

“Bo nie ma miejsca dla Ciebie,
w niejednej człowieczej duszy.”
“Because there was no place for You
In more than one human soul.”

As we reach these last days before Christmas Eve, aware of the Baby born amid Bethlehem’s poverty and the challenges his parents faced, let us honestly pray that there be room for him — and every child — in the human souls of those who dare bear his name.

On Christmas Day, as you kneel before the crib and acknowledge the Child, know that every human crib and every child is sacred because he is made in the image of that Child, who came to redeem all those children.

As another child (probably devalued as a “wasted life” in his day, too) said: “God bless us, everyone!”

[I acknowledge my dependence in today’s reflection on Roman Brandstaetter’s life of Jesus, Jezus z Nazaretu (Jesus of Nazareth)].