“There were three ancient pilgrimage feasts that all male Israelites thirteen and older attended: Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the spring, Pentecost, the Feast of weeks, about fifty days later and sukkot, the Feasts of Booths or Tabernacles, in the fall. Each feast lasted a week, and men traveled to Jerusalem for the celebration, often with their families. From Nazareth to Jerusalem is about a hundred miles, about five days of walking. Thus, the feast, including travel time, took nearly three weeks…women and children were not obligated to attend… but it was the custom of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to go to Jerusalem together for Passover….People traveled to these feasts in large groups of family and townspeople forming caravans.” (Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life, Marcellino d”Ambrosio, Ascension Press, 2020)
One hundred miles each way – and we are told two hundred and fifty miles from Bethlehem to Egypt, then three hundred and fifty miles on the return trip from Egypt to Nazareth. I have been thinking about this distance and the difficulties of making the journey for St. Joseph, his wife Mary and their infant son, Jesus, since I read the words.
We first learn of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 2. There is a census decreed by the Roman authorities. Joseph is required to return to the place of his family origins, which is Bethlehem the city of David, about three miles from Jerusalem. Mary, now nine months pregnant, travels with Joseph. While a healthy man might be able to walk twenty miles a day, Mary probably cannot. We assume that Mary rode quite a bit of the way on the back of a donkey, a common mode of transportation during that time. Riding on the back of a donkey was not the most comfortable travel arrangement for a woman about to give birth.
The area through which Joseph and Mary traveled was not hospitable. Although Galilee was a farming area ,much of the remaining landscape between Galilee and Jerusalem was desert and mountain terrain. Did the couple travel with others from their hometown of Nazareth? How did Joseph and Mary carry enough supplies, such as food and water, for themselves and the donkey? Where did they find water if they used what they had brought? There were no monitored rest stops along the way – something that folks in our own time expect, providing food and a place to stay. If the couple did not travel with a group, was there a possibility of thieves and other miscreants to be concerned about? Did the couple sleep out in the open or was it possible to carry a tent with them to be sheltered for the night? We assume that Mary and Joseph carried whatever supplies that they would need for the birth of their Son as well as clean clothing for themselves. Unless Mary and Joseph traveled with more than one donkey, they were severely limited in what they could carry. Given the timing of this trip, Mary and Joseph had time to make plans and prepare and perhaps find others who would go with them.
After the birth of Jesus the Magi arrived in Jerusalem looking for the new King of the Jews. Directed by King Herod to go to Bethlehem, where prophecy says He will be born, the Magi find the Holy Family living in a “house”, according to the Gospel of Matthew. Being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, the Magi leave Bethlehem by a different route. We can assume the Purification rites for Mary had been performed by this time – 40 days after Jesus’ birth. Once the census crowds had left the area, perhaps there was more opportunity for the Holy Family to find lodging. Joseph then receives a message in a dream from an angel, as he did before his marriage to Mary. This new message directs Joseph to take the little family to Egypt for safety, as Herod seeks to kill the new born Jesus.
Joseph and Mary pack quickly and take Jesus on a desperate flight to Egypt, leaving at night. The distance is 250 miles. Assuming that the family still has the donkey to assist them, they must carry enough supplies to make the journey. The trip will take more than two weeks, again over inhospitable territory and desert terrain. Tthe route from Jerusalem to Egypt is likely well traveled by merchants and caravans of goods, but are there recognizable stops along the way where water and food is available? Is the route well marked? Has Joseph made the journey before? The Bible doesn’t tell us.
Traveling with an infant or small child makes the journey even more difficult. Is Mary able to walk any distance at this point? Does she carry the child in her arms or on her back? Do Mary and the child ride on the donkey? Is there room for both mother and child on the donkey with all the water, food and clothing they must carry? How dangerous is the journey? If this is a caravan route, no doubt thieves and other miscreants travel this way as well. Do Mary and Joseph have adequate money to purchase what they need when they arrive in Egypt? Will Joseph be able to find work and lodging once they arrive at their destination?
I imagine Mary hastily filling water bags and stuffing food and clothing in cloth bags before they leave Bethlehem, while Joseph gets the donkey and other supplies ready for the trip. Are Mary and Joseph frightened about the journey ahead of them? Do they meet up with other travelers on the way? Is there anyone who can help them, as they make this perilous dash to safety?
I have thought of trips that my husband and I took, of the weeks of preparation, carefully planning the route, what we would take with us, and mapping out places to spend the night. The roads are all paved; there are supplies along the way and we travel comfortably in a car or other vehicle. Comparing our travels with Mary and Joseph, our trips were “a walk in the park”. And yet we were often fatigued as we traveled, unsatisfied with the night’s lodging or the food we purchased to eat. Our bones and muscles ached from the long hours spent driving and sitting. When we arrived at our destination, we were exhausted.
Mary and Joseph were young,healthy and strong. They had taken these kinds of journeys multiple times during their lives, and yet the journeys had to be difficult. Joseph, as a tecton or builder with stone and wood, was, no doubt, physically very strong to provide the protection for Mary and the child and to care for them and the donkey on their journeys. And yet even for the young, travel takes its toll on the body and the spirit.
Our faith instructs us that God provides for us when we follow the path He has placed before us. Even if the path is difficult and beyond our ability to complete by our own power, we can have confidence that God is with us and has prepared the way ahead of us, that He will provide assistance when we need it. Did Mary and Joseph travel with that knowledge of God’s loving care?