They have to go. They have no choice. Emperor Caesar Augustus has issued a decree that a census will be taken of the entire Roman world to aid in military drafting and tax collection. Although the Jews do not have to serve in the Roman army, but since they are obligated to pay taxes to Rome, everyone will have to go and register at the place of their ancestral home. For Joseph's family it would be over seventy miles and a four-to-seven-day walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the town of his ancestors. It's not going to be an easy journey either, considering the shape Mary is in. She is nine months pregnant and will have to make the trip that winds through wilderness, desert, and mountainside, sitting sidesaddle on a donkey and feeling every rock and bump along the way.
Joseph leads the donkey out of the village at dawn. Mary's eyes are heavy, but he spent a sleepless night and has been awake for hours waiting for light. The smell of fish and eggs cooking on morning fires saturates the street with a misty fog as families prepare for breakfast. Joseph's stomach rumbles as he packs the donkey. He should have eaten more but is anxious to get on the road. His eyes meet Mary's as he helps her onto the donkey. He nods and she smiles in the half-light. Joseph walks beside the donkey, and although he does not look at them, he feels the eyes of his neighbors as they pass. The chattering of three women drawing water ceases as he and Mary go by, and Mary keeps her head down. She has long known what they think of her. The laughter of two men mending a fishing net subsides to a whisper as the donkey approaches, and children stop playing in the street when their mothers clack their tongues and snap their fingers.
Joseph sets his jaw and ignores them, relieved to get away for a while. The angel of God had visited him and Mary about this baby, but he hadn't visited everyone in town. Joseph has heard the townspeople ridicule Mary. He has seen them point and then turn away, ostracizing her with their clenched teeth and cold shoulders. "Perversion," they have said. "Prostituted under the nose of her father." The gossiped indictments and whispered innuendoes have seeped under every doorway. The conception was not cloaked in anonymity. Everyone knew her name. They knew her father and mother's name. Joseph's own heart has throbbed with a dull pain for weeks, and looking at Mary, he wonders how someone so young is able to bear the burden of such a stigma.
Mary lays her hands on her swollen belly. The baby dropped into the birth canal days ago, causing increasing discomfort. A chill clings to the shadows that stretch over the sleepy town, and Joseph places a thin blanket over Mary's legs. The morning echoes grow distant as they thread their way out of town, and Joseph's tensions ease.
"Are you well?" he asks.
"I am," she says, smiling, rubbing her stomach. "He is no longer stirring but is heavy inside."
Joseph forces a smile and quickens his steps. What if she gives birth on the side of a mountain? What if the baby comes in the middle of the wilderness? What would he do? Who could help him? Several families from Nazareth are traveling in caravans on the road ahead and behind them, but Joseph does not feel he can rely on them for help. He has never felt so isolated in his life.
They are quiet as the sun rises. There is so much to discuss, so many questions to ask, but neither of them is ready. Thoughts swirl in their minds as the donkey clop-clops his way over the terrain. The valley is a canvas of windblown grass swimming with wildflowers and fruit trees. Mary does not pick any fruit yet; there would be more opportunities on the journey. The smell of balsam fills the air, and Mary takes a deep breath, the scent reminding her of childhood playtime on the hills surrounding her home.
The road ahead is full of twists and turns as lush valley turns to chalky dirt and then rock. Mary is jostled about on the donkey, and a flashing pain takes her breath. She reaches for her back, attempting to ease the hurt, but there it is again. She leans forward on the donkey and holds her breath till the ache passes. It seems so long ago that she was baking bread in her home, a young girl giggling with her mother and teasing her siblings. Was it only nine months ago? Mary smiles, her mind swirling with sweet childlike noises from her parent's home.
She moves her hand over her abdomen. There was no longer a plate set for her at her parent's table. Her place of rest beside her sister was now empty. They would no longer whisper into the night, sharing girlish secrets and stories. She closes her eyes and breathes deeply. It is still too much to comprehend that the promise of God is enfleshed in her womb, dependent upon her for life.
In a small village, Joseph helps Mary to the ground, where women are picking over fruit in the marketplace. He leads the donkey to a trough filled with water. Mary stretches and arches her back. "Are you hungry?" she asks.
"Always," Joseph says, taking off his sandals.
She unwraps some bread and fish she brought from home. These foods always travel well, and she hopes she has packed enough for their trip. She reaches into a satchel for some figs and a pomegranate they picked outside the village.
"Do you want to sit?" he asks, pointing to the shade of a tree.
"No," she says, laughing. He sits beneath the tree and pushes the bread into his mouth. Mary walks to the well in the center of town and draws water, filling a cup and taking it to Joseph. He drinks it down and she fills it again. She hands the cup to him and leans against the tree. The noise of customers haggling over prices and the clanking of merchandise in the marketplace drifts on the wind as Mary watches the donkey drink. "Are you frightened, Joseph?" she asks.
He looks up at her. Every illusion he had of starting a family with her ended months ago when she told him she was pregnant. Every conceivable dream of the village celebrating their wedding shattered when rumors swelled that his betrothed was a harlot. Swept away with those dreams were his plans and desires and every expectation he had for their new life together. He was torn from the privacy of a once-quiet life and shifted into one of public shame and ridicule. He is still trying to wrap his mind around all that has taken place in so short a time. He watches Mary as the corners of her mouth turn up in soft edges. For months now, those she has grown up with, who have shared meals around her family's table have been quick to brand her, but these well-mannered guardians of morality never even cupped their ear to hear the truth or offered a word of compassion. The hourglass has been turned and eternity is fast approaching, but their thoughts have been consumed with how the law of Moses is unwavering concerning what to do with those caught in sexual sin. The very angel who came to Mary all those months ago must surely have guarded her life from the hatred and condemnation of the righteous bent on vengeance in the name of God. How else has her life been spared? Is she frightened? He cannot tell. He hasn't known her long enough to discern her emotions or fears. They are both so new to each other.
"The angel told me not to be afraid," he says.
A breeze laps at her face and she remains quiet, thinking. "So then, you are not?"
He breaks the bread in two and hands her a piece. "I wish I could say that I am not, but I am. I am terrified." He watches as others gather around the well. "What does that make me?"
She sits on the ground and reaches for a fig. "As human as I," she says. "I too am frightened. There is so much that I don't know." Her voice is faint. "So much that I will never understand." He looks at her, and her eyes are deep, touching the far reaches of her soul. "Why was I chosen for this? Why you?"
He shakes his head. "How will I teach him?"
"How do you teach any child?" she asks.
He turns his face to her. "Yes. But how do you teach him?" They eat in silence as the question fills the air around them. "How will I raise him?"
"With love," she says.
He looks at her. "But is love from a common man enough?"
She traces her finger through the blades of grass in front of her. "It will be more than enough," she says. "It is the very reason he's coming."
THE CHRISTMAS JOURNEY. Copyright © 2010 by Donna VanLiere. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.