As the season of Advent closes, whether one believes the ancient biblical tale of Jesus’ birth is divinely inspired, or sees it as a metaphor or simply an author’s tale, there is one part of the story that relates to the particular plight of countless people of throughout history. But it’s not the part that is usually emphasized. When telling the story of Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem, people often jump to the sweet baby visited by wise men and shepherds. In fact, viewing the beautiful, rare alignment of two bright planets as Saturn met Jupiter in the Western sky recently, I could almost envision the wise men following a bright star to discover that manger.
But the way Luke tells the story, it does not begin with this romantic scene. He opens by describing the political and social conditions of that family and their people wrapped into a few sentences.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. (Lk 2:1-3)
The scene is set that empire ruled, as it has over countless people throughout human history. In those days, unless you were royalty or a soldier, you were subject to imperial rule. Imagine if a census was to be carried out, and you were commanded by a brutal government to travel to the hometown of your ancestors. As Luke tells it, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary, engaged to be married, set out on the journey. They had no place reserved to stay once they arrived in Bethlehem. Imagine the anxiety along that journey. Where would the child be born? Would they be safe?
The tradition of Advent, of anticipating the dawn of something new, is all about waiting. And, boy, do we know about waiting! We have all waited this month, as over the past 9 months: families for hours in their cars waiting to receive meals from volunteers; waiting until it is safe to reopen our university or our business; waiting for the evacuation orders to be lifted and wildfires to be under control; waiting for the vaccine so we can see our families and gather again.
Every December I read daily meditations in an Advent journal a friend made for me some years ago. When I turned the page on the 17th, the question was posed: What strength do Joseph and Mary represent, as they journey, wait, and watch?
I have no answers. The wait is not over. What I do know is that people have been on journeys of waiting countless times throughout history, whether under deeply oppressive conditions, or due to natural causes outside their control. We are in good company on our journey, and like our forefathers and mothers, we are resilient, and we, too, can have hope.
When I traveled to Bethlehem several years ago, I learned that in a story taking place in the region, there would not have been a wooden structure holding a manger as often pictured. Perhaps a cave in the hills around Bethlehem where livestock were fed and boarded, or as some scholars suggest, a simple, roomy caravansian for travelers and their livestock. Either way, Mary and Joseph’s wait culminated when they entered a space they had not anticipated, and the miracle of birth occurred. May our patience, our hope, and our resilience result in new birth for us, in a space we cannot yet imagine.