by Audrey Novak Riley—

There are likely thousands of pieces of art—from greeting cards to Renaissance masterpieces— depicting the holy family on the way to Bethlehem for Jesus’ birth. Gentle Joseph leads a sweet little donkey with meditative Mary on its back. A beautiful star shines in the velvety night sky above them. It’s all so pretty!

Artists have imaginations—that’s what makes them artists—and we can tell that their imaginations really took flight here. But the road to Bethlehem couldn’t have been anywhere near that pretty for Mary and Joseph and the donkey. No, it had to be a long, hard slog. The distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, first along the Jordan River and then through the hills around Jerusalem before finally coming to their little destination.

They couldn’t have gone very fast—maybe about 10 miles a day—what with the rough terrain, the weather, fear of robbers and caution for Mary, so close to her time. Can you imagine slowly bumping along miles of dusty, rocky roads on the bony back of a short-legged little donkey every day for more than a week? My own back hurts just thinking of it, and I’m not pregnant—let alone just about ready to give birth, as Mary was.


I don’t have the imagination of an artist, but I can imagine a lot. And I can imagine that no matter how kind and attentive Joseph was to the comfort and health of his young wife and her soon-to-be-born baby (any day now!), Mary must have been beyond exhaustion by the time the little caravan finally arrived at Bethlehem.

My favorite hymn sings of the stillness of the little town, deep in dreamless sleep as silent stars go by. Such a beautiful poem! But I imagine it wasn’t such a silent night there. The town was packed to bursting with people who’d come for the emperor’s census (Luke 2:1-3). Think of all those travelers who’d had to pack up and make the trek from wherever they actually lived to this little nowhere town that happened to be home to their ancestors, just to satisfy the bureaucratic whim of an oppressive occupying power.

So, no—I don’t think it was so serene that night in overcrowded little Bethlehem. I imagine there was a good amount of griping and grumbling, probably some pushing and shoving, and certainly plenty of dirt and dust and noise…


But what I really can’t imagine? That this is how God chose to be born into humanity. Why in the world didn’t God choose to be born somewhere just a little more comfortable and convenient for that scared young mother and her frantic husband? It wouldn’t have to be a palace. Choosing to be born in Joseph and Mary’s tidy little home in Nazareth, with friends and family around to help and then celebrate, would have been so much easier on Mary and Joseph. Why not?

Well, as the Bible says, God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8). Clearly, God had a point in choosing to be born into humanity in such circumstances. What do you think it was?

Audrey Novak Riley is the retired director for stewardship for Women of the ELCA.

This article is excerpted from the November/December 2021 issue of Gather magazine. To read more like it, subscribe to Gather