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Advent Reflections Part 3: The Road to Bethlehem

Created by Joseph Benevento

Only two of the four Gospels cover the birth of Jesus, Matthew and Luke. Both writers agree the birth took place in Bethlehem, but in Matthew there is no explanation about a Roman census forcing Mary and Joseph to travel there. Matthew, unlike Luke, includes an account of the Three Wise Men,  and the Holy Family’s need to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath against their son.  Luke takes the most time with the pre-Christmas narrative, including the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, Mary’s journey to visit Elizabeth, the birth of John the Baptist,  Jesus’s birth, shepherds hearing from angels of the birth, the child’s presentation at the Temple and then a simple return to Nazareth, none of which are in Matthew.   Some of these differences are not contradictory, but a few are:for example, did Mary and Joseph, and their baby have to flee to a foreign country or not?   The average Catholic always associates Christmas with all the events in both accounts,  and I don’t ever remember a homily that asked the congregation to consider how the stories differ.  

     One matter that Luke and Matthew agree on is that the birth took place in Bethlehem of Judea. Whether Joseph and Mary were forced to venture there because of a Roman census or went perhaps to fulfill the prophecy from the book of Micah about the Messiah being born there, they had to make a very arduous trek of about 90 miles, which would have taken them a week or more, given Mary’s advanced pregnancy.  There were two main options in attempting this journey, the “trade route,” which entailed crossing into Samaria, and which encompassed fewer miles but tougher terrain,  and the river route, which was a bit longer but less hilly overall.  Given Mary’s condition, I’m guessing they took the river route, which had them in the Jordan River Valley for part of their journey.  Mary and Joseph somehow didn’t get connected with a caravan journeying towards Jerusalem (just a few miles from Bethlehem) as they would do years later when Jesus was twelve and they ventured there for Passover.  Perhaps it was Mary’s condition itself that disallowed that safer possibility; perhaps she would have slowed the others down too much because of needing to stop more frequently or travel more slowly.  Whatever the reason, Luke tells us they traveled alone, with Mary on a donkey.  During those travels they would have been in danger from highwaymen and from numerous predators not unknown to the valley back then, including lions, bears, jackals and crocodiles.  

Though Joseph was from Bethlehem, quite possibly he no longer had family living in that little town, and quite possibly the reason there was no room at the inn was because the rooms were occupied  by Roman census takers.  The average “inn” in such a small town was not like a contemporary motel, but rather a spare room or two in someone’s home.

I don’t know how to figure out whether the Holy Family had to flee to Egypt or instead just were able to return to Nazareth after Jesus’s presentation at the Temple..  I’ll leave those musings to genuine Biblical scholars.  What I do know is that Mary delivered Jesus, the Messiah and son of God, under very trying and humble circumstances, perhaps as the first evidence that this “new born King” was equally for all people. Joseph and Mary’s faith was tested once again in being asked to believe that the Son of the Most High should appear under such amazingly humble and difficult circumstances. The recognition and celebration of their baby by people ranging from shepherds to Wise Men, probably only increased their confusion and awe, but never challenged their faith.  

My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect Son

In this beautifully written novel- a masterful retelling of the greatest story ever told – Joe Benevento weaves together authentic Jewish and early Christian history with a fresh, humorous, and relatable take on Joseph’s journey from simple man to father to saint.  A rich, majestic, and relevant read.

Gary Jansen, Author of Station to Station and the Christopher Award winner, Remember Us With Smiles.

Thanks to a generous partnership with the author, Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri will receive all royalties (in perpetuity) for the sales of the novel, My Perfect Wife, Her Perfect SonPurchase a copy for yourself (or a loved one as a wonderful Christmas gift!) online at most bookstores or on

Looking for more?

Click here to read and listen to past Advent Reflection episodes, including the Bonus Episode: A Conversation with Author Joe Benevento.