The image above is by graphic artist Everett Patterson, from his family’s 2014 Christmas card. If you click on it, it will take you to his blog post from that year. I think that it reminds us of how difficult both the journey and the birth were for them. This is also one of the rare times in which I think that Saint John Chrysostom really got it badly wrong. On Matthew 1, he comments, “And wherefore did she not conceive before her espousal? It was, as I said at first, that what had been done might be concealed awhile, and that the Virgin might escape every evil suspicion.” Sadly, while St. Chrysostom was busily preserving the Virgin’s reputation, the Bible appears to give a different picture.
Luke 2 points out that Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem with her pregnant, and no room to be found for them. This happens in a culture in which hospitality is highly revered, and where one of the pivotal Biblical stories, Abraham and the angels, is built around the theme of hospitality and the reward that came from being hospitable. That this was the understood is pointed out by the author of Hebrews, who encourages hospitality by pointing out that some have entertained angels by being hospitable. Yet, this hospitable culture could not find even a floor’s worth of room for Joseph and Mary. There is a hint here that Mary’s condition is known, thus she is not acceptable to the townspeople. Another small hint was found earlier when Mary is sent away to be with Elizabeth. That God gives Mary some comfort is found when Elizabeth declares that Mary is the mother of her Lord. You can almost hear Mary’s sobbing relief as the Spirit of God comes upon her and she utters the Magnificat, the Ode of the Theotokos, “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. …” This is the cry of she who has been sent away to a relative’s house because of her pregnancy, only to arrive there and be believed! This is not St. Chrysostom’s picture of the Virgin. He was too wrapped up in preserving her reputation to miss the very human story that is actually told in Scripture.
It is no surprise that, later, Joseph and Mary decide to stay in Bethlehem and that the Magi find Jesus in a house sometime afterward. We do not know how long afterward, other than that the Star of Bethlehem showed up and then the Magi started traveling. Given travel in the Middle East during those times, this had to be at least a couple of months later, and up to a year or so later. It is posited that this is why Herod had the entire cohort of children two-and-under killed, because that way he could be sure that the new King was killed. Herod would have based his kill order on the travel time of the Magi, with some room to give a margin for calculations. But, to get back to my original point, it is probable that the Holy Family stayed in the Bethlehem area to avoid the inevitable small town gossip in Nazareth. Even after Jesus eventually grows up in Nazareth, there is not much love for him in Nazareth, and he decides to make his home in Capernaum.
There is also another hint of this in John 8, in a dispute with the Pharisees. At one point they ask him, “Where is your father?” Later in that chapter, they make a comment, “We are not illegitimate children.” And, finally, they say, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan …?” They well knew that Jesus’ family was Galilean. The Samaritan insult is tantamount to calling him a half-breed, which is what the Samaritans were considered. It was an indirect way of insinuating that Mary partnered with an unknown man, perhaps a Roman soldier. The Roman soldier story is reported in the 2nd century by the Greek philosopher Celsus, who claimed that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier named Panthera.
The Bible story is not the story of a sheltered Mary who went to the Temple at an early age, to come out only when she could be safely–and immediately–handed over to an older caretaker. While that story is found in an apocryphal Gospel and is celebrated in two of the Orthodox feasts, the Western Church’s conception of a young couple, and a Mary who grew up in Nazareth with her parents, is the much more likely interpretation of what is found in Holy Scripture. The story in the apocryphal Gospel, like St. Chrysostom’s sermon, is more the attempt to “protect” Mary’s reputation, according to the standards of a “good girl” in the second and third century, than it is a portrayal of the gritty situation found in Holy Scripture. On this one, I go with the Western Church, not the Eastern Church. Even Archbishop Kallistos and Mother Mary, writing in their magisterial book, “The Festal Menaion”, in scholarly honesty finally state, “The Orthodox Church does not place the Protevangelion of James on the same level as Holy Scripture: it is possible, then, to accept the spiritual truth which underlies this narrative, without necessarily attributing a literal and historical exactness to every detail.” That is typical British understatement, which accents the statements made, and the difficulty they have with the Eastern stories.
All the Church Fathers agree that the Theotokos was a teenager (probably 14, according to them) at the time of her pregnancy. She has been betrothed, but her “husband” nearly divorces her. That is not a believing Saint Joseph, but an unbelieving man who has to be persuaded by a personal visit from an angel. Mary’s family sends her off in shame to her cousin Elizabeth, which means that the angel did not get to Joseph right away. It also means that her parents did not believe either. Only Elizabeth believed. After spending three months with cousin Elizabeth, she returns to get married, probably showing already. She makes a very difficult trip to Bethlehem. And, I guarantee that the ancients could count and would know that Mary was very ahead of time. Inhospitably, no one will take the couple in. Finally, they end up in an empty manger or small barn.
And so, I find the drawing above evocative. It is the picture of a young couple in a questionable part of town, trying to find a place to stay while Mary strokes her swollen belly that is already going into contractions. Sadly, that is the story that is more likely pictured in the Holy Scriptures.