1, 2. Describe Mary’s journey, and explain what made it uncomfortable for her.
MARY shifted her weight uncomfortably atop the little beast of burden. She had been riding for hours. Just ahead, Joseph walked steadily onward, leading the way along the road toward distant Bethlehem. Mary once again felt the stirring of life within her.
2 Mary was well along in her pregnancy; the Bible describes her at this time with the expressive phrase “heavy with child.” (Luke 2:5) As the couple passed by one field after another, perhaps some of the farmers looked up from their plowing or sowing and wondered why a woman in such a condition would go on a journey. What had led Mary so far from her home in Nazareth?
3. What assignment had Mary received, and what will we seek to learn about her?
3 It all began months earlier when this young Jewish woman received an assignment that was unique in all human history. She was to give birth to the child who would become the Messiah, the Son of God! (Luke 1:35) As the time to give birth approached, the need to take this journey arose. In the process, Mary faced a number of challenges to her faith. Let us see what helped her to stay spiritually strong.
The Trip to Bethlehem
4, 5. (a) Why were Joseph and Mary heading to Bethlehem? (b) Caesar’s decree led to the fulfillment of what prophecy?
4 Joseph and Mary were not the only ones on the move. Caesar Augustus had recently decreed that a registration be carried out in the land, and people had to travel to their town of origin in order to comply. How did Joseph respond? The account reads: “Of course, Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because of his being a member of the house and family of David.”—Luke 2:1-4.
5 It was no coincidence that Caesar issued his decree at this time. A prophecy written down some seven centuries earlier foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Now, it so happened that there was a town named Bethlehem a mere seven miles (11 km) from Nazareth. However, the prophecy specified that it was “Bethlehem Ephrathah” that would produce the Messiah. (Read Micah 5:2.) To reach that little village from Nazareth, travelers covered some 80 hilly miles (130 km) via Samaria. That was the Bethlehem to which Joseph was summoned, for it was the ancestral home of the family of King David—the family to which both Joseph and his bride belonged.
6, 7. (a) Why might a journey to Bethlehem have presented challenges to Mary? (b) Being the wife of Joseph made what difference in Mary’s decisions? (See also footnote.)
6 Would Mary support Joseph in his decision to comply? After all, the trip would be hard on her. It was likely early in the autumn of the year, so light rains were possible as the dry season gradually ended. What is more, the phrase “went up from Galilee” is appropriate, for Bethlehem was perched at a lofty altitude of over 2,500 feet (760 m)—quite a climb, an arduous end to a trek of several days. Perhaps it would take longer than usual, for Mary’s condition might require numerous periods of rest. Now, of all times, a young woman might yearn to stay close to home, where she had family and friends who were ready to help when her birth pangs began. Without a doubt, she needed to have courage to take this trip.
7 Nonetheless, Luke writes that Joseph went “to get registered with Mary.” He also notes that Mary “had been given [to Joseph] in marriage as promised.” (Luke 2:4, 5) Being Joseph’s wife made a great deal of difference in Mary’s decisions. She viewed her husband as her spiritual head, embracing her God-given role as his helper by supporting him in his decisions.* So she met this potential challenge to her faith with simple obedience.
8. (a) What else may have motivated Mary to go to Bethlehem with Joseph? (b) In what way is Mary’s example a beacon for faithful people?
8 What else may have motivated Mary to obey? Did she know of the prophecy about Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah? The Bible does not say. We cannot rule out the possibility, for the fact was evidently common knowledge among religious leaders and even people in general. (Matt. 2:1-7; John 7:40-42) When it came to the Scriptures, Mary was far from an ignorant girl. (Luke 1:46-55) At any rate, whether Mary decided to travel in order to obey her husband, a secular decree, or Jehovah’s own prophecy—or because of a combination of factors—she set a splendid example. Jehovah greatly values a humble, obedient spirit in both men and women. In our age, when submission often seems to be among the most disregarded of virtues, Mary’s example stands as a beacon for faithful people everywhere.
The Birth of Christ
9, 10. (a) What might Mary and Joseph have thought about while approaching Bethlehem? (b) Why did Joseph and Mary lodge where they did?
9 Mary must have breathed a sigh of relief when she first caught sight of Bethlehem. As they mounted the hillsides, passing by olive groves—among the last of the crops to be harvested—Mary and Joseph may well have thought about the history of this little village. It was too insignificant to be numbered among Judah’s cities, just as Micah the prophet had said; yet it was the birthplace of Boaz, Naomi, and later David, all more than a thousand years earlier.
10 Mary and Joseph found the village to be crowded. Others had arrived to register before them, so there was no space for them at the lodging room.* They had no choice but to settle down for the night in a stable. We can just imagine Joseph’s concern as he saw his wife suffering a sharp discomfort she had never known, which then intensified. Here, of all places, her birth pangs had begun.
11. (a) Why can women everywhere empathize with Mary? (b) In what ways was Jesus a “firstborn”?
11 Women everywhere can empathize with Mary. Some 4,000 years earlier, Jehovah had foretold that it would be the common lot of women to suffer pain during childbirth because of inherited sin. (Gen. 3:16) There is no evidence to suggest that Mary was any exception. Luke’s account draws a discreet curtain of privacy around the scene, saying simply: “She gave birth to her son, the firstborn.” (Luke 2:7) Yes, her “firstborn” had arrived—the first of Mary’s many children, at least seven in all. (Mark 6:3) This one, though, would ever stand apart. Not only was he her firstborn but he was Jehovah’s own “firstborn of all creation,” the only-begotten Son of God!—Col. 1:15.
12. Where did Mary lay the baby, and how was the reality different from nativity plays, paintings, and scenes?
12 It is at this point that the account adds a famous detail: “She bound him with cloth bands and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7) Nativity plays, paintings, and scenes around the world sentimentalize this setting. Consider, though, the reality. A manger is a feeding trough, a bin from which farm animals eat. Remember, the family was lodging in a stable, hardly a place to be noted for good air or hygiene—then or now. Really, what parents would choose such a spot for childbirth if there were any other options? Most parents want the best for their children. How much more so did Mary and Joseph want to provide the best for the Son of God!
13. (a) In what way did Mary and Joseph do their best with what they had? (b) How can wise parents today cultivate priorities similar to those of Joseph and Mary?
13 However, they did not let their limitations embitter them; they simply did the best they could with what they had. Notice, for instance, that Mary herself cared for the infant, wrapping him up snugly in cloth bands, then laying him carefully in the manger to sleep, ensuring that he would be warm and safe. Mary was not about to let anxiety over her present circumstances distract her from providing the best that she could. She and Joseph both knew, too, that caring spiritually for this child would be the most important thing they could do for him. (Read Deuteronomy 6:6-8.) Today, wise parents cultivate similar priorities as they bring their children up in this spiritually impoverished world.
A Visit Brings Encouragement
14, 15. (a) Why were the shepherds eager to see the child? (b) What did the shepherds do about what they had seen in the stable?
14 A sudden commotion disturbed the peaceful scene. Shepherds rushed into the stable, eager to see the family and the child in particular. These men were bubbling over with excitement, their faces radiating joy. They had hurried in from the hillsides where they were living with their flocks.* They told the wondering parents about a marvelous experience they had just had. On the hillside during the night watch, an angel had suddenly appeared to them. Jehovah’s glory had gleamed all around, and the angel told them that the Christ, or Messiah, had just been born in Bethlehem. They would find the child lying in a manger, swaddled in cloth bands. Then, something even more spectacular happened—a mighty host of angels appeared, praising God!—Luke 2:8-14.
15 No wonder these humble men came rushing into Bethlehem! They must have been thrilled to see a newborn infant lying there just as the angel had described. They did not keep this good news to themselves. “They made known the saying . . . And all that heard marveled over the things told them by the shepherds.” (Luke 2:17, 18) The religious leaders of the day evidently looked down on shepherds. But Jehovah clearly valued these humble, faithful men. How, though, did this visit affect Mary?
Jehovah clearly valued the humble, faithful shepherds
16. How did Mary show that she truly was thoughtful, revealing what key to her faith?
16 Mary was surely exhausted from the rigors of childbirth, yet she listened intently to every word. And she did more: “Mary began to preserve all these sayings, drawing conclusions in her heart.” (Luke 2:19) This young woman truly was thoughtful. She knew that this angelic message was vital. Her God, Jehovah, wanted her to know and to appreciate her son’s identity and importance. So she did more than listen. She stored away the words in her heart so that she could ponder over them again and again in the months and years to come. Here is an outstanding key to the faith that Mary showed throughout her life.—Read Hebrews 11:1.
17. How can we follow Mary’s example when it comes to spiritual truths?
17 Will you follow Mary’s example? Jehovah has filled the pages of his Word with vital spiritual truths. However, those truths can do us little good unless we first pay attention to them. We do that by reading the Bible regularly—not merely as a work of literature but as the inspired Word of God. (2 Tim. 3:16) Then, like Mary, we need to store up spiritual sayings in our heart, drawing conclusions. If we meditate on what we read in the Bible, contemplating ways that we can apply Jehovah’s counsel more fully, we will give our faith the nourishment it needs to grow.
More Sayings to Preserve
18. (a) How did Mary and Joseph obey the Mosaic Law in Jesus’ early days? (b) What did the offering that Joseph and Mary gave at the temple reveal about their financial situation?
18 On the baby’s eighth day, Mary and Joseph had him circumcised as the Mosaic Law required, naming him Jesus, as directed. (Luke 1:31) Then, on the 40th day, they took him from Bethlehem to the temple in Jerusalem, some six miles (about 10 km) away, and presented the purification offerings that the Law allowed for poorer folk—two turtledoves or two pigeons. If they felt shame in offering less than the ram and a turtledove that other parents could afford, they put such feelings aside. At any rate, they received powerful encouragement while they were there.—Luke 2:21-24.
19. (a) How did Simeon give Mary more sayings to treasure in her heart? (b) What was Anna’s reaction on seeing Jesus?
19 An aged man named Simeon approached them and gave Mary even more sayings to treasure in her heart. He had been promised that he would see the Messiah before he died, and Jehovah’s holy spirit indicated to him that little Jesus was the foretold Savior. Simeon also warned Mary of the pain that she would one day have to endure. He said that she would feel as if a long sword were run through her. (Luke 2:25-35) Even those foreboding words may have helped Mary to endure when that hard time arrived, three decades later. After Simeon, a prophetess named Anna saw little Jesus and began speaking about him to everyone who cherished the hope of Jerusalem’s deliverance.—Read Luke 2:36-38.
20. How did bringing Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem prove to be a good decision?
20 What a good decision Joseph and Mary had made in bringing their baby to Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem! They thus launched their son on a lifelong course of faithful attendance at Jehovah’s temple. While there, they gave of themselves according to their ability and received words of instruction and encouragement. Mary surely left the temple that day stronger in faith, her heart full of spiritual sayings to meditate on and share with others.
21. How can we ensure that our faith will grow ever stronger, as Mary’s did?
21 It is a beautiful thing to see parents today following that example. Among Jehovah’s Witnesses, parents faithfully bring their children to Christian meetings. Such parents give what they can, offering words of encouragement to their fellow believers. And they come away stronger, happier, and full of good things to share with others. What a pleasure it is to meet with them! As we do, we will find that our faith, like Mary’s, will grow ever stronger.
Note the contrast between this passage and the description of an earlier trip: “Mary rose . . . and went” to visit Elizabeth. (Luke 1:39) At that time, as an engaged but unwed woman, Mary may have acted without consulting Joseph. After the couple were married, the action of their trip together is ascribed to Joseph, not Mary.
It was the practice of the day for towns to provide a common room to shelter travelers and passing caravans.
That these shepherds at the time were living out-of-doors with their flocks confirms what Bible chronology indicates: The birth of Christ did not occur in December when the flocks would have been sheltered closer to home but, rather, sometime in early October.