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kept in His hands
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The Christmas Story
by Real Live Preacher

Part Three
The Journey

If Mary had any misgivings about leaving Nazareth and having her baby in Bethlehem among strangers, the months leading up to their departure erased all doubt from her mind. She and Joseph became social outcasts, one-dimensional characters. She was the "bad girl" who got pregnant, and he was the "desperate fool" who was going to marry her anyway.

Some people stared and whispered. Others gave them nasty looks or pulled their children tightly into their robes if Mary or Joseph walked by.

Though they originally wanted to return to Nazareth after the baby was born, they soon decided it would be better just to start a new life in Bethlehem. So Joseph finished what work he had, and then sold his tools across the Jordan in the Decapolis, where they didn't care who was pregnant or how she got that way. He planned to buy new tools in Judea and practice his trade after they were settled in Bethlehem.

And so, early one morning, Joseph packed his donkey with everything they owned, shouldered a hefty pack, and led Mary out of Nazareth just as the first rays of sunlight could be seen in the Eastern sky. They tried to be quiet as they weaved between the sleepy houses. The only sound they made was when Mary wept as she passed her childhood home.

No one knew they were leaving, and no one would have said good-bye if they HAD known. It was one of the more ironic moments in history. Two lowly outcasts slipped out of town unnoticed, beginning a journey that would end with the birth of the most important and influential human ever to walk the planet.

And though it was the journey that frightened them in the beginning, it was in Bethlehem that they would learn there are worse things in life than whispering neighbors. Much worse.

The trip itself was not terribly difficult. They were young and strong, having known nothing but walking and hard work all of their lives. They kept a slow pace, traveling about ten miles a day and taking frequent rests.

Leaving Nazareth, they moved south, passing near Nain and through Jezreel, spending the second night in Jeblaam, on the border of Samaria. They were both nervous about passing through Samaria, having been taught to fear and loathe Samaritans since childhood. But they were surprised to find the villagers of that region to be gentle and kind.

In fact, it was in Samaria that they came to understand the power of a pregnant woman. They had only to come limping into a village - which was usually nothing more than a scattering of earthen homes - and the local women would flock to Mary's aid. There would be some clucking and scolding, some outrage that she was traveling in her condition, but they were always given food, drink, and shelter for the night if needed.

Joseph, who had some knowledge of the law, offered silent prayers for forgiveness because of the impurity of the food, but he counted Mary's health as the most important thing. He vowed to offer a hundred sacrifices in Jerusalem one day if only God would keep Mary and the baby safe.

For her part, Mary never forgot the kindness of the Samaritan people. It was in Samaria where she first received acceptance for her child, and she reveled in the nurturing attention. Years later, when she told her son the story of his birth, she always spoke kindly of the Samaritans who welcomed them when they were strangers.

The most memorable event of the journey happened near the Samaritan village of Sychar, close to mount Gerazim. They stopped at the famous well of Jacob and were remembering their own meeting at the well in Nazareth, which seemed like years before. Mary told Joseph that she never believed that line about him needing to water someone's donkey. They were still laughing when a beautiful Samaritan woman came to the well. When she smiled at the two of them, the baby kicked so violently that Mary gasped and held her stomach. The woman rushed over and put one hand on Mary's back. She then moved her other hand slowly toward her bulging tummy, looking into Mary's eyes to see if it was okay. When Mary smiled, the woman laid her hand softly on the roundness of her belly. She closed her eyes and proclaimed the child to be very strong indeed. Joseph felt the happiness that is a man's pride, then he felt a rush of emotion as he realized that he was beginning to feel like a father.

On the fifth day they crossed the southern Samaritan border and entered Judea. They spent that night in the ancient city of Shiloh where Hannah had cried out to the Lord for a child. They continued to travel slowly, finally drawing within sight of the holy city of Jerusalem on the morning of the seventh day.

Normally they would have passed through Jerusalem, enjoying the sights and perhaps even visiting the temple, but Joseph was in a hurry now. The ancient lands of Judah were familiar to him, and he was itching to see his home. They took a goatherd path around Jerusalem to the west, and drew close to Bethlehem in the late afternoon. Joseph could feel his heart beating when they got near his hometown. He was, after all, a proud son of the house of David, and Bethlehem was in his blood.

Out of respect for David, all the young boys in Joseph's family tended sheep. It was an informal rite of passage, you might say. As a young shepherd, Joseph had roamed the hills and shallow valleys all around Bethlehem, and he still remembered every path and cove. Now he had a surprise for Mary. He led her toward Bethlehem on an old sheep trail, coming in from the Northwest in such a way that her view of the city was blocked by a good-sized hill.

They took a rest, at his suggestion, behind a clump of cedar on the side of the hill. Mary looked deeply tired and asked, "How much farther is it?"

Joseph smiled and helped her to her feet. "Not far now," he said, taking her by the hand. He led her around the cedar, and she gasped to find Bethlehem laid out before her eyes on a hillside across a little valley. Earth colored buildings were clumped together, spilling over the side of a large hill, with smaller dwellings dotting the ground around the city in no apparent order. Here and there little boys could be seen running after sheep, gathering their flocks for the coming night.

Mary was speechless with joy. Joseph nodded, "Pretty, isn't it? Welcome to Bethlehem, the city of David and my…OUR home."

The trip across the little valley seemed like the longest part of their journey, but they finally found themselves winding their way through the haphazard streets of the ancient town. Roads, paths, and alleys sprouted in every direction, but Joseph knew the way and led them to a quiet corner of the city. And finally they stood before the door of his parents' home.

Joseph exhaled powerfully, letting his shoulders sag. He had not been able to relax since they left Nazareth. He touched Mary's cheek and said, "We're home."

(to be continued in Part Four - The Rejection)
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