Wednesday, December 23, 2009
A Seasonal Pilgrimage
This time of year, of course, we note a famous pilgrimage without generally calling it such.
The Christmas story we celebrate begins with two crises: first the dangerous pregnancy of a very young girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old. Pregnant by--whom? An over-eager, insufficiently cautious finace? A Roman soldier committing another rape because he can? Or was it...God? Mary is vulnerable to Jewish law, and could be stoned to death for what would be assumed to be her transgression. The second crisis, nearly 9 months later, when the young couple heads to Bethlehem under pressure of the government's need to take a census. Now. Of all times. So, the story goes, Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem.
Historicity? Doubtful at best. The Romans only counted their own in censuses. Even though there was a census in 6 b.c, they wouldn't bother to count the Jews. Second, not even the most bone-headed administrator would send people back to their birthplaces to be counted. It was only a little less stupid then than it would be now to do such a thing. The story of Jesus' birth in a cave in Bethlehem is most likely a fiction added later in order to fit his life story with Micah's prophecy of a savior's birth in Bethlehem.
Or...perhaps...remember who this girl is. When the angel told her she was to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit (if she consented,) first she argued with the angel on matters of biology. No sex, no baby, she said. When the angel said that wouldn't be a problem, she responded by echoing a great Hebrew Bible song of the triumph of the lowly over the powerful. To latch onto this song revealed Mary as something of a middle-school-age political firebrand. In this child, God would "cast down the mighty from their thrones." The rich would be "sent away empty." Mary was a girl with attitude.
It is possible that it was Mary herself who wanted to take the dangerous trip to Bethlehem. She was raised on scripture, and knew very well of Micah's prophecy. And her child, by God, would be that messiah. So she and Joseph saddled up and headed off. This is an act of some determination: 9 months pregnant, joints loosening in preparation for birth, ankles swollen, belly sore, unable to sleep anyway, she hops a donkey for a weeklong pilgrimage, a transformative journey to a holy place. Or she'd make it holy, anyway. Perhaps they intended to go stay for a week or two, get settled a little, but the very jostling of the trip brought on the birth a little early. But no, her water broke early, they found a stable, and Jesus arrived on his own schedule.
I've been focused on pilgrimage not as about the end but the walking, the step by step by step. The character of a pilgrim is in the walking. Here we have a young girl making her pilgrimage into the danger of giving birth without relatives to help (and where do you find a midwife in a strange town?) She did so, perhaps, in order to fulfill a minor prophet's whim, that this unimportant town might have some claim to fame. What do you suppose they chatted about on the road? What stories did they tell? What fears did they share? What hopes? Who did they meet on the way? Who was kind to them the nights they stayed en route to Bethlehem?
Another pilgrimage, another transformation, this time a transformation of all creation.