Travel

December 20, 2017

Note: Last week, I led out in staff worship at my school. Since it was the week before Christmas break, I wanted to help foster a festive feeling in my fellow faculty. The short essays focused on the connection between the Christmas story and the modern-day Christmas experience. Hope these pieces find some resonance.

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.” Luke 2:4

Some may find the Christmas story to be rather unrelatable, what with its virgin birth, mangers, and myrrh. But as someone geographically located in the middle of two sets of families, I can appreciate a good story about inconvenient travel.

According to Google Maps, one can hop on the Yitzhak Rabin Highway in Nazareth and start the 97-mile journey to arrive in Bethlehem. It’s a 2-3 hour drive depending on traffic. By comparison, it’s a 491-mile southbound trek along the I-5 to my parents’ house and a harrowing 874-mile adventure northward along I-5 and Highway 97 to my in-laws  in Washington. It is not for the faint of heart, and we’ll be flying north this year. But when we do hit the road, we’ll typically spend 2-3 hours stopping for false potty alarms, using the potty for its intended purposes, and pulling along the roadside when one of us didn’t go potty at the last highly-convenient rest area.

Of course, even with these challenges, I can’t complain or really compare. We haven’t ever made the journey on foot, like Mary and Joseph back in the day, making the trek upward to the 2,350-foot mountain town of Bethlehem. And since my daughter and son were born in September and July, respectively, we haven’t had to travel while Sara was in the full stages of with-childing. However, I am aware this pre-natal challenge would be tough. In the summer of 2009, Sara and I traveled down Highway 1 while she was a mere 7 months pregnant. Not having seen the sights along the California Coast, I suggested that we hike around Big Sur. Although the online review assured me that the trail was easy, it apparently didn’t account for pregnant women and idiot husbands. I wonder if Joseph ever got a death look or two like I did that day. Maybe things would have been better if Sara had been riding on a donkey.

In reading Luke’s narrative, I was rather surprised to find that, just like on that fateful day in Big Sur, there was no donkey. The clip clop clip clop of small donkey’s hooves has been such an indelible part of the story to me, I double-checked Luke 2, scoured Luke 1, and perused Matthew’s account just to be sure. No donkey. Stunningly clipless and clopless.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a donkey. Donkeys were like the Toyotas of Middle East transportation, while horses and camels were like the GMs and Fords. A poorer person would take a donkey as opposed to a horse. But although Jesus was an advocate for the common person, the donkey tradition didn’t seem to develop due to a focus on economy.

There is in fact a record of Jesus riding on a donkey, just out-utero as opposed to in. According to John’s account, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it.” Then a crowd gathered with palm branches shouting “Hosanna!” and declaring him king. This scene was a fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy:

“Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Apparently, a king riding on a donkey was not a particularly unusual habit for the Jews. Judges and 2 Samuel both talk about royal households with such aspirations. However, despite this kingly endorsement, a donkey still doesn’t seem particularly fitting for a king. It doesn’t have the gravitas of the horse.

And therein lies the point. While today, we would still associate a horse with the charge of war, most wouldn’t necessarily associate a donkey with peace. Especially when you consider the hostilities between Democrats and Republicans. But the Israelites did, and so this may explain all the clip clopping associated with the Christmas story. Kings who rode on horses showed that they were ready for war, while the donkey kings were signifying peace.

So we cannot be certain that Joseph held himself steady as Mary struggled to mount up on a small donkey. We don’t know that small donkey’s hooves clip clopped a rhythm as Joseph hummed the Shema to his son. We have no surety that Mary patted the faithful donkey’s head, taking in its colors and textures so she could make a straw-stuffed likeness for the baby jostling inside of her.

But I’d like to think that Jesus came at a time to catch the right type of transportation. One not nearly as convenient as some. Not a horse-drawn carriage, or a Mustang turned Uber, but a donkey that symbolized a most stubborn hope. The hope of peace. A true holiday aspiration for all travelers.

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