“Are we there yet?” That is an all-too-familiar question on many road trips. You know it’s coming when the kids start growing restless in the backseat. They can’t get comfortable. They can’t get along with one another. They can’t get why dad has to sing along to the radio. It is an irritating inquiry from an irritated inquirer, and once the words come out they have a tendency to reappear.
Though she may not have verbalized it, I can imagine that Mary probably felt like asking that question on the long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. After all, it was about an 80 mile journey over bumpy and hilly terrain, she was riding on a donkey, and she was pregnant. Nine months pregnant! If anybody had a right to cry out “Are we there yet?” it was Mary.
Can you even imagine how Mary must have felt being jostled around on a donkey for nearly a week while pregnant? She wasn’t reclining comfortably in a cushioned seat of a spacious SUV. Her ride didn’t have any high-performance tires or power steering, either. It was a rough-riding, slow-moving, fierce-smelling, animal.
There was also the threat of bandits and beasts. Jesus mentioned the reality of roadside robbers in one of His parables (Luke 10:30), and lions, bears, and wild boars were lurking in the woods nearby. In fact, archaeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest's dangers. That is why people usually traveled in groups.
Octavian was ruling, but God was in charge. He used the edict to move Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem in time for the birth of Christ. This was to fulfill Micah’s prophecy:
“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (5:2).
Other prophecies were fulfilled in the birth of Christ as well, including Genesis 49:10 (tribe of Judah), Isaiah 7:14 (born of a virgin), and Jeremiah 23:5 (descendant of David).
As if the arduous journey were not enough, when Joseph and Mary finally reach their destination there was no place to stay. The town was packed with people for the enrollment and the inn was full. Therefore, Mary was forced to give birth where the animals were kept.
“And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (vv. 6-7).
Since shepherds were out in the fields (Luke 2:8), it is likely that Christ was born sometime between spring and early fall. They would not have been in the fields during the cold and rainy month of December. It is also likely that Christ was born in a cave rather than the traditional wooden structure we see today.
“But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him” (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 78, 304).
In the second century, Emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over the cave identified as the birthplace of Christ. Constantine the Great later tore down that temple and built a church over the cave. Today, the Church of the Nativity stands over the cave.
The most significant event in human history up to that point unfolded in a seemingly insignificant fashion: an obscure cave, in an obscure village, to obscure people. There was no pomp or pageantry. There was no celebration in the streets. While it certainly garnered all of heaven’s attention (Luke 2:13-14), few on earth seemed to notice. Yet in a wonderful display of grace, the Creator was born as a creature. God became man. Messiah arrived. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” brought forth the Bread of Life (John 6). How fitting!