The Miracle of Journey
The Posada is a celebration of nine days (sometimes more) which depicts the journey of an older man named Joseph and a young girl of faith who was his betrothed named Mary. An upcoming census required Joseph to return to the land of his ancestors and because Mary was his responsibility, she accompanied him. It might have been an inconsequential story except for two things: Mary was a virgin and yet, she was also quite pregnant.
Modern-day posadas are celebrations regarding the travels of Mary and Joseph which culminate in the birth of Jesus, the baby Christians believe to be the son of God, the Christ Child, their savior, the Messiah. The word “posada” translates as “inn” but the true meaning of this celebratory event is the learning for us to be gracious hosts, not just for iconic figures but, since we all are on a journey, for every person we encounter. This is especially timely as many are traveling to the southern borders of the US seeking recognition not for a census but to save their lives, recognition as human beings trying to find safe havens and the dream of a future for their families. The census for Joseph would affirm his right to live and claim a heritage. Today people are traveling great distances hoping to claim a future.
The world of Mary and Joseph was a difficult and dangerous place and conditions were harsh. The couple had to leave their home in Nazareth, in the northern highlands of Galilee, to register for a Roman census. Much as the colonists lived in 1774, Joseph was being taxed without representation since he was living outside his ancestral home. The two had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph’s ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem. It was a journey that went uphill and downhill. Most travelers were on foot but, given Mary’s impending birth, Joseph had procured a donkey.
I don’t know if you have ever ridden a donkey but I have. Their backs are quite bony which makes them ideal as pack animals and most uncomfortable as riding animals. Many of those traveling for the census would have averaged up to twenty miles a day but it is safe to estimate Mary and Joseph only accomplished ten miles daily. The trip through the Judean desert would have taken place during the winter with daytime temperatures in the upper 30’s (Fahrenheit) and nighttime temps below freezing. To protect themselves during inclement weather, Mary and Joseph would likely have worn heavy woolen cloaks, constructed to shed rain and snow. Under their cloaks, they would have worn long robes, belted at the waist and foot protection would have been heavy tube socks with enclosed shoes.
The environment through which they traveled also offered challenges. The heavily forested valley of the Jordan River in Palestine was not a pastoral scene. Lions and bears lived in the woods, and travelers had to fend off wild boars. Archeologists have unearthed documents warning travelers of the forest’s dangers like those Joseph and Mary might have encountered. “Bandits, pirates of the desert and robbers” were also common hazards along the major trade routes like the one Joseph and Mary would have traveled, explains the Rev. Peter Vasko, a Catholic priest and director of the Holy Land Foundation, an organization that works to retain a Christian presence in Israel and promotes the restoration of sacred Christian sites there. The threat of outlaws often forced solitary travelers to join trade caravans for protection. Bread and water were carried by Mary and Joseph to eat along the way. “In wineskins, they carried water,” said Vasko. “And they carried a lot of bread. . . . Breakfast would be dried bread, lunch would be oil with bread, and herbs with oil and bread in the evening.”
Today the Posada is celebrated by people hosting a package for a night and then passing it along to the next family. Normally, if traveling to Bethlehem at any other time, Joseph and his family would have been invited to stay with family members but given the extreme number of pilgrims due to the census, they had nowhere to go. The Posada replicates the concept of inviting people into one’s home. The Posada package is generally a basket containing the figure representing Joseph, one for Mary and an animal figure to denote the donkey. Often a journal accompanies the figures for the hosts to journal about their evening.
Joseph and Mary’s hardships would have begun more than a week before the birth of their son, when the couple had to leave their home in Nazareth, in the northern highlands of Galilee, to register for a Roman census. They had to travel 90 miles to the city of Joseph’s ancestors: south along the flatlands of the Jordan River, then west over the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and on into Bethlehem. I arranged to pick up my Posada via email and my drive, ironically enough in an SUV called a Journey, only took 8 minutes, covering approximately 3 miles. A thorough study of journeys reveals that a journey is much more than just movement from one place to another. Journeys are about learning and growth, and they have the potential to teach people about themselves and the society in which they live. An Imaginative Journey is one in which the individual doesn’t in fact have to go anywhere in the physical sense. The physical journey is replaced by an expedition that is fueled by the human capacity to imagine. Imaginative Journeys create endless possibilities. They can offer an escape from the realities of life, and are frequently used to comment on social or human traits and characteristics. I discovered the Posada to be both.
Over 2000 years ago, Mary and Joseph made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They likely traveled with a caravan of other travelers, perhaps with others returning for the census for the safety and companionship of traveling in numbers. There are no archaeological remains that allow us to know exactly what route they took—perhaps the shorter but more demanding walk along the trade route through the center of the region, or perhaps the flatter way through the Jordan River Valley. Regardless of the route, the approximately 100-mile trip would have taken them 8-10 long days of walking. If they went earlier then some believe, then they encountered not the cold wet winter but the blazing hot summer months. At any time, it would not have been a pleasant nor comfortable trek.
Politics necessitated this trip of Joseph and Mary and today politics are still influencing those making their own pilgrimage. Today, visitors to the Middle East can walk this route for themselves, and encounter beautiful views, rural villages, olive fields, hospitable local people and, yes, even Samaritans. Called the Nativity Trail, it was developed by Palestinians as part of the Bethlehem 2000 Project as a tourism and economic development project. The trail began in Nazareth, hometown of Mary, and stretched straight down through the West Bank to Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth. Sadly, shortly after the trail was inaugurated, the second intifada and subsequent closures and checkpoints made the trail almost impossible to walk from 2002-2008. In 2008, the trail was revived with an altered route to avoid new settlement areas and other obstacles. The trail also now usually begins in Faqu’a in the northern Palestinian Territories rather than Nazareth because of the logistical difficulties of movement between Israel and the West Bank.
My hosting of the Posada included a Jewish lullaby known as “joseph Dearest, Joseph Mine”, the telling of the Nativity story in a song called “Mary Had a Baby Boy”, and a celebratory song by a Shira (Jewish males) group entitled “Rachem” (pronounced ray-him). Rachem means both mercy and compassion and I am positive both were sought the night of Jesus’ birth. Participating in the Posada certainly reminded me to offer both to others.
We all have the chance to make an everyday miracle by offering mercy, kindness, and compassion to all we encounter on our daily walk of life. The story of Jesus’ birth is a literary hero’s tale, whether you believe in the spiritual aspects of it or not. It also writes the first chapter of each day’s opportunity for us to become hero in our normal paths of life. Every hero story has the hero being presented with a challenge. At first the hero will refuse the challenge, doubtful of success. We certainly should all be able to relate to that. Eventually though, the hero accepts the challenge and takes that first step, committed to do his/her best. Most of us do not have to walk ninety miles or more, though some will this week alone. For us to do something wonderful, we only have to offer a smile, a helping hand, be generous in our sharing with others.
The Posada serves to remind us we all are travelers and will, at some point in time, rely on the kindness of others. Ursula La Guin stated that it was good to have an end to one’s journey but in the end it was the journey that mattered. The Posada celebration is half over today but for those of us living, we have just begun today’s trek. Arthur Ashe believed success was a journey, not a destination. The same might be said of living. Last night the Posada figures slept under the watchful eye of an angel statue while in another room Puerto Rican wise men statues inched closer, awaiting the Feast of Epiphany in seventeen days. My Posada will end in a few hours, having been an everyday miracle in itself but the journey for us all is just beginning.