Someone traveling from Nazareth to Bethlehem today could take advantage of modern roads and transportation and make the trip in an afternoon. By air it would take less than an hour; the two are only 80 miles apart as the crow flies.
But those options weren't on the table when Joseph and Mary made their trip, sometime during the last weeks of Mary's pregnancy. There was no direct route, only two winding roads. The longer one crossed the Jordan River, headed south and crossed back over it to head back west. The shorter one went through the Judean hill country and actually crossed the border with Samaria.
Most Galileans and Judeans, being good Jews who didn't mix with Samaritans, took the longer road. As might be imagined of the two people God picked to raise his son, such prejudices played no role in their thinking. Even if they had, the two extra days the other route involved probably would have played a bigger role, especially for the traveler who wasn't too far from giving birth and who would not have traveled well. So while we can't know which road Joseph and Mary followed, I feel pretty confident they took the shorter route that traversed Samaria.
Either way, this was not a journey they had planned on or would have chosen had the decision been theirs. Mary obviously would much rather have stayed near her own mother and friends, women whom she'd known and who she would depend on in the coming difficult time of delivery. The discomfort of late-term pregnancy would only be multiplied by traveling.
Joseph would not have wanted to be away from his wife at this important time. Of course he and Mary knew the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but in the eyes of everyone else this was his own firstborn. That's not a good time for a fellow to be absent from his wife, not if he doesn't want to get talked about by the villagers. And not in a good way.
Yet because of the demands of the Romans, Joseph at least had to make the trip. For her own reasons, Mary made it also. There they both are, probably wondering why answering God's call means so much trouble. I think I would be, at least.
In fact, I know I would be. For whatever reason, we've lost sight of the reality that answering God's call sometimes means traveling a difficult journey. We focus on what God does to make our lives better, and we should never forget that reality. There are things I would never have done right if I had not been following God. There are wonderful things in my life I'd never have had if I wasn't following God. I'm a better person, a better son and a better friend because I follow God.
But there have been hard things. Sometimes I have had to say things or do things that were not easy, and I did them because I'm following the path God called me to. My first six months in Altus, I did six funerals -- one an infant, and then two months later his grandmother. Day before yesterday was the first Friday in four weeks I wasn't at the cemetery. I've watched couples I married split and dealt with other things I would never have had on my plate if I'd had my own way.
Sometimes we need to remember that the journey God calls us to isn't always just a nice downhill glide. Sometimes it's a hard slog along a hilly road when you're nine months pregnant, or whatever equivalent might come in your life. God doesn't cause those things, any more than God caused Joseph and Mary's last-minute trip. But God does call us to perservere in those circumstances, and to still seek him.
The marevlous thing is that at the ultimate end of all of these journeys is the same thing that awaited Joseph and Mary at the end of theirs: The coming of Christ, the presence of God with them.
He awaits us too.