52Then he led out his people like sheep, and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. 53He led them in safety, so that they were not afraid; but the sea overwhelmed their enemies. 54And he brought them to his holy hill, to the mountain that his right hand had won. (Psalm 78: 52-54)
Mary and Joseph eventually came to a place near Jericho down the Wadi Kelt. Jericho was warm and almost balmy, comfortable really. It was probably a place of welcome. And at that point Mary and Joseph would turn and head straight through the wilderness toward Bethlehem near Jerusalem. The temperatures dropped and that added to the feeling of this forsaken desert that they had to traverse. It was hard to stay on track in this wilderness. The sands would blow with the wind and the pathway seemed to move beneath their feet. It was the last part of their journey, but it would be the most difficult. Temptation to get off the path met them at every turn. Most of all, they were tired, oh so tired. And yet, there was a strange sense that they were being led, guided on the pathway by some unseen force. They knew that God was with them, guiding them to the place that they were called to go. All they had to do was walk and listen and trust that God was with them. “Be not afraid,” the angel had said. It was now that those words were needed more than ever. The holy city was beckoning but the journey was one that they had never walked before.
The wilderness seems to be a repeating theme, doesn’t it? The wilderness is always there, sometimes between where we are and where we are called to go. Sometimes, we, too, have to turn, change our course, and head straight into the wilderness. And there, God leads us through—not around, but through. There are no shortcuts. God leads us through, helping us navigate the rough paths and the difficult sightlines, even when the sands seem to move our pathways beneath our feet, and, when the time is right, God brings us home. Like sheep, we follow God to the place that we are meant to be.
But, like Mary and Joseph, sometimes we have to turn, to head down a pathway that God leads us. Sometimes we have to go through a different place to get to the place that is home. Sometimes that home makes no sense without our journey through the wilderness. Three decades later, the child born to Mary would find himself again in the wilderness. It would be his very undoing and then would be the place where he would begin again, the place where he would become who he was called to be and claim it for himself. The wilderness is a place of Creation, much like the formless void that started us all.
So, on this journey to Bethlehem, perhaps God was leading Mary and Joseph to their beginning. And in the wilderness, before they arrived, they were being given a new way to see what God was about to do. In this last of their Bethlehem journey, Mary and Joseph were becoming who God called them to be. The wilderness is not often a place that we choose to go; rather it is a place that chooses us and through which we must follow so that we can arrive and on that holiest of nights know what part of it is that is ours to play not just for that night but forever. In this moment, Mary and Joseph’s lives were changing. There was no way they could back, no matter how tempting it was to control their own destiny. God was calling them forward. The Salvation of the World was waiting.
In the spiritual tradition, wilderness is the place where we leave the world behind and place ourselves at God’s disposal.. (Daniel Wolpert)
Grace and Peace,