When Joseph and Mary departed to Bethlehem to register for the payment of their taxes, Mary was about to give birth to The Son of God. Can you imagine this adventure. The Son of God making such a journey?
The Hymn by Saint Ephraim proclaims:
Blessed art thou, bethlehem, that the towns envy thee––and the fortified cities!
This journey was not a easy one. An average trip in those days would involve only about 15 miles per day.
There is an icon of their trip in the Monastery of Chora in Constantinople (Istanbul). In it we see Joseph with a slight stoop and a gate of an elderly man. He was generally thought to be about 80 years of age at this time. His eyes are turned toward Mary who has her head turned towards him. One of Joseph's sons is leading with his mantle flowing and carrying a bundle of provisions for the trip.
In the Hymn from the ninth hour on the eve of the Nativity we hear the following dialogue,
"O virgin, when Joseph went up to Bethlehem sounded by sorrow, thou didst cry to him: 'Why art thou downcast and troubled, seeing me great with child? Why art thou wholly ignorant of the fearful mystery that comes to pass in me? Henceforth, cast every fear aside and understand this strange marvel: for in my womb God now descends upon the earth for mercy's sake, and He has taken flesh. thou shalt see Him according to His good pleasure, when He is born; and fill with joy thou shalt worship Him as Thy Creator, Whom the angels praise without ceasing in song and glorify with the father and the Holy Spirit.'"
For this three day journey, they would have carried with them only a few necessities common with a poor family of this time. The surroundings of His birth was total poverty. But this is part of His message and inconsistent with His divine nature. Earthly splendor would not have been fitting for He who came to save the common man from sin and call every person to be renewed and become reunited with God.
In this next icon from the Monastery of Chora we see depicted the scene of registration for their taxes In it we see Quirinius, the governor of Syria, with a fully armed military guard. there is a scribe holding an unfurled scroll which has a record of the names. Mary is see standing tall in a graceful poise with he head bowed with humility toward the officers. She draws he maphorion modestly around her shoulder. Joseph is shown with his four sons assisting her.
So, what kind of place did God arrange for this miraculous birth? There was no room for them to stay and they had to find a cave shared with animals, hardly a clean place for the birth of a child. It was in fact the lowest place for a birth yet fitting as a place for the Lord of All to be born.
The Apolytikion of the forefeast is as follows,
"Mary once, with aged Joseph, went to be taxed in Bethlehem, for they were of the linage of David; and she bore in her womb the Fruit that had not been sown. The time of the birth was at hand and there was no room in the inn; but the cave proved a fair palace for the Queen. Christ is born, that He may raise again the image that before was fallen."
A Hymn by Saint John of Damascus From the canon of the forefeast, Ode six.
"How shall a small cave receive thee, for Whom the world cannot find a room. O thou Whom none can comprehend! O Thou, Who with the Father are without beginning, how shalt thou appear as a small child?
This humble beginning is a clear message for all of us. We too must become humble if we are to follow Him.
Saint Gregory Palamas says,
The way to be exaulted and to resemble Him is not arrogance but humility. Because of this, men are easily set right, as they recognize humility as the road by which they are recalled...
He who defines all things and is limited by none is contained in a small, makeshift manger. He who holds the universe and grasps it in the hollow of his hand, is wrapped in narrow swaddling bands and fastened into ordinary clothes. He who possess the riches fo inehaustable treasures submits Himself voluntarily to such great poverty that He does not even havre aplace at the inn; and so He enters into a cave at the time of His birth, who was brought forth by God tielessly and impassibly and without beginning. And––how great a wonder!__ not only does He who shares the nature of the Father on high put on our fallen nature through His birth, nor is He subject merely to the utter poverty of being born in a wretched cave, but right fromt he very start, while still in the womb, He accepts the final condemnation of our nature.From His first days on earth Jesus showed us that the path to union with God was based on humility and detachment from earthly pleasures.