Jesus’ Trips to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and eventually a straightaway through Jericho rather than a right turn to Jerusalem.
Let us look at Jesus’ trips from Nazareth up to Jerusalem Way. He made the trip many times.
Luke’s Gospel features Jesus’ main trips to Jerusalem to how his own gospel is organized, but Matthew’s does not do it that way—but he makes the first ministry story—in Matthew 3—today’s Sunday gospel, all about Jesus’ famous trip to be baptized, as the revealed start of what Jesus will do for the world.
Firstly, as Matthew the evangelist sees it, Jesus shows Himself to be the Pure One, the Chosen One, the Messiah, God’s only Son and Savior. Jesus has a public start to ministry, and it takes place right where many famous Hebrew Testament events occurred, as like Joshua’s entry to reclaim the Holy Land, and where Elijah charioted off to heaven and thus where Elisha got His double- spirit blessing, and close where the foreigner Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy and found his conversion to the true God.
At this place where the Jordan River starts, near the Dead Sea, Jesus will take rituals, like the Jewish purification rites of the “mikvah bath,” as well as the baptism “plunge” that John the Baptist was using, and Our Lord will turn it into a real and true cleansing of sin from Him and a plunge into His saving mysteries for salvation. The ritualistic and symbolic things become real and present, as Jesus says “the kingdom of God is here.” The Father reveals Himself (in the rumble words) and the Spirit does too (in the Dove). Jesus comes forth from the water as the One who will cleanse and forgive and save sinners, in a mission down to earth from Heaven.
Let’s talk of Jesus’ trips in the Gospels. Today’s Matthean Gospel says how “Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him.” This would describe how Jesus was coming from Nazareth in Galilee and traveling up along the Jordan, east of Jerusalem, to arrive where John was preaching and baptizing.” This trip is a very special one, for it marks to start of Jesus’ ministry era.
But I would like to point out to you the two other trips that Jesus took from Nazareth to Jerusalem Way, back as a pre-born, in the Visitation and the Nativity Joyful Mysteries.
He comes to Jerusalem in the womb of Mary for His first pilgrimage. Yes, 27 years later on John and Jesus would meet in the Jordan River, yet indeed they met as infants in the womb of their mothers. St. Elizabeth, mom of John the Baptist, describes that her baby within leapt for joy at the occasion, as he would be the forerunner and the Elijah figure to the Coming of the Christ, Who would be Jesus. At the Visitation, Elizabeth speaks in the Holy Spirit of her own joy, that the Christ was in her midst, though hidden in Mary’s belly, as the cousin humbly comments: “Who am I that the Mother of My Lord would come to me?”
The Word was made flesh in becoming The Child of Mary. Mary already now was the“Theotokos,” the mother of God (God coming in flesh by her, whom God made as woman, and preserved her in grace). Jesus is Holy Embryo God at first, then a developing fetus Person, and just days alive by conception (first trimester). This is a Respect Life image of the First Advent and Christmas that is not meant to be missed. Life begins at conception, and it did so in Jesus. The Christmas story covers two trips to Jerusalem area by the Savior in the womb.
The second trip will be the journey of the third trimester Mary and Joseph as they go from Nazareth to Bethlehem, via Jerusalem, and beforehand by the same roadway along the Jordan from Galilee of the North to Judah of the South. Jesus is being carried within Mary again.
He keeps leaving Nazareth through His life, but that one to Bethlehem for His birth is most remembered.
We think of the difficulty for Mary for her two travels with a child on the way. Why did she leave Nazareth the first time? Well, it was just the start of pregnancy, and the Angel did inform her of the miraculous and related news of Elizabeth ready to have a child. The Jerusalem story was as big as Sarah getting pregnant late in life, when she and old Abraham had no offspring, but somehow gave birth to Isaac. Jerusalem was having another holy headline. Mary just had to go. It was her home town, and priestly family, and cousin—after all. I suppose Joseph had to go, too, as he would not have let Mary out of his sight. He could always get some carpenter’s work in Jerusalem or his hometown of Bethlehem nearby. So, for this first trip of the Visitation Mystery, Jesus goes on his first trip south to Jerusalem. It would be good timing for Joseph, as the people were talking more than in gossip but in hostile words about Mary and her illegitimate child coming, the bastard. They had believed good Joseph when said he definitely was not the father. Yet how could Mary become pregnant, the Nazarenes thought, than by the sin of fornication?! So, since the town knew not of Virgin Birth and Holy Spirit conception, nor could they fathom it—it was best to be out of town a lot for Mary’s pregnancy period. When Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth, in my own theory and interpretation of events, people were placated by the fact of how Joseph had now wed Mary, and it quelled the talk of abusing her verbally or even going as far as stoning her. Mary and Joseph practiced their Hebrew faith very well, and they frequented the Nazareth synagogue, likely having the rabbit’s favor over them.
Yet then comes the second trip, on to Bethlehem. The holy couple take the same route, but seven miles further, and west of Jerusalem, on to Joseph’s ancestral town. It will require at least a week’s worth of walking, or walking with a slow donkey with Mary astride it and some provisions loaded, and it’s the third trimester for Mary’s pregnancy. What awful timing for a trip. We know the reason why the holy couple makes this trip, with the census and registration requirement in Bethlehem, demanding Joseph’s return. Roman rule demands it be done soon, and so Jesus again will journey inside Mary. They head out of Nazareth, and perhaps again, the circumstances was that Nazareth was still a bit hostile to them over the ill legit coming baby. Mary had family in Jerusalem and Joseph in Bethlehem; it might be better to go there—now that there is Roman demand for it anyhow. People will talk of the awful choice they make to travel, but they go. Did they know of the prophecies of The Christ to be born in Bethlehem? Did maybe their rabbi know it and tell them about Micah 5’s prediction of Bethlehem’s child being Messiah or Isaiah 7’s child being Messiah, who indeed was born of a virgin, in the line of Moses/Aaron and King David? Did they learn that? Could that have surely convinced them to go to Bethlehem?
In any case, it was a hard journey to make for them. I think they stopped along the way to the company of compassionate charitable Jews. We might guess Jericho was a stop. Maybe Bethany, where Jesus later will find friends on his pilgrim trips to Jerusalem. We can surely expect that Joseph and Mary visited Jerusalem. Probably back to Zechariah and Elizabeth and kin, and baby John. By the way, scholars speculate how John the Baptist likely was born on Passover day, in the months prior to Jesus’ birth. There, too, is a proven spot where John was born, as today it is the Franciscan pilgrimage site of the Church of St. John the Baptist, Ein Karem, Jerusalem. Then they get to Bethlehem, the little shepherd town below Jerusalem, likely overrun with people covering their census duty. It makes for a crowded little town with little accommodations, as we recall the story. Jesus is born, and on the eighth day, taken to the Jerusalem Temple for His Presentation, and then maybe stays a few days in Jerusalem, and then the trip returns them to Bethlehem, now likely to house Joseph, Mary and new son for some months. When the Magi arrive, all the hub bub of the newborn King of the Jews brings on the wrath of Herod, and causes the move of The Holy Family urgently to Africa, though with gifts to help afford the sudden trip. Again, Jesus is on a trip.
This homily is about Jesus trips from Nazareth, so we return with the Holy Family to Nazareth when Jesus is a little boy. Surely, Mary and Joseph brought him, with many of the Nazarenes, up to Jerusalem on its pilgrimage times, chiefly the Passover one. Jesus has already gone the Nazareth to Jerusalem route several times by the one we know about, of when He was twelve years old. His parents lost but then found Him, in the Temple, speaking with the elders and scholars in “His Father’s House.”
Jesus would have gone back all through his teen and young adult years on pilgrimage from Nazareth to Jerusalem. He would have nearly memorized the Jordan route, and its famous right turn in Jericho, the city where the walls fell. Many Jews of Galilee took this trip.
Today’s Gospel in Matthew 3 has Jesus taking it again, with a firm purpose in mind, to go see His cousin John, and all the goings-on by the Jordan River place near the Dead Sea. When Jesus gets to Jericho, He does not turn right and go up to Jerusalem, but He proceeds straightway, to find John at the River. He finds the place where John the Baptist, his cousin, acting much the apocalyptic prophet, was doing his immersion rituals. The Jordan River had continuously running water, which was ideal for the Jewish ritual bath called the “mikvah” to regain purity, and as John did it, he asked for a dramatic conversion of life, a revival, with an attitude of total and deep repentance of sins, so as to have a “dying experience” to the will to sin, in the plunging down into the river, after a public sorrow of one’s sins. There were big numbers of people in attendance, as Jesus had heard about way over in Galilee. Two Galilean fishermen named Andrew and John were in the crowd, who would eventually become apostles for Jesus. Maybe he saw them go down into the clear river; and pray for a new beginning of faith. (Now that spot on the Jordan, I’ve heard, is a bit muddy and partially polluted, yet people come to be baptized there, still.)
JB says “prepare the Way of the Lord.” He means to ‘make a road into one’s heart and soul.’ Jesus knows it is the Sign for His coming out in ministry moment. He comes forward for Baptism, later the rumbling voice of The Father speaks, and the Dove comes down, and Jesus has now launched His ministry on earth. In some ways, Christianity began then, even though officially it fully comes in the Pentecost moment in Jerusalem.
At the Jordan, a new Jericho moment, a new outpouring of the Spirit, and new exodus commences. Jesus goes down to be buried beneath the Jordan’s water, in the self-emptying meaning of the ritual, and later at the Cross and Tomb, the action will get completed in Dying and Rising Mysteries to make baptism a Sacrament to unite us into Jesus. It brings our washing of original sin and forgiveness of sins (rather than a remained separation of the sinner from God) and it brings the gift of the indwelling Spirit of Christ into people who receive baptism. It is the start of their own faith and ministry/vocation; fittingly, going back to this Baptism at the Jordan moment for Jesus.
So as Jesus rose up from the Jordan waters after His baptism, He wasn’t just representing our need for cleansing from sin (although He was doing that). God was deliberately indicating, too, that He was beginning a new conquest, following in the footsteps of Moses and Elijah, Joshua and Elisha, and completing what they started. He would deliver God’s people from the forces of evil. He would win for them THE Promised Land, life back in relationship and promise to God.
Would people accept this Gift? This has been the story on our part ever since.
Going back to one another pilgrimage exit of Jesus from Nazareth, it took place when He chose His home town and synagogue to announce Himself “as The Anointed One, come to bring glad tidings and love to those who were poor, and to proclaim liberty to captives, and a special time of Favor (Jubilee) from God to humankind.
They threw Jesus out of town. He never came back in His ministry days. He never would pilgrimage from there again, and His mother had to move out of Nazareth, too. It is a report of the world’s rejection of Jesus. Yet John the Baptist still speaks to us, even as he does in words of Mass, to receive Jesus in: Behold, the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, happy are those called to the wedding supper of the Lamb.
Feast in Him in your Faith in 2020. Don’t Feed on Fear, which the world will have you do, but Feast on Jesus, in a supply of faith, love and charity. Amen.