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How Far Is It to Bethlehem?

Forced journeys

by Brian Radcliffe

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To explore our understanding of the plight of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced travellers.

Preparation and materials

  • You will need the Bible passage from Luke 2.1-7 (the New Living Translation is very accessible). You may wish to ask a student to deliver this reading.
  • To tie in with the ‘Assembly’, Step 3, research examples of locations that are approximately 80 miles from your school.


  1. Begin by saying, ‘It’s getting near to Christmas, so let’s listen to the start of the Christmas story.’

  2. Read, or invite a student to read, Luke 2.1-7.

    At that time, the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He travelled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

  3. Ask the students whether they can think of anywhere that is 80 miles away from school.

    Listen to a range of responses and give some examples.

  4. Explain that 80 miles is more or less the distance between the village of Nazareth in the province of Galilee and the town of Bethlehem, near to Jerusalem. Because of the legal requirements of the occupying Roman government, Joseph was required to travel from the village where he lived, Nazareth, to Bethlehem, the town that was his ancestral home. It wasn’t a journey that he really wanted to make. Mary, who he was engaged to and would soon marry, had to go with him. However, she was in the last weeks of her pregnancy, which made the journey even harder.

  5. A distance of 80 miles might seem like no big deal to us. There are well-kept roads, and regular trains and buses that will get us to (name destinations given earlier by students) in an hour or two. It was very different for Joseph and Mary. Their 80 miles would have been a week’s gruelling journey down the heavily forested valley of the River Jordan.

    Due to the census, other travellers would have been making the same journey, putting pressure on the accommodation opportunities on the way as well as at Bethlehem, their destination. Mary especially would have found the journey very uncomfortable. It’s no wonder that she gave birth as soon as they arrived. Naturally, Joseph would have been desperately worried about her condition.

Time for reflection

A forced journey. It’s hard for us to imagine, but it’s a common experience in our world today. Some people journey because they hope for a better life than the one that they have in their home country. Some people journey because they fear for their safety due to racial, religious or social oppression. Some people journey because they fear for their lives. None of these journeys is ideal. Few of them are chosen. They are forced upon the travellers by the words, intentions and actions of others.

(You may wish to pool the knowledge of the group about forced journeys that they have heard of or simply use the examples that follow.)

There are those who travel from war-torn regions in the Middle East and East Africa. There are economic migrants from Central America travelling north through Mexico. Within Asia, there are racial and religious groups who are fleeing persecution by heading towards Europe in one direction or Australia in the other. It seems like every day, a story emerges on the news channels of another group taking their forced journey.

Usually, if we are planning a journey, we make sure that we’re equipped and in the best of health. We take money, suitable clothes and probably something to snack on. If we’re not feeling well, we might postpone the trip. This is not the case for many people today. Whole families - grandparents, young children, parents with babies strapped to their backs - toil across unfamiliar territory, sleep beneath makeshift shelters and beg for what little food is available. The small amount of money that they have is often consumed by paying for forged documents and unreliable transport. Inflatable boats are swamped by the overcrowded passengers. Hard-pressed governments turn many back as they reach the shore or border of what they hoped was the Promised Land. The weak and vulnerable succumb to fatigue, illness and exploitation.

Joseph and Mary were by no means unique, yet theirs is a sanitized version of such a journey. Their journey has a happy ending, a birth that would come to change the history of the world for the better. Many refugees and forced travellers today share a very different experience. Some are in camps, with varying standards of security and comfort. Some sleep rough, in hiding from the authorities. Some die in poverty. A few gain asylum and create a new life for themselves. They are the lucky ones.

So, the Christmas story starts on a solemn note. It’s about real people in circumstances that we recognize in today’s world. However, it doesn’t end there. Christians believe that the birth of Jesus opened up a new way of addressing the sombre reality of life in every generation. Through Jesus being born, God entered our world to bring hope, justice and freedom . . . but he might be glad of a little help from people like you and me.


‘If I should fall behind’ by Bruce Springsteen, available at: (5.58 minutes long)

Extension activities

  1. Find out about refugee accommodation in the local area. Find out if there is anything that the school could do to help or support in any way.
Publication date: December 2021   (Vol.23 No.12)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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