Mary was called to be Jesus’ mother, the Christ-bearer. She has a unique role in the history of the world. Her experience was truly one-of-a-kind. Yet in many ways, Mary was more like us than we might think.
To my Roman Catholic friends: I know the Roman Catholic Church’s teaching on this is different from where I am going. I understand if you don’t want to read any further.
Mary was probably in her early teens when Joseph proposed. At a party arranged by their families, Joseph would have offered Mary a cup of wine and popped the question—the first-century equivalent of getting down on one knee and opening a box with a diamond ring inside.
Mary said yes, accepted the cup, and sealed their betrothal.
During this period, the couple lived separately. Joseph would have returned to his parents’ home to build a room or small house on the property for them to begin their life together. Mary would have lived with her family, learning from her mom how to be a good wife and mother.
If things went according to plan, Joseph’s dad would one day determine the room was ready and tell him to go get his bride for the wedding. It was a pretty exciting time.
For this couple, however, things took a turn. An angel named Gabriel showed up and changed everything.
Gabriel opens gently, calling Mary “favored one.” He tells her that God has chosen her for the honor of becoming the mother of Jesus.
He never gives any reason why. He doesn’t point to some attribute of hers that makes her especially suited for the job, or a prayer of hers from childhood. To be honest, the selection process feels rather random.
It’s interesting to note that Luke tells us that John the Baptist’s parents were both righteous before God, but never says anything like that about Mary & Joseph. Maybe he thought he didn’t need to. Or maybe he didn’t want to distance Mary too far from us.
Gabriel’s need to tell Mary that God is honoring her, is noteworthy. If God was going to honor me with a million dollars, he wouldn’t need to tell me it was an honor.
Clearly, this honor is not going to make Mary feel #blessed.
Mary seems to understand this right from the start. Her life is being turned upside down.
How long will it take for one of her relatives or the town busybody to do the math and figure out when this child was conceived? That might explain Mary’s sudden urge to visit her relative Elizabeth who lives about a three-day journey away.
Mary isn’t just embarrassed. She is in jeopardy. The penalty for a woman not being a virgin on her wedding night was death (see Deuteronomy 22:20-21). Who would believe that a virgin conceived a child? Would you accept that explanation from your fiancée or child?
Mary knows that generations will call here blessed, but it is not the kind of blessedness we most often think of.
Our nativity sets may be a testament to this. Jesus spent his first night on earth, not in a bed, but in a manger, “because there was no room in the guest house.”
This seems like an odd circumstance for a young pregnant couple who have come to town at the same time as the groom’s entire family. Remember, Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem because it was his ancestral home. Yet these two can’t find anyone to stay with.
I can’t help but wonder if the family had distanced themselves from Mary and Joseph for their apparent indiscretion. It’s hard to believe that while in labor in a stable, Mary felt #blessed.
Despite Joseph’s royal lineage (see here), Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph were poor.
Eight days after Jesus’ birth, they go to the Temple to dedicate Jesus. Mary brings a pair of birds, an offering Luke tells us is required for her postpartum purification (Luke 2:24).
The law in Leviticus, however, says the mother is to bring a lamb and a pigeon or dove unless she can’t afford the lamb. Then two birds will suffice (see Leviticus 12:6-8).
Mary and Joseph, the centerpiece of our nativity, were not all that different from us. They were not experiencing a charmed, easy, #blessed life we might assume of those chosen by God. They struggled like we do to pay their bills, deal with required travel, and handle judgmental people—all while learning how to be a spouse and parent.
I imagine in quiet moments during the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary wondered how their lives had turned upside down. Oh yeah, it was because God was honoring Mary.
Still think the Christmas story isn’t for you? Mary’s life wasn’t one we would see as #blessed. Yet, God came into their very real lives, and continues to come into ours, in the person of Jesus.
Note: Christmas is for you is a series of edited versions of a much larger piece intended to help us understand that Jesus came for people who have flawed, messy, imperfect lives just like you and me.