Summary: The Christmas story begins well before the birth of the Son of God. At the least, it begins with a startled teenage girl who is confronted by an angel with an unexpected announcement.
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favoured one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’”
Christmas art shows Jesus’ family—the Holy family—as peaceful and calm. In multiple artistic renditions of the family of Joseph and Mary, the family is idealised. In the paintings, a serene Mary receives the news of the Annunciation as a kind of benediction; but that is not at all how Luke tells the story. Mary was “greatly troubled” and “afraid” at the angel’s appearance [LUKE 1:29].
The NEW LIVING TRANSLATION captures Mary’s stress by noting that she was “confused and disturbed.” I appreciate one recent rendering of this specific passage. [Mary] “was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that.” When Gabriel delivered the lofty words about the Son of the Most High, whose kingdom will never end, Mary had only one thing on her mind: “I am a virgin!”
Contemporary feminists notwithstanding, an unmarried mother, especially if she is poor, is consigned to enduring a great trial. The prospects for an unmarried mother today are less than exciting. That young woman may expect a life of deprivation and hardship as she struggles to raise her child alone and without the complementing hand of a loving husband and a caring father. No wonder the Jewish teenager Mary was “greatly troubled”—she faced the same prospects, even without any passionate acts proceeding!
Not so long ago, unwed mothers were ashamed when their sin was exposed. I recall the response of families to the news that a daughter was pregnant during the days of my youth. The young woman would be hurried out of town to keep her out of sight of prying eyes. Shut up in a home for unwed mothers, she would give birth in secret, often surrendering the child for adoption without ever seeing the baby following the birth.
In modern North America, more than one million teenage girls get pregnant each year. With hundreds of thousands of teenage girls getting pregnant out of wedlock each year in North America, Mary’s predicament has undoubtedly lost some of its force, but in a close knit Jewish community in the first century, the news that the angel delivered could not have been entirely welcome. The law regarded a betrothed woman who became pregnant as an adulteress. As an adulteress, she was subject to death by stoning.
Matthew tells that Joseph generously considered divorcing Mary instead of pressing charges, until an angel showed up to assuage his feelings of betrayal. Luke tells how Mary hurried off to the one person who could possibly understand what she was going through, Elizabeth, her relative, who had miraculously become pregnant in old age following another angelic annunciation.
Elizabeth indeed believes Mary’s story and shares her joy, and yet the scene poignantly underscores the contrast between the two women. The whole countryside is talking about the miracle of Elizabeth’s healed womb; meanwhile, Mary has to hide the shame of her own miracle.
A few months later, the birth of John the Baptist took place with great fanfare, complete with midwives, doting relatives, and the traditional village chorus celebrating the birth of a Jewish male. Six months after that, Jesus was born far from home, with no midwife, no extended family, and no village chorus present. A male head of household would have sufficed for the Roman census. Did Joseph drag his pregnant wife along to Bethlehem in order to spare her the ignominy of childbirth in her home village?
C. S. Lewis has written about God’s plan: The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. Reading the evangelists’ accounts of Jesus’ birth, one may well tremble to think of the fate of the world resting on the responses of two rural teenagers. Despite their portrayal in contemporary art and literature as twenty-something parents, Joseph and Mary were mere children. Mary could not have been more than fourteen years of age, perhaps even as young as twelve; and Joseph could not have been more than nineteen.