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.