What was it like for Mary and Joseph some 2,000 years ago in a poor Jewish society ruled by hated Romans? The Christmas story is so familiar to us that we often fail to consider all the feelings, the emotions, the details that make the wondrous Christmas story even more amazing.
As the story opens, Mary, who could not have been more that 15 or 16 years old, is visited by the angel Gabriel. Mary lived in the little town of Nazareth and she was espoused, or betrothed to a man named Joseph of the same community. As was common in Jewish culture, betrothal was a part of the marriage process that was legal equal to being fully married without the actually living together or sexual relations. This angel, Gabriel, appeared to Mary announced that the she had been chosen by God to conceive a child and bear a son that the she would name Jesus.
Luke records that Mary was perplexed by the way Gabriel greeted her, and she was even more perplexed by this prophecy from the angel. She asked Gabriel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel responded, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”
As soon as Gabriel left her, Mary left her home in Nazareth and hurried to a town in Judah to visit Elizabeth. The journey was about 60 miles, and we are not told how she made the trip. Did she walk? Did she ride an animal? Did she tell her parents? What did she tell her parents? Did she tell Joseph she was going? Did she leave without telling anyone? Did she leave them notes explaining all these things? We do not know the answers to these questions, but we must consider all the emotions this young girl was experiencing, all the thoughts that must have been running through her head. The ramifications of her decision to be obedient to God were enormous: an unmarried girl, pregnant, carrying a child who did not belong to the man to whom she was betrothed. These facts were certain to bring her great embarrassment, social stigma, societal shunning. She could become the object of humiliation and shame. Not to mention the shame she was likely to bring on her family. Yet, her response was “may it be done to me according to your word.” The journey to Elizabeth’s could have taken several days, giving Mary a great deal of time to consider all these things.
When the now-pregnant Mary arrived at home of Zacharias and Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaped inside her. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to sing:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!
And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me?
For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.
Mary responded with a song of her own:
My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him.
He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.
Luke tells us that Elizabeth was about six months along in her pregnancy and that Mary stayed with her for three months. No doubt that Mary was a tremendous help to the aged Elizabeth. An old woman who was pregnant with her first child certainly needed a great deal of help with the day-to-day routines of running her home. What did they discuss during that time? What did Mary do to help Elizabeth out? What words of encouragement did Elizabeth provide Mary? Was Mary experiencing morning-sickness, and if so, how bad did she have it?
After those three months, Mary decided to go home. Being three months pregnant as a young teenager, she would have begun to show somewhat, and she knew that she would not be able to hide the signs of her pregnancy even if she tried or wanted to. What prompted her to leave just before Elizabeth delivered her baby? What did she think about on the journey home? How would she face her parents? How would she face Joseph? She only rested on her faith that God would see her through these certain difficult days and months ahead of her.
Meanwhile, back in Nazareth, Joseph had come to the decision to divorce Mary quietly. Mary had just come home from her three-month visit with Elizabeth. Did he know she was pregnant before she left? Did he think she had become pregnant while staying with Elizabeth? Matthew leaves no doubt that he was a man of compassion and loving-kindness. He knew he was not the father of the baby his betrothed spouse was carrying. That left him with the conclusion that she had been unfaithful to him. Was he angry? Surely he was hurt. Was he embarrassed? Was he ashamed? Did he feel betrayed? He could have made Mary’s circumstances public which could have risked her life. The punishment for being unfaithful could have resulted in her being stoned to death. But because of his righteousness and compassion, he determined in his heart to simply and quietly divorce her, not wanting to disgrace her beyond the disgrace she was already experiencing. Since betrothal was a legal step toward marriage, a divorce would have been necessary to terminate the relationship.
After Joseph made up his mind, but before he could carry out his plan, God’s angel came to him and explained everything according to God’s will. Joseph’s response: total obedience. He took Mary to be his wife. How huge was this? When Joseph took the pregnant Mary to be his wife, he was publicly and legally accepting full responsibility for the baby. Regardless of how the townsfolk would gossip, or react, or judge, Joseph knew the facts. Furthermore, he was willing to be obedient to God, even if that meant utter rejection by his people.
Now, if things couldn’t get worse for Joseph and Mary, Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor declared that everyone must return to the town of his ancestry to be enumerated. This decree came sometime after Mary’s first trimester but obviously before the baby was born, traditionally close to the end of Mary’s pregnancy because the couple could find no place to stay once they arrived. So Joseph and the expectant Mary had to make the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral city. The 80-mile journey would have taken anywhere from four to six days, and they likely traveled with a caravan. It would seem probable that many people would have been traveling to their ancestral homes for this census. The Bible doesn’t tell us how they traveled. Traditionally, Mary rode a donkey while Joseph walked. Since Mary was close to the end of her pregnancy, their trip may have taken longer, and they may not have been able to keep pace with a caravan. In any case, the journey would have difficult for the young and pregnant Mary.
Life did not improve for Joseph and Mary when they arrived in Bethlehem. Because of the number of people who had come “home” to register for the census, Joseph could find no place for them to lodge. They quickly had to settle for a place to stay because the baby was starting to come into the world. Mary delivered the baby Jesus, wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a food trough for animals. Luke tells us that no room was found for them anywhere, only a stable or stall with an animal food trough was available to her. We don’t even know if she had a midwife to help her.
In that lonely and hostile night, the Savior of the world was born to two loving parents who were willing to be completely obedient to God’s will. Nothing more significant in the history of the world had ever happened before: a child was born to a virgin, the only begotten Son of God, One who would save his people from their sins, One who would die on the cross and be resurrected from the dead, that we might have eternal life with Him. An amazing, wonderful, glorious night. We celebrate it today, December 25th. The greatest Gift ever given is Jesus. Immanuel. God with us. Savior and Redeemer of the world.
Scriptures relating to the birth of Jesus (Scripture quotations taken from the NASB):
Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. “And His mercy is upon generation after generation Toward those who fear Him. “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. “He has filled the hungry with good things; And sent away the rich empty-handed. “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.” And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home.