A church advertised their Christmas production with the tagline, ‘My fiancée is pregnant and I'm not the father.’
We don’t often think about the apparently scandalous nature of the Christmas story. We’ve heard the story so many times we forget how shocking Mary’s pregnancy was in first-century Israel.
Mary had a great family heritage which makes her pregnancy outside marriage even more shocking. Matthew records Joseph’s family line which shows he was descended from David and therefore Judah.
While it’s less obvious, Mary was also a descendant of David. Judah was considered the royal tribe because of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from his descendants (Genesis chapter 49 verse 10).
When the angel appeared to Mary to tell her she would give birth to the Messiah, there was no mention of Joseph. Mary didn’t say, ‘Before I agree to this, I’d better check with Joseph. I wouldn’t want to be an unmarried mother in this culture.’
Mary agreed before she knew Joseph’s reaction.
The angel told Mary she had found favour with God and yet favour meant she had to live with criticism and disapproval from those closest to her. Perhaps from people she had known all her life.
The reality of Mary’s cultural situation didn’t strike me until I went to a Christmas pageant at my local church. The pageant portrayed Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. One song acted out the snide remarks that would have been made to Mary and the way she was no longer accepted by her friends. Other parents may not have wanted Mary’s supposedly bad example rubbing off on their daughters.
God called Mary to a difficult situation which was also a dilemma for Joseph. He could have subjected Mary to public disgrace. Stoning was also possible (Deuteronomy chapter 22 verses 20–21).
However, an angel intervened.
‘Joseph, to whom she [Mary] was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”’ (Matthew chapter 1 verses 19–20).
God called Mary to step outside cultural norms and live under a cloud of misunderstanding. She would have been ostracized, ignored and snubbed.
Jesus, the ordinary child
Time passed. When Jesus was 12, he went with his family to Jerusalem and stayed behind without his parents’ knowledge. When Mary finds Jesus, she is surprised that he had caused them angst.
‘“Son,’ his mother said to him, ‘why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been frantic, searching for you everywhere.” ’ (Luke chapter 2 verse 48).
For 12 years, Jesus hadn’t done anything extraordinary. He seemed like an ordinary child. Perhaps Mary had stopped wondering about the amazing things that had been said about him by angels, shepherds, wise men, and the prophets they met in the temple.
Jesus’ reply suggests that Mary and Joseph should have known he had another agenda, ‘“But why did you need to search?” he asked. “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they didn’t understand what he meant.’ (Luke chapter 2 verses 49–50).
Why didn’t they understand?
I’m sure Luke would have asked Mary about Jesus’ childhood and what indications there were that he was the Messiah, but this is the only recorded incident from his childhood.
The miraculous becomes ordinary
Mary had the amazing privilege of birthing and nurturing God’s own Son. Yet she seems to have become so accustomed to the miraculous events surrounding Jesus’ birth, that they no longer impacted her life.
We too can become overly familiar with the miraculous. We don’t notice the changes God makes in our lives and the lives of those we know. Perhaps we’re more peaceful than we used to be, less inclined to get angry, and more loving towards others.
Often, it’s only when we look back on our lives, we can see that God has changed us. We forget the amazing answers to prayer we experienced or the way God has orchestrated events in our lives. We become complacent. The miraculous becomes ordinary.
Living with misunderstanding
When Jesus started his ministry, he preached in his hometown, but the people were unimpressed:
‘They scoffed, “He’s just a carpenter, the son of Mary.”’ (Mark chapter 6 verse 3).
Historians tell us that a Jewish man was only called by his mother's name if his father was unknown. Their comments suggest they were questioning Jesus' legitimacy.
Here was Jesus’ opportunity to put the record straight and explain the circumstances of his birth. He could have exonerated Mary for being pregnant outside of marriage. But he doesn’t do it. He doesn’t restore Mary’s reputation. I wonder if she was disappointed.
Sometimes we have to live with the pain of being misunderstood. We may be faithfully following the Lord in what we believe is our God-given ministry, but not everyone will be supportive or believe we have heard from God. Our challenge is to press on regardless of the opinions of others, believing that God will fulfil his purposes.
Susan Barnes has been involved in pastoral ministry for over twenty years with her husband, Ross. They are now semi-retired and enjoy supporting a number of churches in north-east Victoria. You can find more of Susan’s articles at: https://www.pressserviceinternational.org/susan-barnes.html