As yet another Christmas draws near, I began to think about my early memories on this season. Christmas was always a delight as schools were shut well into the New Year. As a little child, growing up in the Middle East, I awaited my grandfather’s Christmas cards. I also watched my father send his greeting cards to his siblings and his friends. Cakes were cut and new clothes were bought during the season. Gifts were exchanged; trees & stars were set up with all the glossy lights. No need to mention about the Santa and the sweets he bought about. Christmas morning would usually start with my mother’s hot appam, the South Indian pancake made with fermented rice batter and chicken stew followed by an exotic chicken biryani in the afternoon. This for me was my early Christmas.
In the birth story of Jesus, Luke says that the angel Gabriel was sent to Mary a virgin girl pledged to be married to Joseph. The angel’s words “rejoice, highly favoured one” seemed strange in those days, let alone the sheer presence of the angel. It was interesting that Gabriel did not note anything about the dress she wore or the clip on her hair or anything that women usually adore. Plain and simple; she was favoured because God became Immanuel to her. Hence she was blessed among the women. Not just among her Galilean neighbours but of all women.
Of course she was troubled wondering what sort of greeting is this. May be the angel had no clue on what he was saying. Was he just God’s messenger to pour forth what God wanted to tell? She surely must have thought of her forefather’s stories. Was it like the burning bush or like the call of Abram? Those were the days of the Romans. Would she be asked to fight the mighty Roman Empire?
Mary lived in Nazareth, a place much looked down upon. People used to wonder if anything good would come from Nazareth. Such was the contempt on that place. Knowing God, it’s not surprising that God chooses the lowly things of the world and sets them on high. Nothing else is said about the background of Mary. Nothing about her exact age, her father or mother, her siblings & finances. Mary could have been in her late teens or early twenties. She had not known any man, even the one to whom she was betrothed, Joseph – a Nazarene carpenter.
The angel further tells her that she will conceive and bring forth the Son of God to this world. I suppose Mary felt good hearing this but then how? The angel dispels all fears saying that “the Holy Spirit will come upon her, and the power of the Highest will overshadow her.“ She also had company; her cousin Elizabeth who too was pregnant but by her husband of course. The angel gives a parting assurance that with God anything is possible. This was the earliest Christmas message. I was wondering what Mary thought of after the angel left. Her fiancé Joseph, parents, the stone throwing Pharisees, the other Nazarenes. What would she tell them? She risked even her family being thrown out of a Nazarene synagogue. The law condemned a betrothed woman who became pregnant as an adulteress, subject to death by stoning.
In today’s world, where each week thousands get conceived out of wedlock, this virgin’s predicament has lost some of its force, but in that Jewish town in the first century, this news could not have been entirely welcome. I ponder what would have been the first response if it had been today? I think the Lord would have a tough time figuring out a virgin from the few left on His planet. Mary had valued the treasure God gave – her virginity.
The Christmas cards and cake spares no thought for what Mary went through. She faced the prospect of being humiliated, condemned in her small town. Christ in her womb seemed to be the cross she had to bear. As Mary accepted the angel’s greeting, the rejection, persecution and ridicule in the land was not going to back off. In fact rejection arrived at its appointed time. Matthew tells us of Joseph magnanimously agreeing to divorce Mary in private rather than embarrass her in public. But an angel shows up to rectify his perception of betrayal.
I’m sparing some thoughts for Mary perhaps after her first trimester; the womb would have started its slight bulge. May be her friends would have pulled her leg “are you putting on weight”. Her cousins or neighbours might have noticed her body change, her glowing face and her sweet or sour cravings. Her heart though would have rejoiced on carrying the Messiah in the womb but her body would show the signs. What to do about that? May be she tried to put a loose gown, as she was moving around. In all this she had to reassure herself that she was still a virgin.
Luke paints a picture of Mary rushing to her relative in the hill countryside, perhaps the only solitary ear to whom she wants to pour forth. The whole place was testifying of Elizabeth’s healed womb, but how can Mary testify of hers in that countryside. What will she tell them of her husband? These things would have run through her mind. Nevertheless she would have enjoyed her cousin’s company. She might have fulfilled her food cravings, praised God with her old cousin. The baby in Elizabeth had leapt, not sure if its once or many times. They had no idea what was in store for the next 34 years but they should have assured themselves of the great hope and promise. Did Mary and Elizabeth read the book of Isaiah at that time, where the births of the Messiah and the messenger were foretold? The Torah would have surely comforted, encouraged and uplifted their souls as Mary sings “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich away empty”.
After three months Mary decides to go back. Probably Mary was 5-6 month pregnant at that time. While Elizabeth delivers a baby in the midst of the neighbours and relatives, Mary wouldn’t eventually have the luxury of such a presence. Every pregnant woman rightly looks forward for such calming presence and assurance. For Mary all those were luxuries. I’m sure doubt and fears would have tried to creep into her mind. But this late teenager would have found solace in God as her saviour.
A King was in the womb. The Lord was still with Mary. Those 10 months into the first Christmas was a time of persecution, rejection for a young Mary. We see Joseph accepting her and bringing home as his wife. Think about poor Joseph whom the scriptures call as a just man. What would he have thought, as the heavily pregnant woman moved about in his house? Would he dare to call the child as ‘his son’? Was this really from God or was any man behind this? Did he really hear from God regarding Mary? May be he did think but I’m sure that he assured himself.
For Joseph and Mary the few months before the first Christmas were not about the reindeers or the cakes or the winter snow. It was like walking on a raging ocean or in a battlefield of mines. They had no idea what was in store for them. On one side was the rampaging Herod representing a clueless devil. On the other side were their relatives, friends and neighbours with an eye of suspicion and tongues of gossip. As soon as Mary and Joseph had reached Bethlehem for the census, her birth pangs had started. Remember, the one who cursed the first woman, Eve, was inside her. She didn’t have a hospital casualty to rush into or the comfort of a personal gynaecologist. She didn’t have maternity clothes either, but then what more is needed than the power of the most High. As Mary delivered baby Jesus in Bethlehem and laid Him in a manger, did she think the ordeal was over? I hope not, for a life in Egypt was awaiting them.
Meanwhile the scene in Jerusalem was different. The situation was like at the time of Moses’s birth where by Rachel was crying for the dead first born. Philip Yancy in his book “Jesus I never knew” puts it very nicely. The political scene at the time of Jesus’s birth resembled that of Russia in the 1930s under Stalin. Citizens could not gather in public meetings. Spies were everywhere. In Herod’s mind, the command to slaughter Bethlehem’s infants was probably an act of utmost rationality, a rear-guard action to preserve the stability of his kingdom against a rumoured invasion from another.
No Christmas card portrays the testing times of Mary and Joseph just as no earthly photo of the cross portrays the pain and agony of a dying Jesus. Christmas has turned out to be a mere gathering for booze or times where corporate honchos mint money. Also seen is a prosperous time for Hollywood to release a big flick or people flying for their vacation spots. Mary & Joseph left behind a legacy of sacrifice and humility in the midst of heavy persecution. They went on to have many sons. Mary wasn’t a virgin any more though many still calls her so. This little teenaged girl in an unwanted town on Nazareth had a pregnancy that divided history into BC and AD. May be they didn’t live long enough to realise this. But as I read the story of the first Christmas, they are history makers.