The Christmas story opens with an angel appearing to a young teenager named Mary, making her one of the most blessed seers of the bible.
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 favored 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. 1
Notice, the appearance of the angel wasn’t troubling to Mary. What troubled her was the angel’s message. This indicates to me that Mary either had seen into the spirit realm before or that she was so comfortable with the idea of spirits appearing to humans, the appearance of the angel didn’t phase her. The message, however, was very troubling.
And 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 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.” 2
Many people ask God’s favor. But, what if God’s favor made you a social pariah and would radically change the direction of your life, as it did Mary’s?
The angel’s message was astoundingly good news: the long awaited King and Messiah was here, and the Kingdom was finally coming!
But that’s not what Mary heard. She ignored the proclamation of the Kingdom and landed on the most personal of concerns:
“You will conceive.”
But Mary wasn’t married, so she couldn’t conceive. She wanted to make clear to the angel that she wasn’t sleeping around.
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
It’s likely she hoped something like what happened to Abraham and Sarah would happen: that after she married Joseph, God would manipulate things so their first child would be a son and he would become the Messiah.
It was unthinkable that she’d conceive as an unmarried woman. Think of modern Islamic communities that practice Sharia law. For her to become pregnant outside of marriage would be devastating. And besides, God doesn’t do that sort of thing. Pagan gods, sure, but not the God of Israel.
If she became pregnant in another way, she’d become a social outcast and maybe considered a prostitute.
Her condition would bring shame to herself, her father, her family, and her community… and to her child… and her fiance… and her future children. And of course, she would be at risk of being stoned.
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Christmas’ Link to Genesis 6:1-4
“God did it.”
That would be her feeble defense to society.
Actually, it’s not likely she would say such a thing because to do so would be blasphemous: there was not biblical precedent for this. Instead, people would assume the angel who appeared to her impregnated her, and that was very bad news.
It was analogous to what happened in Genesis 6:1-4, when angels had impregnated human women to produce giants and other wickedness, leading ultimately to the flood.
To say an angel told her God was going to impregnate her would immediately cause people to think the angel did the deed. Her culture was awash in literature that described those events and the doom their giant offspring deserved.
No. Mary would keep her mouth shut. But to the angel, she had a reply.
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
There are no further records of Mary seeing angels or anything else in the spirit realm. The consequences of her obedience and faith were grave for her and her family and stayed with them all her life.
Growing Up in Shame
One of the Psalms prophetically examined the emotions of being the son of a woman with a sullied reputation as Mary had in her community:
I have become a stranger to my brothers, an alien to my mother’s sons. 3
This passage must refer to someone who could trace his lineage through his mother’s line, but who did not trace it through his fathers. Someone whose brothers knew their father, but whom he could not prove to society who his farther was: Jesus. It goes on:
I am the talk of those who sit in the gate, and the drunkards make songs about me. 4
Before Jesus’ resurrection, Mary’s community- and even Jesus’ brothers – were never certain of who Jesus’ father was. Decades later, the religious leaders even threw this in Jesus’ face, accusing his mother of getting pregnant through sexual immorality.
They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality… 5
Jesus was never in doubt who is Father was… and neither were Mary or her husband Joseph.
Jesus often showed incredible and culturally uncharacteristic love and affection to women who had bad reputations. Jesus was a personal witness to just how cruel people can be to undesirables… his own name became a joke to the local drunks, if the Psalmist’s prophecy was literal.
God loves the least and the lost, and he sent Jesus to prove it.
Mary’s Public Vindication
When Jesus was about 30, Mary came to him at a wedding, and asked him to do something miraculous. Jesus tried to turn her down because the Father said it wasn’t time for Jesus to do miracles.
But Mary had been thinking about the inbreaking of the Kingdom for 30 years. She demanded that the time was now, so the Father moved up his schedule, and Jesus responded with the miracle.
The dramatic and public display of power must have helped Mary feel vindicated after years of shame.
Imagine after Jesus turned the water to wine, Mary observing the whispers of wonder in her community with a quiet, knowing smile.
“All y’all’ve been whispering about us for 30 years, but I know something you don’t know. From now on, look to my son.”
What a legacy Mary’s faith and obedience preserved for her… and for us, forever immortalized in nativity scenes the world over. God’s favor may not look like we expect it to look, but faith and obedience will leave an eternal legacy.