Year after year Christians around the world celebrate Christmas by focusing on the story of the first Christmas as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (1:18-25) and Luke (1:26-38; 2:1-20): the story of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. We concentrate on the same details each year: that Mary was a young woman, had not been intimate with any man, yet gave birth to Jesus as a result of God's selection of her to be the mother of the Messiah, and that she gave birth to Jesus in a stable; and that Joseph was a carpenter by trade, kind hearted, a devout Jew, a good father to Jesus, and a very caring wife to Mary. The purpose of this week's blog is to look at some aspects of Mary's and Joseph's lives less often written or talked about.
We do not know exactly how old Mary was. Biblical scholars have placed her age when she gave birth to Jesus between twelve and twenty; most of them, however, put her age at fifteen or sixteen years old. At any rate, can you imagine what went through this young woman's mind when an angel appeared to her saying that she was going to bear a son fathered by God! She was engaged to Joseph, and she had never been intimate with her fiancée or any other man. But others would think differently, and the gossip would run rampant. Keep in mind that in those days having children out of wedlock was considered a disgrace for the unwed mother and her family. What was she going to tell her parents, and what in the world would Joseph think?
At first she probably tried to convince herself she had dreamed it. But when physical developments became obvious to her, though not to others, the impact of what the angel Gabriel had said to her must have begun to sink in. Just imagine how a young girl, or anyone, would have responded to being the birth mother of God's son, the mother of the long-awaited Messiah of the Hebrew people. Oh, my goodness!
She would have to tell her parents, but would they believe her? The pressure of uncertainty must have built as she pondered how to tell them. Would she tell her mother first and let her tell her father, or would she tell them together? The Bible doesn't relate any details here. But once she did tell them, we can only guess at how they reacted: Mary's mother sobbing and her father, filled with anger, jumping to the conclusion that his daughter had been taken advantage of by Joseph, her fiancée.
Mary probably would have tried to explain the situation and protect the integrity of Joseph by saying something like: "Oh, no, it's not like that. I haven't been with Joseph or any other man. I am going to have God's baby." Would any parent or fiancée believe such an outlandish explanation? And even if her parents and Joseph did finally believe her, most other people would consider her a disgraced and ruined woman. What pressure she must have experienced!
Let's turn to Joseph. At first he didn't believe her. Yet, he cared for her and did not want to disgrace her, so he planned to divorce her quietly. (According to Jewish law, the normal period for engagement was about twelve months, and engagement was tantamount to marriage except for sexual relations. If the man's betrothed was unfaithful to him in any way, the male fiancée could divorce her.) But then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, assuring him that he should take Mary as his wife because "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." And he put aside his disbelief and married Mary, "but knew her not until she had borne a son." What faith he must have had!
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, was about ninety miles over valley roads and mountain pathways. Mary and Joseph probably traveled using the family donkey, Mary riding and Joseph walking, with limited luggage rolled up and tied behind Mary's saddle. Even though Bethlehem is due south of Nazareth, they "went up" from Nazareth to Bethlehem, obviously not referring to the direction on the compass, but to Bethlehem's being a mountain town 2,350 feet above sea level. The trip was a difficult one, taking several days and requiring much up- and down-hill travel, as the route from Nazareth to Bethlehem went through the valleys and hills of three mountains, with Bethlehem located on the slopes of a fourth one.
Was the trip really necessary? Yes! The government required that all the people of the world "be enrolled" at that time. This was not a census; the "enrollment" was a registration enabling the tax collectors to locate the people. Joseph was a family member directly descended from David, and Bethlehem was the hometown of David, thus requiring Joseph and his wife to register there.
Our remembering Joseph and Mary should remind us year around how important one's religious faith is, even if God's revelations surprise us. Joseph reminds us of the importance of abiding by the rule of law, even if it may be inconvenient or appear unnecessary, causing us to remember what Jesus said in Mark 12:17: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." We see the importance and results of a husband's caring for his wife, and a wife's trust in, and respect for, her devoted husband.
Joseph and Mary remind us that Christmas is a genuine love story--the story of God's unwavering love for us and our love for him; the marvelous love of a wife and a husband and the joyous wonder of a first child. May our celebrations of Christmas focus on love, and all year may we do what we can to spread love throughout our communities, our country, and the world.