Two thousand years ago there lived a young Jewish girl. We know so little about her. But we’re hardly to be blamed, for little was recorded for us to know. Of the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, only Matthew and Luke take us back to His birth. The rest of the New Testament rarely mentions it, though Mark does note that the people of Nazareth called Jesus “ ‘Mary’s son’ ” (Mark 6:3)—probably as an insult highlighting His questionable paternity.
And so she fades into the background of the well-known story: the sweet-faced, generic woman who bends over every Nativity set, worshiping the Baby who is hers and yet not hers.
Young and Innocent
Mary was most likely a very young mother. In her day, girls were marriageable in their early teens. She certainly was illiterate; girls weren’t allowed to be taught. So whatever training she had was limited to the skills she would need for raising a family. And whatever she knew of the Scriptures she had learned from her parents and through attending services in the synagogue.
She enters the story as “a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David” (Luke 1:27). Like a modern English royal bride, she seems chosen not so much for what she brought to her role as for what she did not bring. Nothing about her past marred the story. She was merely young and innocent.
The angel Gabriel came to Mary. She was frightened, even though his first words assured her that she was “highly favored” and that the Lord was with her.
What Gabriel told her next was surely disturbing: she would conceive the Son of God. It is a poignant glimpse into her simplicity that she was most puzzled by the practical problem, “ ‘How will this be, . . . since I am a virgin?’ ” (Luke 1:34). When the angel revealed the miracles that were about to take place, Mary accepted God’s will in exemplary fashion: “ ‘I am the Lord’s servant. . . . May it be to me as you have said’ ” (Luke 1:38).
In our overfamiliarity with the Christmas story, we assume that the characters are confident in their God-ordained destinies. Would not speaking to an angel make all questions disappear? But in this story there are hints that God’s actions are too complex for human beings to understand all at once. Throughout this miracle, Mary must renew her trust in God again and again. The memory of an angel visit does not take away her problems.
The Dark Side
Mary’s simple question to the angel about conception has a very dark side. The Bible doesn’t say whether she had the courage to tell Joseph about the pregnancy herself. It only says, “She was found to be with child” (Matthew 1:18).
But when Joseph discovered the pregnancy, he jumped to the only possible conclusion: Mary had slept with another man. It’s actually a mark of Joseph’s kindness that he decided “to divorce her quietly” (verse 19).
The Jewish betrothal of the time was a legal contract breakable only by the same process that would dissolve a marriage. Joseph’s opting for a quiet, legal procedure was not simply a polite way to avoid embarrassing Mary. He spared her life. For Joseph had the legal right to more drastic action—he could have had her judged publicly and stoned (see Deuteronomy 22:23, 24).
Mary must have suffered while her fate was being decided. She continued to suffer even after, for though she no longer faced execution, she would continue to bear the stigma of an illegitimate pregnancy the rest of her life. While God had revealed to her the heavenly significance of the experience, Mary would have to live in less than heavenly circumstances.
Mary experienced to an extreme degree what all of us experience. Even when we have God’s promises— as every believer does—our journeys remain hidden. The twists and turns of life often leave us wondering whether God is indeed in control. He acts in our lives, but He is a surprising God. Perhaps if we had all the answers we want, we would forget to depend on Him. Mary had few of the answers, and we can only imagine what tears she cried and what prayers she prayed as she waited for God’s mysterious plan to unfold.
It took another angel visit, this time to Joseph, to set things right. Joseph would honor their betrothal. But the pregnancy wasn’t to be peaceful. In late term, Mary was forced to travel with Joseph to Bethlehem, their ancestral home, on the whim of Caesar Augustus, who ordered a census of the vast Roman Empire. And so they set out on a 70-mile journey.
Artists usually show Mary riding a donkey that Joseph leads. But the Bible says nothing about their mode of travel. We know that only rich people had donkeys, and Joseph and Mary weren’t rich. They may have walked the entire distance. We can safely assume that, whatever their mode of transportation, the trip took them several days—days that were horribly uncomfortable for the very pregnant Mary. And to complete the horror, when they finally arrived in Bethlehem, there was no lodging for them. They must sleep with an innkeeper’s animals.
It was there, in the very humblest of settings, that Christ was born. Do not picture the scene as it is in your delicate, hand-painted Italian-porcelain crèche. That place was dark, smelly, and squalid. Every detail of the story shouts that here we have the opposite of power. A young, unknown woman in an age when being a woman meant being a man’s property. A poor Jewish couple, when the Jews were a small, vanquished people. The man married to a woman who was known to have been pregnant by someone else before their union—and few knew or acknowledged the supernatural cause. The birth of a human baby in a place where animals gave birth.
Signs of Humanity
Yet, in spite of all of these clues, we so easily misunderstand what our hearts need to know. We look at a story filled with the signs of humanity— and insist on seeing only divinity. Consider the love of God, we say, that He should appear surrounded by the dirt of barn animals.
But Mary’s Son offers us much more. Consider the love of God that He should actually become a little human baby!
How is it possible? How can the power of heaven be contained in a baby? Can anyone explain it to us? Only Mary. Mary can explain it to us. Mary is the one person in the story who knew that this divine gift was a real crying, suckling, burping human child. Hers is the one pair of eyes through which we can see that God had gifted His Son with all that He needed to forever and ever understand what being human means.
Jesus’ humanity is so hard for us to accept that some Christians miss Mary’s complete humanity and see her as almost divine. Other Christians, in defense, ignore her. They see any exaltation of Mary as diminishing the uniqueness of Christ.
What a loss either way! Without Mary completely and uncompromisingly in the picture, we cannot know the real Jesus. Mary’s humanity is as important to the Nativity story as is God’s divinity. Without her, we have only half a salvation. From that time to this, people have struggled to understand Christ as both divine and human. We can get our minds around one or the other—but both? Doesn’t even the smallest smattering of divine power produce an entirely supernatural being?
Yet Mary’s Son was a real human baby: small, vulnerable, and needing His diaper changed. Is that offensive? Then we misunderstand the offense of the Cross (see Galatians 5:18). Jesus gave up the power of divinity. Is that unacceptable? Then we miss out on the power He chose instead—the power of weakness.
A God Who Understands
Much of our packaging of Christianity emphasizes the All-powerful God. We build mighty churches and run vast mission projects. We organize ourselves into giant denominations with budgets in the hundreds of millions. In our pulpits, politically powerful ministers preach victory, health, and wealth.
But this power is not powerful enough. It is not all that our hearts need to know. What happens when the heart breaks? When we sicken? When we fail? Christ chose the weakness of the Cross. And because He did, we have a God who understands our weakness.
We know few triumphs. We have sweet blessings, but they are roses among the thorns. In His earthly life, Jesus had few triumphs too. He was ridiculed, despised, crucified—a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And He still is. In Christ, God is with us in our weakness and our limitations. This is why we must love Mary: this young, weak, human girl gave humanity to the Savior of the world so that He could understand us.
Two thousand years ago lived a young Jewish girl. She gave birth, and then for the most part disappeared after that first Christmas. We know she lived long enough to watch her Son die. Like Jesus’ disciples, she must have suffered when His life ended in apparent failure. For Mary, and all who had known Jesus, the full meaning of what had happened was hard to grasp when life went on as usual.
Yet everything had changed. Jesus had come.
Luke tells us that from time to time, when Mary had special glimpses of Jesus’ divinity, she treasured them and “pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19, 51). That is what the Christmas story is for us: a glimpse of Divinity clothed with humanity that we can treasure and ponder in our hearts. That story calls to us when holiday lights cast their glow and life is full of good things.
But more important, it calls to us when life is full of struggle and hurt and disappointment. In such times, our hearts can know that Mary’s Son is the God who is with us.
Does your heart know this story?