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Mary hoisted her water jug on one shoulder, then slowly lifted it higher, to the top of her head. Rachel shot her a grin, her jug already in position, and they turned their steps down the trail that led toward their homes.

“Did you hear about Hannah?” Rachel asked, lowering her voice.

Mary shot the shorter girl a curious glance. “Her betrothal, you mean?”

“No, her condition,” Rachel replied, raising her eyebrows. “I only heard this morning, but word is flying around town that”—she dropped her voice to a whisper—“Hannah’s pregnant!”

“I don’t believe it!” Mary picked up her pace, and she felt her stomach tense. “She doesn’t look pregnant.”

“She did last I saw her. She bent to gather sticks, and I saw her belly. She’s pregnant, all right. Next time you see her, look more closely.”

“So they’ll push her marriage up?” Mary asked. She knew Hannah, and while the girl was aloof and generally rude, she wouldn’t wish an unwed pregnancy on her worst enemy.

“No, her betrothed swears he isn’t the father. The engagement is off.”

“Then what will happen to Hannah?”

Rachel didn’t answer, and she didn’t need to. They’d been warned against being alone with men for as long as they could remember—for this precise reason. An unchaste girl risked stoning unless her father was wealthy enough to buy off the executioners.

Even so, there was no place in decent society for an unwed mother and her illegitimate offspring.

“Couldn’t her father send her away to have the baby?” Mary wondered aloud.

“I suppose,” Rachel agreed. “But she’s ruined now. Even if her father protects her from the law, no man will have her.”

And what ultimate protection could a woman have with no husband? Mary sucked in a shaky breath, grateful that she’d followed her mother’s instructions to the letter when it came to her own betrothal. She’d never been alone with Joseph, even for a minute. She’d only spoken with him quietly, her head ducked and her father present.

Thank Adonai! she thought.

The girls solemnly walked the last stretch toward their homes, then parted when the path divided. The news was juicy as far as gossip was concerned, but terrifying, too. Mary couldn’t quite pull her mind away from it, even as she walked back in the door of their little mud brick home.

“What took so long?” her mother asked, stretching her back as she pushed herself up from where she was grinding barley with a stone hand mill.

“I saw Rachel at the well, and she told me some news. About Hannah.”

“Ah.” Mary’s mother nodded. “And that, my dear girl, is why you must keep all propriety. May Adonai grant that she isn’t stoned!”

Supper was a slow and somber meal. News of Hannah’s condition had already spread among the men, and Mary’s father shook his head sadly. “She’s a disgrace,” he muttered. “How can her father hold his head up in town? His daughter ruined her own life and disgraced her family forever. And after that advantageous betrothal he arranged for her!”

Mary’s little sisters and brother sat in wide-eyed silence, listening to the dire consequences that one naughty girl would have to endure. This was how children learned, by keeping their ears open and their mouths shut.

After supper that night, when the sun sank down below the horizon, leaving a crimson blush, Mary climbed the ladder to the upper sleeping chamber that she shared with the younger children. By now they’d be wriggling around on the straw mattress they shared, and she stopped at the top, a smile creeping over her face. “You all need to go to sleep,” she admonished, “or I’ll wake you before dawn when I get up and make you start the cooking fire.”

“You wouldn’t!” her brother retorted.

“Wouldn’t I?” Mary let the threat hang in the air, but her siblings knew her better and they giggled.

“Tell us a story, Mary.”

“Only one,” she replied, crossing the floor and sinking to her knees next to their bed. “And then you must promise to sleep.” “We promise,” they replied earnestly. “Tell us about Ruth!”

“No.” She shook her head firmly. “You’ve heard enough about Ruth. Instead I will tell you about a good woman who was the kind of woman you girls will become when you grow up.” She nodded toward her younger brother. “The kind of woman you will marry one day.”

The children nestled into their bed, and Mary told the story of Sarah, the mother of Israel. She was childless for many years, being a good wife and caring for her husband and his large household. Yet her heart broke because she didn’t have children. But there was the promise of a son.

Her voice reverberated through the small room, mingling with the breeze that whisked through its one narrow window. Stories held power, passed down a people’s history, and educated their children in what good behavior looked like. Adonai knew the world was not a safe place, and certainly not a good place; but good people could live in it, clinging to the Word of their Creator. They cherished those stories, memorized them, and told and retold how God had protected His people.

Following the story, the children did as they’d promised and promptly fell asleep. Mary crept into her cot—a small amount of privacy, since she was betrothed and soon to be married. She lay there, looking up at the small window, wondering if she would conceive many babies with her new husband or if she’d share the heartbreak of Sarah, who longed for a child. Her eyes grew heavy, and she turned to her side, ready to drift into her own slumber.

Suddenly, she was jolted by what sounded like lightning crackling through the air. The next instant, a light blazed through the room. Mary sat up with a jerk and pulled the light blanket over her face. She squeezed her eyes shut against the blinding glare.

Then she heard a gentle voice call her name. “Mary.”

Her heart pounded. Who was this, invading her tiny room? Why weren’t her sisters and brother awake?

“Mary, don’t be afraid,” the voice called. “I’m here with news from God Himself. You are highly favored. You have been chosen to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. You will name Him Jesus, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign forever and ever.”

Mary pulled the blanket down just below her eyes and squinted. In the dazzling light, she could see the form of a glorious being. “You mean,” she whispered, “you mean, the Messiah?”

“The Messiah,” the angel replied. “You will be found to be pregnant.”

Mary felt her stomach quiver as the angel’s words found their mark. She’d be pregnant! Now! Without a husband! After she’d been so careful to be good, so careful to protect her reputation, so obedient to her mother’s advice—she’d be pregnant outside of wedlock!

“No, but—” Mary’s voice trembled, and tears strangled her voice. “I’m a virgin, sir! This can’t be!”

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel said. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you. This will not be a child born of a man. He will be the Son of God.”

Mary’s hand moved slowly down to her stomach, and she sucked in a shaky breath.

“Your barren cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant too.” Was that sympathy she heard in the angel’s voice?

“But she’s elderly, like Sarah was.”

“This is a time of miracles.” The light dimmed ever so slightly, and she thought she could make out the form of a man. “You are highly favored, Mary.”

Did she have a choice? Somehow, she felt that she must. She knew the honor of being the mother of the Most High. She knew that her Child would be the Savior of her people, and she knew that this honor was one that girls had dreamed of for centuries, never really believing that they might be the chosen woman, the mother to usher in a new dynasty of peace.

Still, an image of Hannah rose up in her mind—Hannah, whose father was wealthy enough to spare her a stoning; Hannah, whose reputation was ruined; Hannah, who must now face a life as “that woman.” Mary’s father was not as wealthy as Hannah’s father, and dread settled in Mary’s stomach. A town’s indignation was nothing to toy with!

Through all those years of obeying her mother and listening to the stories of virtuous women from times past, she had learned something more valuable than simple rules of social etiquette. She’d learned that God worked in big, wide, wondrous, confusing ways. She’d learned that God took tiny, weak people and made something strong and beautiful out of them. She knew that the God who kept His promise of a son to the elderly Sarah, who plucked Rahab out of a doomed city, who guided Rebecca to a man who would love her with a passion that made history— that same God would be with her through whatever He called her to do for Him.

She nodded, slowly at first and then more fervently. “I am Adonai’s servant,” she whispered. “Let it happen the way you have said.”

The next instant, the light disappeared; and for a long moment, Mary was in utter blackness. Her eyes adjusted to the dark slowly. Tears squeezed between her lids, and she wrapped her arms around her slender middle. Was the Baby there already?

Her little siblings slept on, their breathing deep and undisturbed.

Suddenly, a verse from the prophet Isaiah flashed across her mind: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

And she was that virgin!

This story is based on Luke 1:26–38. To find out what happened to Mary, read Matthew 1:18–25.

Encounter With an Angel

by Patty Ntihemuka
From the December 2013 Signs