Who was the young woman chosen by God Himself to bear His only begotten Son? Mary said of herself that all generations would regard her as blessed, not because she was perfect, she even admitted that God was her Saviour, rather, she’d be considered blessed because of the privilege she was given to bear the Son of God.
Luke 1:46-48, ‘And Mary said, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour. For He’s had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; for behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.”’
Mary (Miriam) was a simple young woman of humble origins. She grew up in the town of Nazareth which was a small community in the Galilee region of Israel, a town that didn’t have a particularly favourable reputation. Remember Nathanael’s response when Philip told him that the Messiah had been identified…Jesus of Nazareth…and Nathanael said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45-46)
Not a lot is said of Mary, and throughout the Gospel accounts, none of the disciples and not even Jesus Himself, makes a huge deal about Mary. In fact, outside of the Gospels themselves, Mary isn’t mentioned at all, at least not by name, anywhere else in the New Covenant. Some believe she’s referred to by John in the book of 1st John, but that’s an assumption, a good assumption but still only an assumption.
The information from the Gospels themselves however, describe a young Jewish woman who is quiet, who is submissive and humble and who is engaged to a young man by the name of Joseph. We know that Mary’s family lineage goes directly to king David and we know that she understands that the Messiah is of great importance to her people. As with every other Jewish man and woman, they were eagerly waiting for their Messiah to arrive.
We also know that Mary was a moral young woman because she’s described as being a virgin. When Mary had her encounter with the angel Gabriel she was understandably scared at first because he immediately encourages her not to be afraid, and informs her that she is highly favoured by God. That apparently perplexed her, and she was trying to figure out why she was so highly favoured. She obviously didn’t see herself as being anything particularly special or unique, she considered herself to be a normal, young Jewish woman of humble birth and social standing. (Luke 1:26-30)
Then Gabriel goes on to tell her that she’s been hand-picked by God to be the mother of the Messiah…God’s Son and of course, she’s not being disbelieving, she’s simply unsure how such a state could come about because she’s a virgin, she’s untouched by any man. She was trying to figure it out in her head. Of course, Gabriel tells her that the child she’ll carry will come about through miraculous means, not human, physical means and upon hearing that, she simply agrees. (Luke 1:30-38)
The very interesting thing about Mary is her simple faith and trust. She knew she was entrusting her life into God’s hands, trusting Him to provide for her and to deal with the obvious social fall-out and chaos that could or would come from this situation and yet she simply trusted God anyway. The Law of Moses demanded that anyone who commits adultery was to be stoned to death. She was engaged to a man she hadn’t slept with, and therefore, in the eyes of her community, she was an adulteress. Her faith was simply that strong.
Christians tend to go to one of two extremes when it comes to Mary. They either elevate and venerate her to the level of divinity, equal to Jesus, or in order to ensure they don’t elevate her, they demean or disregard her, treating her as someone to be disparaging of.
The truth is, Mary was a unique though humble young woman who’s faith and trust in God should be a source of inspiration to us, and her willingness to take on the responsibility of carrying, birthing and raising the Messiah of her people should be an example of selfless devotion to God and willingness to obey Him no matter what. We must remember that she herself was not divine.
Not a lot is known about Joseph (Yosef). We know Joseph to be a godly young man, also of humble means just like Mary, his fiancé, who also lived in Nazareth. He was obviously in love with Mary and was going to marry her. Biblical engagement was as legally binding as marriage, but without physical consummation. So, while he and Mary had not come together physically, in the eyes of the Law, they were married and the only way to end the engagement would be by way of legal divorce.
Matthew 1:19, ‘Joseph her husband, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.’
Joseph, like Mary, was also in the family line of king David, but Joseph’s bloodline came with a curse because of the sins of Jehoiachin. He was so wicked in God’s eyes, that God cursed him and said that none of his offspring would ever sit on David’s throne. (Jer 22:30) So Joseph’s bloodline came with a curse. Mary’s bloodline that was also of David’s line, was not cursed and therefore, any child born through her would of course be eligible for the throne.
This was important and complex because the human family line for inheritance laws was always through the paternal side of the family, but ethnicity according to Jewish custom, was through the maternal side of the family. So a claim for inheritance of the throne came through Jesus’ paternal human line, but the escape from the blood curse came through Mary and because Joseph, Jesus’ step-father, didn’t pass on his bloodline, because Jesus actual Father was God!
Joseph was obviously in love with Mary, but devastated at the thought she’d been unfaithful to him, but upon hearing that she was pregnant, didn’t want her to be disgraced, or worse, executed, decided on acquiring a legal divorce on the quiet. However, after his own encounter with Gabriel, he too demonstrated a simple and quiet faith and willingly married her. He didn’t touch her until after Jesus was born, and he and Mary went on to have other sons and daughters together. (Matthew 13:55)
Joseph was a humble man who worked with his hands to take care of his family. Can you imagine the responsibility that he willingly accepted on his shoulders to not only marry a young woman who was pregnant to someone other than himself, in a time when that would ensure they be treated as social pariahs? Not only that, but he must have been a man of unique character and quiet strength to carry the responsibility of raising up and caring for the Messiah of Israel. Can you imagine what might have gone through Joseph’s mind when he helped Mary deliver their long-awaited Messiah in the lambing cave that night in Bethlehem? Holding that tiny baby in his arms, staring into the face of the very One who would save both him and Mary, who would redeem them from the sins and guilt they lived under, just like every other human being did?
Joseph and Mary were a remarkable young couple, humble, simple, and godly. When Jesus was born, they were handed incredible wealth by the Magi, and yet there’s no evidence at all, that Joseph squandered any of it. Joseph and Mary were a responsible couple who willingly embraced the task of being a father and mother to the Son of God. It’s assumed that Joseph died sometime between Jesus 12th and 30th birthday.
Since Caesar Augustus demanded a census be taken of all the people of Judea, Joseph and Mary had no alternative but to travel to Bethlehem and register because both their family lines were of the house of David, the Bethlehemite. The journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth was approximately 130km and Mary was at the end of her pregnancy. If we assume that they travelled about 20km per day, then it took them about a week to get there. It’s hard to imagine a heavily pregnant woman travelling that distance over the period of a week, but it’s possible. It’s more likely they took longer than that, but the point is, the journey was long and likely uncomfortable.
When they finally arrived in Bethlehem, the town was already full of others also there to register for the census and Mary’s labour was in full swing. Joseph had to find somewhere for her to deliver their baby as quickly as possible and the only available space was a cave where lambs were bred and kept in the surrounding foothills, under the care of the shepherds.
It’s also important to note that the name Bethlehem is made up of 2 Hebrew words, ‘Beit’ which means ‘house’, and ‘lechem’ which means bread. Together they mean ‘House of Bread’. Jesus is known as the ‘Bread which came down from heaven’ (John 6:41, 51, 58) and the ‘Bread of life’. (John 6:48)
We looked at the possibility last time that the shepherds may very well have been working for the Temple priests, and were breeding sheep in order to provide a steady source of lambs to be sold for sacrifice in the Temple. In particular, first-born male lambs, 1 year old and without defect, to be sacrificed at Passover, lambs whose blood would ensure that death and judgment would ‘passover’ the people, providing them with deliverance and redemption from slavery.
My hypothetical question is this…is it possible that God moved the heart of a pagan ruler to call for a national census, forcing Joseph and Mary to travel all the way to Bethlehem to ensure His Son would be born in the city of David, the ‘house of bread’; and be born in a lambing cave where first-born male lambs were born to be sacrificed for the people during Passover?
Next time we’ll do a wrap-up and bring all the characters of the story of the first Christmas and see what the mosaic looks like.