If you are anything like me, seeing as today is Christmas eve, you’ve spent the last month binging all the Hallmark Christmas movies. Each one is so predictable with a love story involving two people that, somehow, defy all the odds and finally realize that they are perfect for each other. As the snow starts falling, ever so perfectly, they find themselves in each other's arms, kissing, and as the camera pans out and they live happily ever after. The End.
I love these movies, last week I watched 3 in one day (no shame)! But it wasn’t until church this last Sunday, listening to our Pastor talk about the Christmas story as it actually played out, that a light bulb went off in my mind, that was followed by a huge ‘UGH-OH.” I realized, that I was guilty of viewing the story of the Birth of Jesus and the relationship between Mary and Joseph with the same filter used while watching this ‘love is in the air,’ ‘happily ever after’ movies.
I had read the stories in the Gospel of Luke and Matthew dozens of times, yet when they replayed in my mind, it was something similar to a trailer for the newest Hallmark movie. A perfectly star-lit sky, two lovers overcoming all odds, sitting in a shabby-chic manger, so in love with one another and blissful about their life as a new family with their perfect baby wrapped in an organic swaddle. All reality of what the situation was really like, what Mary and Joseph really went through, and what the REAL circumstances were, had been completely removed.
As I sat listening to the “reality” of the situation, I felt a childish enthusiasm well up inside me because the story; of Marry & Joseph, their predicament, what they went through, all of it, was so much more meaningful, important, impactful and awesome than the sappy, picture-perfect romance I’d orchestrated in my head! And I want to try and paint that real picture for you too!
Disclaimer – I am in no way an expert in any of this and I could study this topic for years and still never explain it fully or do it justice, but below are a few things that have challenged and changed my perspective!
First, the story of Mary and Joseph and the birth of Jesus can be found in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke, both found in the New Testament, BUT in the Old Testament (which was written thousands of years before the Birth of Jesus) is filled with dozens of prophesies or predictions of the Birth story.
For example, Isaiah 7:14 says “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” This was written around 700 years before birth.
Micah 5:2, which was written between 735-700 B.C proclaims how the “one who will rule over Israel” will come from Bethlehem, although it was the smallest of the clans.
And these are just 2 of the many examples of prophecies that foretold the Christmas story and birth of Jesus, 100’s years before they actually took place! You can take a look.
Next, let’s look at Joseph and Mary, together as an “engaged couple” and then separately, as they each found themselves responding to the news of the child.
In the time that Marry and Joseph lived, engagements were very different than today, for a few reasons. First, there was no well-thought-out proposal, with a big ring or friend hiding in the bushes to capture the moment on one knee. Rather, their parents decided they would be engaged and that was that. Upon announcing this, a binding ‘contract’ was put into place. Secondly, unlike today where engagements can be easily broken off and minds changed, back then, the engagement in itself was a huge commitment, and ‘breaking it off’ was as serious as divorce from a marriage. The bible gives no indication of how old Joseph was but based on the historical context of the time, he would have been around 19 or 20 and Mary would have been about 13-15 years old. The betrothed or engagement period often lasted about a year and during this time the two didn’t have much communication. It was during this time that angel Gabriel visited Mary and told her she was with child. (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:34)
Mary and Joseph were Jewish, meaning they lived under the Jewish laws or The Law of the Old Testament. The Law was studied, known, and well understood by all. A few of the laws concerning engagement and purity were:
Deuteronomy 22:21 – if a woman betrothed, is found to not be a virgin “The woman must be taken to the door of her father’s home, and there the men of the town must stone her to death…”
Deuteronomy 22:24 – if a man has sex with a virgin, engaged to be married, “take both of them to the gates of that town and stone them to death…”
Now that is some pretty intense stuff. In our society today, we can’t begin to possibly fathom such laws or punishments but for Mary and Joseph this was very real, it was their reality. Joseph, upon finding out that his bride-to-be was with a child, that was not his, had every right to send her away and disgrace her and her family.
Although this is just scratching the surface of their situation and historical practices, you can see it was not one full of happiness, heart-eye emojis, and fairy tails.
I pray as you read this, you can try to imagine yourself as Mary, put yourself in her shoes … I understand it’ll be hard to grasp some of these things but do your best. You are 13-15 years old, your parents just gave you away and promised you to marry and you have never been with a man, ever, in any way, then one night, an angel appears and tells you that you are pregnant.
The angel Gabriel greets Marys,
“Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.”
As Mary looked upon the angel confused and wondering what the greeting might be about, the angel continued,
“Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:28-33)
Now, although Mary would have been aware of the prophecies foretelling the birth of the coming Lord, she (until this very moment) would have never thought she would be the one. She asks the angel,
“How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34)
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35)
The angel continues to tell Mary, that her cousin, Elizabeth, in her old age and unable to conceive, was also expecting a son and 6 months pregnant.
Ok, now… let’s break this down. Mary, a young teenager, having never, ever been with a man, is greeted by an angel one night and told that she is pregnant, with a child from the Holy Spirit and that the child is to be called Jesus and he will become a King over everything. And, her cousin, who was old and unable to conceive for years and years, is now 6 months pregnant also!
I would have loved to see what Mary’s face was like upon hearing this! I mean, I can think of 100 different things I would have said in response to this news, as I am sure you can too. But rather than responding with something like: “how in the world,” or “there is no way” or “are you out of your mind” or “no way, you’ve got the wrong girl” Mary’s response is courageous, faithful and so powerful.
“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38 NIV)
Or as the New Living Translation says,
“I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” (Luke 1:38 NLT)
She was just a normal girl and in one moment, her world changed forever and not for the better. I am sure she was aware of the shame she and her family would face, how Joseph would leave her (best case scenario) or worst case publicly humiliate her. The road ahead was NOT, in any way, going to be easy.
She could have responded with fear, anger, denial, or confusion, but the faith she demonstrated, instantly, was remarkable. She told her cousin Elizabeth,
“how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of this lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed…” (Luke 1:46-48)
She was fully, 100%, all-in, and put her faith and God’s will before hers. That is remarkable!
The other half: Joseph
It is important to know that Joseph was not present when the angel visited Mary, so he was unaware of this incredible, unimaginable news. However, he does eventually find out that his bride-to-be is with child and his response can easily be overlooked while reading the story in the Gospel of Matthew. As discussed earlier, because Joseph and Mary were engaged and she had become pregnant, he not only had the right but an expectation from society to make public the situation Mary was in. To humiliate her, ‘call her out so to say, disgrace her and send her away to fend for herself, guaranteeing her a hard, terrible life. He could have easily done this and NO one would have given Joseph any grief.
But in verse 19, we see the kind of man Joseph is. It reads
“Joseph, to who Mary was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.”
Let’s not skim over the importance of this. At this point in the story, Joseph had no idea about the angel, rather his mind could have been racing (which our minds so quickly do) with the worst-case scenarios. Mary had cheated. She had been disloyal and had been with another man, if not many, and had gotten pregnant. One of the worst things you could do as a woman of that time, she did. Joseph could have (should have) been angry, rude, hateful, or mean but he is none of those. He is referred to as a righteous man. He turned the other cheek.
If we are trying to understand and read this story in relation to how it would play out today, we will miss how incredible Joseph’s reactions were! No other man would have done what Joseph did. But I think God wanted to make a point and get us thinking! The very person that was sent to this earth to teach us love, forgiveness, mercy, and righteousness was going to be raised by a man that showed righteousness and mercy when it was least expected.
It was not until AFTER Joseph comes to his own conclusion to quietly and respectfully break off the engagement with Mary that he is visited by an angel in his dreams and is told the news of the virgin birth. (Matthew 1:20-23)
Upon waking up from his dream, he did what the Lord commanded, taking Mary as his wife, going to Bethlehem, and having a son, named Jesus.
After hundreds and hundreds of years of waiting, the prophecies were fulfilled. Christ was born.
I’d spent years hearing, reading, telling, and imaging the Christmas Story but I don’t think it was until this year (at age 31) that I finally ‘GOT IT’. The story has always been significant and important to me but for the first time, I am seeing it for what is real.
And what is really is 1,000 times better than the ‘happily ever after,’ perfect Hallmark, love story.
It is not just a story of the birth of Jesus but a miraculous example of faithfulness, righteousness, mercy, courageousness, and grace. Two people were faced with news that could have been devastating. They could have reacted so many different ways when presented with the news. All of which would have been justified, given the circumstances, but they responded with ‘THY WILL BE DONE.’
I pray this holiday season, as we surround ourselves with friends, family, presents, food, and great times we take time to now just celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but take some time to think about Mary and Joseph.
We will blink and we will be putting away the Christmas lights and decorations as we prepare for another year, I challenge you to think about what your life would look like if you approached it like Mary and Joseph. Full of faithfulness, grace, courage, respect, and the WILL and PLAN of the Big Guy Upstairs before your own.
I promise you… it will lead to a story, a life, far better than you could ever imagine!