Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 1

A Frightened Little Girl

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996).

She had been with some of her teen-aged girlfriends all day. There had been lots of giggling, with no small amount of it prompted by her. There had also been some envy, prompted by the same thing that had made them giggle. At age 14, Mary was engaged to be married. Her playmates wanted to know about Joseph, about the wedding feast that was still several months away, and about Mary's feelings.

There was nothing unusual about the situation. Girls in Nazareth were considered eligible for marriage at thirteen, and to reach fifteen or sixteen without their families being able to arrange a suitable husband was humiliating. Mary would be spared the fate of being thought undesirable or of being teased for having no husband.

She both loved and feared the God of Israel. Believing that her people were the covenant people of Yahweh who would someday see the Lord's Messiah in their midst, she felt an abiding sense of love for Israel's Bridegroom in her life. What a wonderful thought! Israel is to Yahweh what I am to Joseph! Knowing that Yahweh could punish or exclude from Israel's covenant promises any Israelite who defied his holy commandments, she revered the Torah and had early in life pledged herself to live in obedience to its requirements.

For Mary, as with every pious girl in Israel, it had been particularly important for her to preserve her virginity and reputation. She felt fully rewarded for doing so in the fact that she had been selected to be the wife of so good and decent a man as Joseph, a respected carpenter in Nazareth. She was only beginning to get acquainted with him, for first-century marriages did not come at the end of a dating ritual. Families arranged these unions, and women in particular had no real say in the matter. Mary trusted her father's love. She knew that he would choose her husband carefully and with much prayer. From all she had come to learn about Joseph, there was no doubt that the carpenter was God's gift to her, the answer to her own as well as her parents' prayers.

Resting alone in her family's one-room house now, Mary suddenly felt uneasy. It was the sort of feeling one gets sometimes when she feels that someone else has come into the room. Is someone else here? Are somebody's eyes fixed on me? She turned to look.

What! She wasn't alone. A man was in the house. She had never seen him before. He didn't look threatening or sinister, but he was in her house. And she was alone. Her heart raced and she flinched. Clutching her robe to her breast, she drew away and turned her eyes.

"Don't be afraid, Mary," said the man, "you have found favor with God."

"He knows my name," she thought to herself. "And what a strange greeting. Men sometimes receive calls from God, but I am a woman ÄÄ really only a girl getting ready to learn about being a woman. Oh, if only my Joseph were here to protect me!"

Yet she was conscious of the strange fact that she no longer really felt uncomfortable with this man. Daring to raise her eyes again and to look at him more closely, she didn't know how to describe the look on his face. And she was captivated by his eyes. With their dark and gentle gaze fixed on her, those eyes gave her the impression that they could see into eternity.

Could this possibly be an angel rather than a mere mortal? She believed in angels. But why would an angel be speaking to her? As Mary wrestled with her whirring thoughts, the strange visitor -- seeming less threatening the longer she looked at him -- spoke again.

"You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus," he said. "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 the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

Mary dreamed every night about having a baby. She and her friends had talked about what the experience might be like less than an hour ago! But it just couldn't be. Joseph had never touched her -- and no other man ever would!

"How will this be?" Mary gasped. "I am a virgin!"

Without hesitation and with the most confident tone she had ever heard in a voice, her angel-guest said, "The Holy Spirit will come upon 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."

Mary must have wondered if it was all a dream -- a concern that only occurs to people who are awake and alert. Maybe she pinched herself, shook her head, or rubbed her eyes. By this time, she may have felt secure enough to reach out to touch him.

It was really happening. She was hearing an angel from God tell her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. She remembered hearing one of the girls from Nazareth say aloud once that her dream was to have a son who would be Israel's redeemer. Mary had been frightened at the thought. She had wondered at the time whether the girl had blasphemed. She had never dared to utter such a thought -- the thought that nevertheless ran through the mind of every daughter of Israel.

Mary's only thought of late had been about Joseph's children that she would bear. Joseph! What did the angel's words mean in relation to him? If the child was not to be fathered by Joseph, what would he think of her pregnancy? How would he react? She feared she knew the answer to her own questions. She feared she knew how Joseph, her own family, and the people of Nazareth would interpret a swollen belly on a 14-year-old girl.

Some would say horrible things about Joseph, the best man Mary had ever met and who was always honorable in everything. She could not bear the thought of being the occasion for ruining the reputation of the man to whom she was pledged. And would Joseph himself believe Mary's explanation? Could he? Could anyone who had not seen this angel and heard his voice accept her account of what was happening with her?

But how could this be? It was impossible for a virgin to become pregnant and bear a child! If this were about to happen, surely there would be a sign given.

Then, as if he had been reading every thought of hers, the angel told Mary, "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month." She had not heard about her cousin Elizabeth being pregnant. It would be an easy thing to find out. Was that to be Mary's sign? Would Elizabeth understand what was happening to Mary? Could she explain it to Mary? Would she and her priest-husband help her explain it to Joseph? Then the angel finished by saying, "For nothing is impossible with God."

Mary wanted to ask: "What is not impossible for God? For Elizabeth to be pregnant at her age? For me, a virgin, to have a baby at my age? For Joseph to believe me?"

You'll have to admit that this makes no sense. If someone is going to give birth to and be responsible for the Son of God, surely it should be someone older -- perhaps Elizabeth -- and someone with experience in taking care of babies. The thought of a teen-aged girl giving birth to God come into flesh and perhaps having to take care of him without a husband is an absurdity. But so have many of God's doings in history have looked absurd to us. There had been Mt. Moriah, the Red Sea, Jericho, Mt. Carmel -- the list just goes on and on.

Can Mary agree to this? Can a frightened little girl have enough faith to take all the risks involved? What will she do? Or has she been chosen precisely because she is still a child? Young people have such a capacity for faith. It is the cynicism that sets in later that becomes such a stumbling block for so many of us.

"I am the Lord's servant," Mary told the angel. "May it be to me as you have said."

The angel smiled, said nothing, and left Mary alone with her thoughts. And what thoughts they were! "If there is anyone with whom I can share this," she thought, "it is my cousin Elizabeth. I must go to see her."

So she began her trip to the little town in the hill country of Judea where Elizabeth lived. As she traveled, she thought. She may have cried. She sifted every detail of the angel's announcement.

She could not know what lay ahead. All she knew with absolute certainty was what she had told the angel. She was the Lord's. She was ready to serve him in whatever way God wished to be served. She did not understand God and his ways, but she believed in Yahweh and would sacrifice herself to be his servant. She did not know then that her heart would be pierced for her son. She had no idea that she would someday be left standing beside his dead body to feel all over again in her fifties the fear and confusion of this day in her teens.

The same can be said of any one of us. When we surrender to let God have his way in our lives, we cannot know what lies ahead. We can only wait in faith for him to work all things together to his own ends and purposes.

When Mary arrived at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she received the sign that confirmed her faith in the angel's announcement to her. "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!' " (Luke 1:41-45).

By the spirit of prophecy that came to Elizabeth, the message of the angel was confirmed. Mary had been specially chosen of God and was "blessed among women"; Mary would have a child; that child would be divine. A double confirmation to Mary lay in the fact that she found Elizabeth well along in her own pregnancy, just as the angel had told her.

Elizabeth, at some point during the visit the two women had together in her home, surely told the details of the miraculous series of events in which she and her husband had participated in connection with the beginning of her pregnancy. Zechariah, while serving at the altar of incense as a priest, had been confronted by the angel Gabriel. Gabriel told him that his prayer for a child had been heard, that Elizabeth would bear his son, and that the boy's name was to be John (Luke 1:8-13).

Gabriel had also indicated something of the career John would have within Israel. He would "go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah" for the purpose of creating a "people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:14-17). There can be little doubt that they saw the messianic import of that announcement. John's presence in the spirit of Elijah would bring to mind the language of Malachi 4:5 and be a promise of Messiah's appearance.

At the time of the initial confrontation of Zechariah, however, the aged but good priest asked for a sign that he and his wife would have a son (Luke 1:18). The response of Gabriel was to inform Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the child was born (Luke 1:19-22). Elizabeth did in fact become pregnant immediately after that but remained in seclusion for most of the time (Luke 1:23-25).

Now the two women and their shared prospect of giving birth to sons linked them in spirit. The cousins would have sons who, by virtue of an anointing from God rather than mere ties of family, would bring the hopes of Israel to fulfillment. Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, apparently returning to Nazareth just before the birth of John (Luke 1:56). The time shared by those two must have been without precedent in the history of the human race. What excitement there would have been in their conversations. What anticipations they had. What apprehension must have filled the air.

Returning to the initial meeting of the women and Elizabeth's inspired utterance, the Holy Spirit gave Mary a prophetic song with which to respond to her cousin.

"My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me --
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their
inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers" (Luke 1:46b-55).

The frightened teenager of Bethlehem became the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ. Her love must have been tender, gentle, and formative. No one less than the purest and best of womankind would have been chosen for this role.

While Roman Catholic doctrines about Mary have tended to push many others of us away from this wonderful saint, we must not resist Scripture or denigrate her by failing to give honor where honor is due. Without embracing fanciful legends that grew up in later centuries around the name of Mary, we can still acknowledge the virgin of Nazareth whose self-sacrifice to God's purpose teaches all of us to be servants to the Lord.

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