In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
However, she was very perplexed by Gabriel’s words and wondered what this sort of greeting meant.
The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.”
Mary asked the angel, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
The angel responded, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the child to be born will be holy. He will be called Son of God. Even now, your relative Elizabeth—in her old age—has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her [Luke 1.26-38].
Christmas cards display all kinds of imagery. Some have landscape scenes of small towns and the countryside, buried in snow, with horse-drawn sleighs or carriages. Others have animals frolicking, from reindeer to puppies, chipmunks, raccoons, cardinals, and cute grey mice. Angels appear as shy, cuddly-looking creatures, who certainly would never have to announce, “Be not afraid.” The few religious cards that can be found usually depict the holy family, clothes unruffled, looking so serene, with golden halos, looking like crowns from another world, just hovering over their heads. The words inside the cards express love, goodwill, joy, happiness, and warmth. Yet, in contrast, the descriptions of the events leading up to the first Christmas that both Matthew and Luke record are vastly different in tone, depicting a disruptive scene. Luke tells us that Mary was “greatly troubled” and “afraid” when the angel Gabriel appeared. As the angel proclaimed the awe-inspiring words about the Son of the Most High whose kingdom will never end, Mary had something less extravagant on her mind: But I’m a virgin! Also of grave importance, in a close-knit Jewish community during the first century, the news the angel brought could not have been entirely welcome. The law regarded a betrothed woman who became pregnant as an adulterer, subject to death by stoning.
Matthew says that Joseph graciously agreed to divorce Mary in private rather than press charges of adultery until an angel appeared to him to correct his viewpoint of betrayal. After the angel departed from Mary, Luke tells of a fearful Mary rushing off to visit her relative Elizabeth, the one person who might understand what she was going through. In addition, while the whole countryside is joyfully talking about Elizabeth’s miracle, Mary must hide the shame of her own miracle.
How many times did Mary reexamine the angel’s words as she felt the Son of God kicking within her belly? How many times did Joseph question his encounter with an angel—was it a dream?—as he endured the shameful looks from villagers who could plainly see the changing shape of his fiancée? Yet, the virgin Mary listened to the angel, considered the scandalous effects, and replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost.
Two thousand years later, people celebrate Christmas, attempting to create personal “Hallmark memories,” with wondrous decorations and festivities, devoid of any hint of scandal or personal sacrifice. During this Christmas season, let us make time to ponder what Mary and Joseph agreed to endure and to consider how the very One who said, “Let there be light,” entered our world, unable to speak, unable to eat solid food, unable to control his bladder, dependent upon a teenage couple for shelter, food, and love.