Get your copy of “Messiah: Biblical Retellings” here, or download a free chapter here. (Published under my pen name, C.A. Gray)
Today’s special podcast is a meditation on the Christmas story as told in the books of Matthew and Luke, and a reimagining of the story from Mary’s perspective. Merry Christmas!
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This is the transcript of my retelling, but the meditation also includes a discussion and original texts.
Mary had always thought of herself as ‘dutiful,’ as that was the word her father primarily had used to describe her. She was his ‘dutiful daughter,’ he’d always said, and she’d swelled with pride, striving to live up to his words. From a very young age, she’d helped her mother and sisters with household duties. She was meek, selfless, and never complained—a perfect example of the woman Solomon had described in the Proverbs, the kind every young man should wish for in a wife. So though her family was poor, when Mary came of age at twelve years old, the fathers in Nazareth with sons of marriageable age took notice. “Who can find a virtuous and capable wife?” they quoted. “She is more precious than rubies.”
So the fathers of the town were slightly disgruntled when Mary caught the eye of a carpenter named Joseph from the City of David. The house of David is generally meant as the family of David. He was in his early twenties–an older man by the marriage standards of the day. But Joseph first heard the people of Nazareth sing Mary’s praises as a devout and diligent young woman, and then made a point of running into her on her daily errands on more than one occasion. She’d been so charming, demurely casting down her eyes, and he fell in love with her at once. For her part, Mary developed feelings for the older carpenter too, but she was far too modest to believe he could view her as anything but a child—until he called upon her family home one day and brought the bridal gift to her father. It had been like a dream; she could hardly believe it was happening. The two men spoke together for what felt like a very long time before her father had called Mary in to obtain her consent. This was merely a matter of course, and had Joseph been any of the other young men of Nazareth, she would have been expected to consent with grace. But as it was Joseph, she could hardly look at him as she nodded and breathlessly spoke the expected words. Her burning face gave away her feelings, which seemed to please her father greatly. Once the betrothal was sealed, Joseph took his bride by the hand and led her outside her family home. They talked under the stars that night for hours. For Mary, it was the most surreal, magical night of her life.
She fell into bed that night sighing and humming softly to herself long after her family was asleep. But no sooner had she climbed in bed, a bright light suddenly filled the room–so bright that Mary had to squint and look away. When she looked a second time, there stood a man at the foot of her bed! Only he was like no man she had ever seen before. He must have been six cubits tall if he was a span. He wore robes as gleaming white as himself, but even despite them, Mary could see that he was powerfully muscled like a warrior. She knew at once that the brilliance surrounding him was the glory of the Lord.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he boomed.
Mary just stared at him. She was too terrified to move, let alone speak.
As if reading her thoughts, or at least her expression, the angel said, “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary’s mind at first went blank—this was too surreal to be happening, and yet she knew without a doubt that it was happening. Her subconscious mind was not creative enough to conjure such a thing in a dream. She then thought several things at once: of the various examples of angels appearing to the patriarchs. Abraham. Moses. Daniel. Elijah. And now…her? Who was she? At the same time, she scrambled to make sense of his words. Among the things she and Joseph had discussed were their plans to wed only once he could prepare a place for her. That would be months, at least. Until then, they would not come together as man and wife—so how could she conceive?
She swallowed and found courage. Hadn’t this warrior angel told her not to be afraid? He would not have said that if it were impossible for her to obey. She managed, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
The angel did not seem to be put out by the question. He replied, “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 called holy — the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary caught her breath, as understanding clicked in her brain. All her life she had been raised on the prophecies of the Messiah, foretold throughout the scriptures. Daniel’s prophecies had indicated that the time was near. Yet she, like the other Israelites, had always believed that the Messiah would come with fanfare and glory. Not born as a baby, to an obscure child like her! Yet even as she thought this, the words of the prophet Isaiah returned to her: “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” How had she not realized this would be literal?
Again, Mary found her tongue. She bowed her head, and said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
No sooner had she said this, the angel vanished. All was still and dark again in her bedchamber, except for the pounding of her heart. She thought of where she was in her monthly cycle—she knew little about childbirth, unmarried as she was, but she did know that her monthly flow was an indication that conception had not occurred, and that it could occur at specified times only—typically halfway between one monthly flow and the next. She did the math and realized that this was approximately the right time. Her hand flew to her abdomen at the thought.
And then another thought occurred to her.She was unmarried. Yes, she was betrothed as of tonight, but everyone knew that she would not come together with her husband until after the wedding. If she was found to be with child before that, according to the Mosaic law, Joseph could have her stoned as an adulteress!
For a split second, terror struck her, but she told herself,No. That won’t happen. Obviously that won’t happen: this is God’s son I’m carrying! He will not let anything befall me at least until I give birth.Not only that; but she knew after tonight better than ever before that Joseph was a kind and just man. Perhaps he might refuse to marry her after all, but he would not have her killed.
Yet the thought that he might refuse to marry her after all brought with it a wave of sorrow, but again, Mary checked it. One problem at a time, she told herself, I can’t worry about that now. Perhaps… oh, perhaps he’ll believe me and marry me anyway! Surely if the Lord saw fit to choose her as His son’s mother, He would have chosen his earthly father just as carefully?
Her turbulent thoughts returned then to the last thing that the angel had said to her: “Behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Elizabeth! Mary had always liked her great aunt Elizabeth. She was a wise, gracious woman. While Mary always felt that she had to work hard and earn her keep at home, Elizabeth’s peace made Mary feel as though she could just be. Mary had always thought it a great tragedy that Elizabeth, who would have been a terrific mother, had never had children. There was no greater sadness for a woman in Israel than to be barren—and according to the Abrahamic covenant, children were promised, provided the Israelites remained on the right side of the covenant and believed God. After all, it was written, “There shall not be male or female barren among you.” And now, at very long last, Elizabeth’s many years of prayers were to be answered in a birth every bit as miraculous as the birth of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham!
Mary was seized with a sudden desire to go to Elizabeth. If anyone could understand what she was going through now, if anyone could encourage her and give her advice on how to walk the uncharted road before her, Elizabeth could. The angel had said she was in her sixth month, so she was showing now–but in the early days of her pregnancy when she was not showing, who would possibly have believed her?
The next morning, Mary was up before either of her parents, her chores completed and her bag packed for the journey to the hill country to Aunt Elizabeth’s home in Judah. She knew her eyes were bright, almost feverish, as she announced her intention to her parents. They were, predictably, taken aback—why, only last night she had been betrothed! They wanted to spread the news to their neighbors and friends! Mary said, “Yes, and I wish Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Zechariah to be among the first to hear the news.” This was true; it just wasn’t the whole truth. “And also—Aunt Elizabeth is going to have a baby. She needs my help.” She wasn’t sure what made her add this.
Her parents were struck dumb at first, and then they both began to laugh. Her mother became serious again first, and fixed Mary with a stern, reproving gaze. “Mary! You should be ashamed of yourself. What a cruel joke. You know very well that Elizabeth would have loved to have had a baby.”
“It’s not a joke, it’s true! She is in her sixth month. Write and ask her, if you don’t believe me.”
Her parents exchanged a skeptical look, and her father spoke to her as if she were simple. “Mary, how shall I put this delicately? The ‘way of women’ has ceased to be with Elizabeth…”
“Yes, I know that, but nothing is impossible with God!” Mary said impatiently, earning her mother’s reproving gaze for speaking sharply to her father. For his part, he looked taken aback. Mary lowered her eyelashes demurely. “Forgive my sharpness, Father. But I do mean what I say, and you will hear by and by that they shall have a son.”
“And just how do you know even the gender of the child, when she can’t possibly know that herself?” her mother demanded.
Mary sighed, by now thoroughly convinced that she must not stay under her parents’ roof, and must go to be with Elizabeth. If her parents could not comprehend how Elizabeth could be pregnant, they would never, never believe her. In fact, the only person who could be expected to believe her was Elizabeth. She chose not to answer her mother’s question, as she would not lie, but neither could she tell the truth.
“How long will you be gone?” her father asked, frowning.
“Three months,” Mary said without thinking. But as soon as it was out of her mouth, she knew it was the right answer. Three months would be long enough to witness the birth of Elizabeth’s miracle baby, long enough to fortify her own faith in the angel’s words under Elizabeth’s protective roof. Long enough to formulate a plan of what to tell Joseph, and her family, when she returned and her condition became obvious.
“Three months!” gasped her mother, “but what will Joseph think? He asks for your hand and immediately you depart for the hill country for an extended visit to an elderly aunt?”
Mary felt her chin quiver involuntarily at the thought of Joseph’s potential rejection when she returned. But again, she pushed it from her mind. That was at least three months down the line, and she wouldn’t worry about it now. “Please tell him that Aunt Elizabeth needs my help in her condition, and I will return once my cousin is born. He will understand.”
Her mother balked at using a highly questionable circumstance as an excuse. But Mary, not waiting for her parents’ approval for perhaps the first time in her life, took her leave. Her father did, at least, grudgingly lend her a camel for the journey.
When Mary at last arrived at Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home, Zechariah himself answered the door. She greeted him with joy, but he only gestured in reply. She blinked at him, confused, and it took her a few attempts to speak to him before she gathered that he had no voice. But it this wasn’t the sort of hoarse whisper that usually followed an upper respiratory infection—Zechariah was behaving as if he were born mute! Mary had a suspicion that somehow this was related to Elizabeth’s condition, though it did not appear to be related at all.
“May I please see—“ Mary tried again.
“Mary!” came Elizabeth’s voice from the vestibule. She ventured out to greet her grand-niece, revealing her full figure in all its glory, her white head notwithstanding. The sight of her round belly made Mary want to cry with joy. Elizabeth extended her hands to Mary and exclaimed with ringing authority, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
At this, Mary’s eyes widened, and tears slipped onto her cheeks. How good of the Lord! She didn’t even have to tell Aunt Elizabeth anything at all; He told her himself. Moreover, Elizabeth’s words confirmed everything the angel had said to her, as did Elizabeth’s own pregnancy. Mary hadn’t realized that some part of her had been gritting her teeth, trying to believe against all odds and against all evidence, until this moment. The angel had known she needed to be here, to bolster her floundering faith. Caught up in the spirit of rejoicing, Mary cried, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed”—and she knew it was so, even as the words tumbled out of her mouth. “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” How great, for the Lord Almighty to choose her! “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever.”
Three months passed, and Elizabeth’s time drew very near. Mary no longer harbored any doubts of her own condition, and the ceasing of her monthly flow had confirmed it months ago. But Elizabeth pressed Mary to return to Nazareth.
“You are ready, my dear,” she told her. “You must tell Joseph sometime, and at this point he’s liable to see it before you can tell him a thing!” Mary looked down with chagrin—she wore loose garments, but she was a slight creature, and even now her pregnancy had begun to show.
“Which is exactly how you handled it,” Mary teased her aunt, who had confessed to her that she had remained in seclusion for the first five months of her own pregnancy. After all, she’d struggled with her faith enough, without also contending with the scoffing of her friends and neighbors. She waited to come out of seclusion until not even the staunchest skeptic could deny it!
Mary had intended to remain until the birth of her cousin, but Elizabeth insisted she return–and the truth was, Mary was eager get it over with, too. What would happen, would happen, and delaying the inevitable only made her more anxious. On the return journey, she decided she would go to Joseph before her parents. After all, if her parents turned her out, he might marry her quickly and take her in. And if he rejected her too… well, that was the Lord’s problem, wasn’t it? She whispered a prayer as she neared the home of her betrothed, dismounting from her camel. His workshop was around the back of the house, and she knew that was where he would be at this time of day.
“Mary!” he exclaimed when he saw her, startled. “Have you only just returned from—“ He stopped, his eyes tracking to the slight bulge at her abdomen, and his words seemed to die away. He looked at her again, a question and hurt in his eyes.Tell me that isn’t what it looks like, they pleaded.
“Joseph,” Mary took a few rapid steps toward him, and held out her hands. He did not take them.
“I see you’ve been busy while you were away,” he said, a bitter smile twisting the corners of his mouth. “I certainly never would have thought you the type.”
Tears sprang to Mary’s eyes, but how could she possibly explain? She was a very straightforward girl, and it was on the tip of her tongue to tell him everything, whether he would believe her or not. But something told her not to. She only whispered emphatically, “I have not been unfaithful to you, Joseph.”
He averted his eyes from her. “I will divorce you quietly. What you and your child do after that is your own business.”
Mary was crying now, from a combination of gratitude and heartbreak. Even in the first shock of discovering what he believed to be her infidelity, Joseph did not seek retribution. He was protecting her even now, which told her more clearly than anything she had yet learned of him what a good man she was losing. Yet something inside her seemed to whisper,Leave it to me.
She caressed her belly for comfort as she left the man she loved behind her, she thought for the last time, feeling all alone in the world. But she straightened her shoulders, dried her eyes, and rode home to face her parents. Her father was not an observant man, but her mother would know the truth of her condition at once. She clung to the words in her mind:Leave it to me.
Well, she would. What choice did she have?
But Mary, mercifully, did not have to explain to her parents that day. Her father was working, and her mother away tending to sick neighbors. When they were home and preparing supper, she made an excuse that she was tired from her journey and retired to bed early. She slept little that night, though, and rose well before daylight, when it became obvious that she would sleep no more.
The first streaks of dawn the next morning brought a visitor to their door. Mary’s bedchamber was close enough that she heard the approaching footsteps and the knock first, though it was her father who answered the door.
“Joseph, my boy!” came his surprised, booming voice.
Heart in her throat, Mary hurried to greet him, hoping against hope that he wasn’t here to begin the divorce proceedings. That was certainly not the way she’d wanted her father to find out. But the moment her eyes met Joseph’s and she saw his expression—awed, hesitant, hopeful—she promptly burst into tears.
“Mary!” chided her father, looking from her to Joseph, “what is all this?”
Mary hardly heard Joseph’s murmured explanations to her father. The next thing she knew, he’d guided her outside, under the eucalyptus tree where they had spoken well into the night on the evening of their betrothal. Gently he took her hands from her eyes, tilting her chin up to his so that he could see her face.
“Dry your eyes,” he whispered. “Would you like to know why I am here?” She nodded, unable to speak, and he went on, “An angel of the Lord spoke to me in a dream last night. He said to me, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name—’”
“Jesus,” she finished with him, and Joseph sucked in a breath. Mary nodded, and said, “He came to me too, though for me it wasn’t a dream.”
The awed look returned to Joseph’s face, and he quoted from Isaiah, “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’”
Mary swallowed, nodded, and managed with a tiny shrug, “I guess that’s me.”
Joseph let out a short, incredulous laugh. “You know, if you had told me, I’d never have believed you.”
“Of course not, why would you?” Mary looked at him seriously. “And you realize, no one else will believe me either. It will be a dreadful scandal.”
“Believe us,” he corrected, gently wiping a tear from her cheek. “We’re in this together now.”
Of course, Mary was right. Her mother saw at once that she was pregnant when she really looked at her, and was too horrified to upbraid her, though her father alternately ranted and cried. She tried to tell them that it was all right, that Joseph would marry her anyway and would not even divorce her, let alone stone her.
“And why should he do that?” her father demanded. Mary explained about her vision and Joseph’s dream. Her father laughed her to scorn, but her mother did not laugh. She did not believe either, but she considered. After all, they knew their daughter as pious and dutiful. Was it easier to believe that she had committed fornication with a stranger than to believe the Lord had chosen her?
Joseph was true to his word, and within a week of her return, he had taken her as his bride. They dispensed with the traditional several day wedding feast that Mary’s father dearly wished for her to have, because most of the people of Nazareth would not have attended anyway, in silent disapproval. By now the story of Mary’s supposedly ‘immaculate’ conception was all over town. Old women who had always had a smile for her now averted their eyes when she passed them on the streets, and old men who had seen her grow up from childhood now shot murderous glances her way, as if they’d have liked nothing more than to enact the full punishment of the Levitical law upon her.
Six months later, when Mary’s time had nearly come, a decree went out from the Roman emperor Caesar Augustus. There was to be a census. Not only did this mean that everyone would be registered as a citizen for purposes of taxation, but each of the Jews must return to his ancestral home to do so. Joseph broke the news of this to his wife—this meant that they had to return to Bethlehem, the City of David. It was a three day journey from Nazareth at the best of times, and with Mary in her present condition, assuming lots of stops to rest, it could be up to a week. Mary did not complain, though.What good would it do?she thought. It would change nothing.
Mary had thought the scorn of her townsfolk was bad, but the journey, sitting sidesaddle on a camel at nine months pregnant, was awful. Joseph did what he could for her comfort, but that wasn’t much. They made the journey in four days because Mary did not insist upon stopping as often as she might have liked to have done. She just wanted to get there. She was grateful she’d pressed on ahead, too, because just outside of Bethlehem, the birth pains began. She clutched her swollen abdomen and looked up at Joseph with wide, terrified eyes, and he understood at once.
“I will find us a room!” he announced.
But they went to three inns without success. Due to the census, many other Israelites who did not live in Bethlehem had poured into the city, and every inn he tried was full to capacity. Joseph grew desperate, as each time he returned to Mary, waiting with the camels, her birth pains had grown closer together. Her face was clammy with sweat, and her breathing came in short gasps.
The innkeeper, moved with pity, followed Joseph outside and lay a hand on his shoulder. “I know of a place you might go, a place that is ceremonially clean and designed for birth, though not exactly of this kind,” he murmured, and pointed. Joseph’s gaze followed where the man pointed, and his brow knit in consternation. The innkeeper had indicated the field of Migdal Eder–the place where Jacob’s wife Rachel was buried, and which was now a meadow where the shepherds raised sheep for Temple sacrifice. At the top of the hill of Migdal Eder was the Tower of the Flock, a good vantage point for the shepherds to view their flocks all at once. The ground floor of the Tower was where the shepherds would take the sheep to give birth to the sacred little lambs, protected from the elements. After all, these lambs must be perfect, if they were to be offered to the Lord.
Mary, between contractions and seeing also where the innkeeper pointed, could see that Joseph was about to refuse.
“Yes!” she gasped, “Anywhere. Please!”
So he took her, reluctantly, the 1000 paces or so from Bethlehem to the Tower of the Flock. She lay upon the ground and pushed until she heard the little mewling cries that made her laugh and cry at the same time, delirious with exhaustion. Joseph bathed and wrapped the child in the swaddling cloths intended for the newborn Temple lambs, and laid him in the manger intended for the sheep to feed.
Mary had no idea how long she lay there, alternately cradling her son and dozing off, when the shepherds from the field suddenly crowded into her birthing chamber. They told her husband an incredible story, of yet another angel who had appeared to them in the fields. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!” was what they said the angel told them. “And this will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” The Temple shepherds cut one another off in their haste to tell the story. Another one said, “And then suddenly there was not just one, but legions of angels in the heavens, crying out, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!”
Mary gazed at the baby in the manger, treasuring the words of the shepherds and pondering them in her heart. What a place for the birth of a king, of the King! Such an idea almost defied belief. And he certainly looked like an ordinary child, though to her eyes he was perfect.Yet so every mother always says, she thought. How good of the Lord to confirm for her, again and again, that this was no ordinary child, despite everything her senses told her. She could stand against all the gossip and slander, and this poor child, her little Jesus, would have to do the same. The rumors of his illegitimacy would follow him all his life, she feared. But it didn’t matter. Joseph believed her. Elizabeth and Zechariah believed her. These Temple shepherds believed her. She knew that the Lord would continue to send her encouragement when she needed it, words she could treasure and ponder as fortification against the sneers of the rest of the world.
The angel had said to Joseph in his dream, “he will save his people from their sins.” The lambs, usually delivered in this room, wrapped in this cloth, and laid in this manger, were merely a type and shadow of the forgiveness of sins. This child was to be the real thing. But what could that mean?
She tried to imagine what this precious child would grow up to become. But how could she imagine? Such a thing had never happened before in the history of the world.
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