Every year preachers try to make the Christmas story anew. How do you tell the same story in a different way?
One angle that many try to stay away from is on Mary’s “situation”: an unwed mother who is pregnant. Culturally, this would have been disastrous. Mary, most likely just a teenager, is visited by the angel Gabriel to bring Good News: she is to give birth to the Anointed One of Israel.
Mary’s pregnancy most likely caused her to be shunned out of her community. A scandal! To be pregnant before marriage was grounds for divorce in the Old Testament. Even Joseph thought about leaving Mary, but a divine message changed that. However, apparently there has been some scholarship to suggest that Mary’s pregnancy may have not been that scandalous.
Lynn Cohick, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College offers a different take on Mary’s situation:
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, which was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture. All that awaited the couple was the wedding. If they engaged in sexual intercourse with each other, that was not seen as a violation of any cultural norm… If pregnancy occurred before the wedding, this was not a problem because the parentage of the child was secured.
With this insight, the birth of Jesus was not as scandalous are previously thought. For decades, scholars have taught about the negative moral implications of Mary’s situation.
I’m not sure what to think about this perspective. Much of Cohick’s argument hinges on later rabbinic writings, which were written after the birth of Jesus. Mary must have experienced some sort of tension with her family and Joseph’s. Even though the marriage was a legal contract, sex and pregnancy before marriage was still a serious issue. Besides, the marriage contract was not complete till the end of the marriage ceremony.
In the ancient world, the advantage was almost always with a men in terms of marriage relations. Women practically had no rights. Joseph had two options:
- Joseph could continue the engagement and join Mary in her shame and marry her.
- Following the law, Joseph could accuse Mary of sexual immorality and releasing her from their betrothal contract. The penalty for adultery was stoning a woman.
Despite all the social and cultural implications, Mary literally becomes the bearer of good news. Mary’s story is a story of how God uses very unlikely people to accomplish his wonderful plan for salvation. No matter what shame she did or did not feel, Mary still proclaimed of God’s goodness in Luke 1:
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.
Mary’s courage and faithfulness is to admired. As the God bearer, Mary brought Christ into the world despite challanging circumstances. May you, in this season of Advent be a “bearer” of God to others.