It's Christmas–which means male pastors typically preach on Jesus' miraculous birth. Hallelujah! I'm grateful for marvelous messages that keep us focused on the real meaning of Christmas. But through the years most of the Christmas sermons I've heard suggest that Mary endured the label of bad girl later in life. I'm not so sure. I love and respect these pastors, but I wonder if they have missed an important part of the Christmas story that matters a lot to women, and that women might have insight into the issue that the male mind might not consider important. I'd love to know what you think.
The story begins as Gabriel informs Mary that she will soon be pregnant even though she is a virgin. She responds with faith. But surely she struggles with terrifying thoughts about what this will mean for her future. Mary had every reason to feel that her whole world was imploding. Imagine you are Mary. Marriage was a high value in this shame/honor culture. Her worth, identity, and future were bound up in the match her parents made for her. Girls were betrothed young; we think she may have been 13 or 14. The engagement period lasted a year, to prove the young woman was chaste, requiring a divorce decree to end the pact.
Imagine what's probably going on in her head. Will anyone actually believe me when I tell them I'm pregnant? It's not what you think–no Roman soldier behind the barn…no, the child is from God. Sure, sure. Without God's protection, her story would be the town scandal for years to come. Not Mary, that sweet girl, so devoted to God, so wholesome, I guess appearances can be deceiving. Such a betrayal to her poor family. Iyiyiyiyi! What will become of the girl? And poor Joseph! What a tragedy!
Before the angel's announcement, she has been needle pointing M and J on towels and tablecloths. Now she might as well pack her hope chest, and prepare to go into seclusion for the rest of her life. Because logically this news will not only shame Mary but also her whole family. This is the Middle East. No wonder she is "troubled" by Gabriel's unexpected news.
As Mary processed Gabriel's news, real fears must have clouded her mind: Gossip, slander, ruin! But did any of that materialize? I don't think so. Let's take a look at what the Bible says happened. Luke 1:26 tells us that Mary's older relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John the Baptist when Gabriel sprung the news that Mary was going to bear the Messiah. Immediately after Gabriel's announcement Mary hightailed it to Elizabeth's home. She was welcomed, understood, and protected. She stayed there for three months and then returned home. She was not showing yet, and we don't know how many of the twelve months of the engagement had passed, but I'm guessing that when she returned home, she and Joseph were married right away. Because when Joseph had to leave Nazareth to travel to pay taxes in Bethlehem, he took Mary with him. The couple wasn't allowed to be alone together before they were married. She would never had been allowed to travel with him unless they were man and wife. And remember that pregnant women seldom went out in public and they wore loose baggy clothing. I wonder if God arranged that Joseph whisk her out of town before the rumor mill began to grind.
In addition, in the biblical accounts, she was never called foul names later in life. We see no evidence of behind-the-doors whispering to soil her reputation. She never wore a scarlet letter. Somehow, I believe God saved Mary's honor. Otherwise, later when the Pharisees were attempting to discredit Jesus, they would have used this against him constantly, and against his mother and family. But we see no real evidence of this kind of scandal surrounding His birth or that His mother was labeled an unchaste woman. No, God had her back. He protected her the way he protects many women today.
Why do male pastors so often assume that Joseph and Mary were not yet married when Jesus was born? Probably because of the typical translation of Luke 2:5 which says, "He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child." (NIV). However, a better translation of the original language is: Joseph went to Bethlehem "to be enrolled with Mary, the one having been betrothed to him, being pregnant." This small difference makes a big difference to women. I wonder if including capable women on biblical interpretation teams might provide us with more accurate translations?
Matthew 1:27 provides another clue: "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife." No stalling. As we put these clues together, I think that its far more likely that what Mary feared never materialized because a loving Father intervened and saw to it that her reputation was never tarnished. In that unforgiving culture, this was a big deal!
Even in our culture, our reputations matter a great deal to most of us too. And some women are drawn to the Lord when they learn that he delights to cleanse them from sexual sin, giving them a second chance to live a chaste life. Maybe this is one reason why the American Church is composed of 60% women and the numbers are higher in many other parts of the world. God cares deeply for women and Mary is just one of many examples.
Some might say that I'm splitting hairs, but we split a lot of hairs as we attempt to discover theological truth. Maybe this is just one of those truths that has been overlooked because it means more to most women than to men. This might be a good reason to include more women in our biblical discussions and why we need a woman's touch in theology as well as in other realms of life. I'd love to hear more sermons that consider the possibility, even likelihood, that Mary was never labeled a "bad girl" and just as Jesus came to redeem men, his tenderness and protection extends to women too. This marvelous example oozes tender care, the kind that Jesus often showed to women, regardless of their moral standing. I'd love to hear more sermons that reveal this part of the Triune God's character. Today the Church is losing more women than any other demographic. More sermons like that might encourage women to trust Christ and serve together with their brothers for the good of the Church and a broken world. Your thoughts?