A Friendlier Christmas Story

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christmas-manger-4579217_640It always bothered me as a child when I saw plays and television shows about innkeepers saying, “No rooms!” to Joseph and nine-month-pregnant Mary, and slamming the door. How could these people be so cold-hearted, letting a teenage girl give birth alone with her husband outside in a barn? When I started having children and knew how difficult it was to do anything toward the end of each pregnancy, I was appalled that Joseph would put his about-to-deliver wife on a donkey for the journey to Bethlehem.

After decades of being subjected to the same tale each year, I got numb to the callousness of it all. Reason went out the window as I accepted the traditional Christmas story.

My husband and I recently returned from a sixteen-day pilgrimage in the Holy Land. We visited the Herodium fortress late one afternoon, just south of Bethlehem. As we stood at the foot of the fortress overlooking Bethlehem, some shepherd boys joined us with their sheep. With the sun setting and shepherds by our side, we looked toward Bethlehem as our guide shared a heartwarming retelling of the Christmas Story. To hear this account of love, family and community thrilled my heart as the night descended upon the little town of our Lord’s birth. It went something like this …

Part 1 – Angel Visits Mary, Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1:26Now in the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy with John the Baptist] the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,

27to a virgin who was betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David, and the virgin’s name was Mary.

Israel regionsThis map shows where Mary lived in Nazareth of Galilee, the northern region of Israel. Gabriel appeared to her there and said, “Hello, favored one! You’re going to conceive and have a baby, who will be great, the Son of the Most High God!”

Young Mary, about thirteen to sixteen years old, asked, “How can this be? I’m a virgin!” The angel told her she would conceive by the Holy Spirit. (If God could create the heavens and the earth, He could certainly create His seed in Mary’s womb.) Gabriel also told Mary that her relative, Elizabeth, who was barren, conceived in her old age and was now six months pregnant. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Imagine how this must have built Mary’s trust in God. Elizabeth, who was well past her child-bearing years, was pregnant. If God could do that, He could also do what the angel was telling her. She answered, “Lo!, I am the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

Even though she was “all in,” Mary understood some challenges lay ahead for her. What would happen when Joseph noticed she was pregnant? According to the law of Moses, he could bring her to the gate of the city to have her stoned or to publicly disgrace her by divorcing her. (Yes, they took engagement pretty seriously back then.)

So, Mary decided to take a trip to visit the only person who could possibly understand her situation—Elizabeth.

Luke 1:39In those days Mary got up and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40and went into the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

Nazareth to Bethlehem mapThis map shows how far Elizabeth lived from Mary, down south in the Judean region in the vicinity of Bethlehem. A young girl would never make this journey alone, so Mary probably checked around to see who was headed that way and asked if she could travel with them. The journey could have taken a week to ten days. You know how it is when you travel with a bunch of people. Someone needs to stop and visit their uncle along the way, someone gets sick and needs to get some medical attention … life just happens.

When Mary finally reached Elizabeth’s house …

Luke 1:41And it came to pass when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with holy spirit

42and cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

43And how is this happening to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

44For Look!, when the voice of your greeting came into my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

45And blessed is she who believed, because there will be a fulfillment of the things that have been spoken to her from the Lord.”

Let’s take a closer look at Elizabeth’s greeting (Luke 1:41-45). They didn’t have email or Facebook back then. It took a lot longer for news to travel. What’s more, Mary couldn’t have heard about Elizabeth being pregnant from anyone but the angel, because Elizabeth “hid herself for five months,” and her husband lost his ability to speak when he questioned the angel who told him about his future son, John the Baptist.

So, here’s Mary, showing up unannounced at her older relative’s house. Without having told a soul about her dangerous predicament of facing a possible stoning or a public divorce, God downloads the information to Elizabeth, and she prophesies about Mary’s baby. Do you think Mary was a little comforted? You bet.

An angel previously told Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. So, God also downloaded the information of what was happening to little baby John, who leaped for joy at the arrival of his cousin in Mary’s womb, who would be the Lamb of God!

to be continued …

Coming up: Joseph discovers Mary’s pregnancy, and the truth about the manger and stable.

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