In Mar 9:37 Christ said:
Whosoever shall receive one of such children in my name, receives me: and whosoever shall receive me, receives not me, but him that sent me.
Was he referring to the popularity of Christmas? Did he mean that the celebration of his birth is the celebration of all birth?
Though the Nativity story is outside of the scope of Christ’s words, it raises interesting issues.
The Perfect Girl
The Nativity could have been a Shakespearean play. It is perhaps the most easily understood dramatic aspect of Christ’s life. Unlike the rest of the Christ story, the nativity is a human story. In it, normal human beings come in contact with the divine. This is the essence of human drama, putting ordinary people into extraordinary circumstances.
Mary was more than just a young girl. She was the best girl that ever lived. How does such a person get treated by those around her? In the beatitudes, Christ’s talks about how “lucky” people are who are “hounded for their perfection” (mistranslated as “persecuted for their righteousness”). This luck is a mixed blessing and his mother, Mary, was presumably history’s best example.
We can safely guess that Mary was devout, loving, and obedient. She was just the kind of kid that all parents throw in the faces of their own kids as a good example. I imagine that the most common refrain the other kids growing up in Nazareth heard was “why can’t you be more like Mary?”
So, how did the other kids react to this? Some of those kids probably grew up being jealous and resenting Mary, especially those kids who were competitive, insecure, and wanted more recognition for themselves. Her friends loved Mary, but many more felt they were competing with her. The more popular and attractive those other kids were, the more problems they had with Mary.
Was Mary beautiful? It doesn’t matter. She was incredibly nice. The younger kids, the less disadvantaged kids would have all benefited from her goodness. They would looked up to her and wished their own brothers and sisters were more like her. And this hero-worship of Mary by some of her generation created even more resentment.
A lot of what Mary does is irritating to those who are less perfect, which is everybody. When she does something well, she makes little of it. She sees faults in herself that no one else sees. She apologizes for not doing better when she does better than everyone else.
Remember, these kids are growing up. They are becoming teenagers. They live in a very religious community and a small town. Kids are testing boundaries. Much of this is innocent, but there are good girls and boys and there are not so good girls and boys. The fact is that very few kids get through puberty completely good. Maybe only Mary. Some of the older boys are paying attention to the younger girls, trying to get them alone. Some of the kids are secretly getting into the wine. Some are curious about pagan rituals and music. Some kids are tempting the others, trying to prove how “grown up” they are.
How does Mary feel about this situation? What does she say to the less-than-good girls? Nothing that they want to hear. Does Mary tell the parents when she finds out their kids are misbehaving? She is conflicted. She doesn’t want her contemporaries to hate her. She is good, but she is human. She doesn’t want to be a snitch and a goody-two-shoes, but she cannot help it. She doesn’t want kids to hurt themselves or endanger others. So she has to make tough decisions.
These are the decisions that every kid today has to make and most of us chicken out. What does Mary do when she hears some kids are leading others astray? She has to speak out. However, she isn’t self-righteous about it. She doesn’t like having kids she’s know her whole life mad at her. She doesn’t want to be an outsider. As her generation ages, she find them excluding her more and more.
The younger kids and other outcasts still love her, but the cool kids shun her. As her peer group ages and those peer relationships become more and more important, she make the tough choice to do what is right rather than what is popular. She is isolated, perhaps a little lonely, but she chooses God and family over her peers.
An Unexciting Marriage Not a Love Match
Then what happens? She is engaged to an older man, not to some attractive young guy, but to a man a lot older with children from an earlier marriage. This was not a love match.
Joseph was a widower with kids to raise (James and the other brothers and sisters mentioned in the Gospels as Christ’s siblings). Joseph was a distant relative of Mary’s, both coming from the House of David. He needed a wife for the sake of the children.
It is completely consistent with Mary’s goodness, self-sacrifice, and family devotion that she would become his wife rather than pursue her own, more adolescent instincts. The marriage was arranged within the family. As a girl, Mary was likely seen as an economic drain on the family. It was her duty to marry. In this case, in agreeing to marry a man with children, she was completely dutiful, a young girl, stepping directly into the shoes of a full-grown woman.
The girls in her generation that loved Mary probably felt sorry for her. The girls that resented Mary probably made fun at her for marrying someone so much older, someone whose first wife had died. Certainly Joseph wouldn’t have been seen as a lucky mate. There would have been family complications. Joseph’s first wife’s relatives would have been involved and critical. Perhaps Joseph had a surviving mother-in-law who considered the marriage to Mary as something more or less like hiring a servant.
This is all very dramatic, human stuff. Mary has been blessed in many ways because she is so good, intelligent, kind and loving, but she has also been cursed with unpopularity, resentment, and the prospect of a loveless marriage of convenience. How did she feel at all of this? Think about it.
The Terrifying Choice
And then, the story gets really interesting and really scary. Mary has a vision. The messenger in the vision tells her that she has been chosen by God and, if she accepts, she will become pregnant as a virgin.
Now, all the stories gloss over what a huge, terrifying prospect this was. Mary lived in a society that literally killed loose women. She was not only unmarried, but she was betrothed to someone with whom she didn’t have a romantic relationship. What does it mean to get pregnant under those circumstances?
For any girl, it meant embarrassment and social ostracism, not only for the girl, but for her family. For a goody-two-shoes like Mary, it was a something we can barely imagine. Can you imagine the glee of all her enemies, all those less-than-perfect peers, when they found out she was pregnant before her marriage? They would all be thinking that she was loose. Some would be calling her a whore.
She would not only have to face her peers and those who were jealous of her. She would have to face her family and all those who loved her. Everyone would consider her a complete hypocrite, pretending to be so good and devout, while being as bad as she could be. Everyone would feel betrayed by her, her mother, her father, her siblings, everyone.
Wouldn’t a normal kid have asked the angel, “Why can’t this wait until I am married and pregnancy is expected? Why does God want to humiliate me, my family, my husband and my child?”
But what could the angel have explained to a young girl? Could the angel have explained the prophecies, the need for this particular miracle? Would the angel have explained that future generations must see that her Son was something more than a child of a man?
For both Mary and the angel, explanations were impossible and unnecessary. Mary would do God’s will. She did not question. She understood the cost (even if we do not), but she accepted her sacrifice as God’s will. Perhaps the summary of the first part of Mary’s story should be, “I was the perfect girl that everyone hates until God asked me if I was willing to become the one they would all call a little whore.”
If the greatest thing a man can do is sacrifice his life for his friends, perhaps the greatest thing a woman can do is sacrifice her reputation. This is what Mary agreed to do, without even really understanding why.
And that was just the beginning of the Nativity story. It gets even better from there.