My name is Mary. When I was born, there were many girls with this name. And just like my name was common, so was everything else about me. I had the same dark eyes and hair of my people, olive skin, and a nose just the least bit prominent. As I grew up, my stature was average. There were no outstanding features about me.
In the first century village in which I was raised, the houses were made of mud bricks with rooms on the ground floor and a stair case leading to the roof. Our house looked just like all the others. We ate sitting on the floor around a low table and slept on mats on the floor. We carried water from the village well and bought our food at the community marketplace. Our lives were the ones of poor people: working hard to provide for our needs, enjoying the small celebrations in our town which provided a break from the routine, sharing with our neighbors, going to synagogue faithfully, living for the day when Messiah would come and free us from the Romans.
In fact, I often heard my father and older brothers discuss the Roman oppression as they ate the evening meal. Like submissive Hebrew women, my mother and I ate after we had served the men. But I listened intently while I helped my mother. I have always been full of questions. My brothers were apprenticed to merchants and tradesmen in our village of Nazareth. They already had the full beards of mature Jewish men and would soon take a wife and establish their own homes. Just like all the men in Galilee, they hated the Romans. And my father shared their bitterness. I often heard him say that the Romans were cruel and unjust, taxing the Jewish people severely to keep them in poverty, and that they took delight in squelching any hint of pride they found in a Jewish patriot. I remember hearing their exclamations of anticipated victory as they ended their discussions with “When Messiah comes……..” It seemed He was to be the answer to the Roman problem. I wondered what He would be like and when He would come.
For several years now, my mother had been preparing me to take care of a house when the day of my marriage would arrive. We would talk of it as we washed the clothes by the river or ground the wheat to make bread. “Someday,” my mother would say, “Your father will arrange a marriage for you and I want you to make the best wife in Nazareth, Mary. Always keep the housework done and respect your husband.” It seemed so far off to me then that I would just give a little smile and say, “Oh, mother, I will, I will.”
But the day came. After the evening meal, my father asked to speak with me. My mother came and sat by the fire with me as he spoke. He told me about a young carpenter with whose father he had done business over the last year. They were a good family with an established trade. They were members of our synagogue and faithful to the law of Moses. Just today my father had agreed to a betrothal between me and the carpenter’s son.
I remember my first question. “What is his name?” And my father’s reply, “His name is Joseph.” So, he couldn’t be all that bad with a name from the patriarchs. I wanted to know more of course, but father was not given to noticing all details of appearance and manners. He was concerned with my future husband’s religious fervor, job security, and family background. This Joseph seemed to pass all these tests. I would just have to wait to find out the answers to the rest of my questions.
Since the women are separate from the men at synagogue, I did not meet Joseph until the day our betrothal was celebrated. Though I had seen many such ceremonies in my fourteen years, I still was a little dazed that it was happening to me. The rabbi said the words from the Torah and then my father gave a blessing, putting my hand into Joseph’s for a second. I remember how rough his hand was and thinking, “That must be from long days of working with wood.” And I wondered if he was gruff on the inside as well. Then my mother placed the betrothal head ornament on me and the ceremony was over. I peeked once again at Joseph as we parted, and saw that he was quite a bit older than me, his beard long and full, his stature well-muscled, and his sandaled feet athletic and lithe. His face was not handsome nor was his manner winsome. Indeed, he seemed quite somber, as if he were fully aware of the significance of such a day as this. As I turned to go, he looked my way and our eyes met. There was no thrilling feeling, only a bonding — a sense that, in the split second, our futures were unalterably sealed. I left that day with a wondering inside.
The next weeks were filled with much preparation for my wedding day. My mother and I worked many long days readying my small trousseau. Many of my aunts and cousins stopped by from time to time to help out. But my favorite cousin, Elizabeth, did not come. In fact, our messages to her were not answered. She seemed to be in some sort of seclusion. Of course, this might have been due to that fact that her husband, Zacharias, had recently suffered a horrible attack which left him unable to speak. At any rate, I missed her very much as the preparations continued.
My new husband’s parents were to host a great feast in honor of our marriage, but my family must provide my wedding garments and supplies for our new home together. It was on one such busy day that I turned to pick up a piece of cloth and saw him sitting there in the room. He wore a white garment, but had no beard and seemed to have been observing me at my work. When I looked up, startled to see a strange man in my room, he spoke and his words pierced my consciousness with their clarity. Somehow I knew he was not just a man. His very manner seemed to indicate he was a messenger. When he said I was very blessed and that God was with me, I remember feeling relieved that I was not being warned of coming punishment because of wickedness. But when he told me that I would conceive a child, my astonishment must have been written across my face. And then that most remarkable of all explanations — this child would be God’s Son, in my womb to carry, but the seed of Jehovah Himself, the Messiah.
For minutes after he left, I just sat, gazing out the window of my room, pondering those words. As unbelievable as it seemed, I believed it. I could not explain the deep conviction I had that this was real, that this prophecy would come true. Maybe it was because I have always had a strong loyalty to Yahweh, and because I never tired of hearing the Torah read. Maybe this certainty was a gift from Jehovah, for He certainly knew what difficult moments I would soon face. All I knew then was that I was changed and my life was not my own, but His. I was a handmaiden, fulfilling every detail of the One I served.
The task before me now was how to inform my family and my betrothed — Joseph. I decided to wait until my pregnancy became more evident before saying anything. In this way, I figured the proof would be undeniable. And since I was never out of the house without my parents’ approval, they would know I had not dishonored my virginity. And since God’s Messenger had explained to me about Elizabeth I was very eager to see her. By this time, the news of her pregnancy had reached our village and we understood the reason of her seclusion. Since there were several months before my marriage and it was customary for women members of the family to go and assist a new mother, I was able to convince my parents to allow me to travel to Judah, to Elizabeth’s lovely home in the hill country.
The 3 months there were an unexpected joy. The very day of my arrival God miraculously revealed to Elizabeth the news that I was carrying the Sacred Son of God deep within my womb. And throughout the weeks that followed, we had many conversations about the ways of God and the great bond we shared in His plan. Of course, there were also conversations about pregnancy and motherhood, which were a great source of comfort to me. Surely, God had planned this visit. By experiencing the supernatural herself, Elizabeth’s heart was prepared to receive my news and to help me the most in those first difficult months of my pregnancy.
I stayed with her as long as my father had specified and then returned home when my brother came to get me. Being a man, he did not recognize my slightly swollen stomach as pregnancy, but instead teased me about eating up Elizabeth’s food instead of helping to prepare for the baby. But my mother’s keen eyes missed nothing. That night as I prepared for bed, she came to my room. Her face told me what was coming. Her words were sad and disheartened. Her voice had an incredulous tone. “Mary, what has happened? You are with child. When did this come to be? Why have you not told me?”
I did my best to explain to her. I even showed her where the angel sat and told her the very words he spoke to me (I have never forgotten them, even to this day). My mother has never possessed either great intellect or great faith. And while she could not accept what I was saying totally, she loved me deeply and somehow believed me enough to know that whatever had caused this condition was not my fault.
But, explaining to my father the next day was very different. He was a man of plain fact, a man who needed clear reasons and who possessed a great pride. My explanations of God’s Messenger and giving birth to Messiah seemed to him a creative, devious plan concocted by a desperate, pregnant teenager. While I do not think he would have asked the council to put me to death as the law commanded, neither do I think he would have dared to protest if they had. His fear of God and loyalty to the law were great. The shame which I was bringing upon his house caused him to withdraw from me as the days passed.
As was the custom, my father went to talk to Joseph, telling him of the breach of contract and leaving further decisions about my future in his hands. As the betrothed, he had the right to bring this sin before the religious council for their judgment or quietly to break the engagement, leaving me with the shame of a fatherless child and a life of shunning. I did not know until later that Joseph actually considered the “quiet” approach. But even as he pondered it, it bothered his just nature. As I would later learn, Joseph was a man of impeccable principle. He thought deeply about every decision. In this case, though all the evidence pointed against me, he had a nagging doubt. He could not justify this course of action. And then came the night when his dreams were interrupted by God’s Messenger, who brought him the words of Jehovah concerning the Child I was carrying. Joseph was a steady, unexcitable carpenter, but God’s Words are always convincing. The next morning, he let my father know that the betrothal would not be broken. He would marry me on the planned date. My father had only words of praise for Joseph, “such a merciful man” he would say.
My mother and I continued the wedding preparations, while I dealt with the symptoms of pregnancy, so new and unexpected to me. We did not often talk of the Child to come; this seemed uncomfortable to my mother. But she did try to prepare me as best she could for the days ahead and for the birth as well. It did seem to dampen the wedding spirit. My brothers were ashamed of their sister’s seeming transgression and avoided me as much as possible. My father had little contact with me — he could not seem to sort out his feelings about what had happened and chose to ignore the situation as best he could. My wedding was not going to be a joyous affair at all.
I cried into my sleeping mat many times at night. My world had turned upside down and in all my 14 years I had never faced so many difficulties. It was during those lonely nights that I learned to turn to Jehovah. Now, I had been taught that we must go to God through the priest, and this I did at every appointed time. But, now, I just lifted my heart to God at night and whispered to Him my confusion and disappointment. It was unexplainable really, but I would feel His strength surrounding me and I could go to sleep, at peace. And I even felt hope for the days to come. . .