Last month, I started seeing this Bible reading schedule make it’s way around Facebook and Pinterest. I tend to have a hard time keeping a daily Bible reading schedule, but as I looked closely at this one, I noticed it was only a few verses a day, twelve verses at the most, in fact. I thought that would be something I could do and could even read it to Connor each day, seeing as how it’s so short. I quickly saved the picture and have been reading the verses all month. There are a couple of mistakes that I’ve noted on this list so far: Day 8 should be Luke 1:26-38, and Day 10 should be Matthew 1:22-25. (There is no verse 26 in Matthew chapter one.) I like to read the verses and think about and explain to Connor what they mean, why they are important towards the Real Meaning of Christmas.
Today, after I read the verses and began to think about them, I realized some things I had never before noticed nor been taught. The verses are from the Gospel of Luke chapter one, verses 39-45. They read: “Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste to the city of Judah and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out in a loud voice and said, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.’ ” (NKJV)
I’ve heard and read this story before. The angel Gabriel goes Zachariah and announces to him that his wife Elizabeth, who has been barren her whole life and is now past child-bearing age, is going to have a son, and he shall be named John. Zachariah doesn’t believe it, Gabriel strikes him mute until the baby is born, and sure enough, Elizabeth soon gets pregnant. Six months later, Gabriel shows up in Nazareth and tells Mary that she, a virgin, is going to have a baby boy, named Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit, making him God’s Son. He will be the long-awaited Messiah, sent to bring salvation to His people. Gabriel also tells Mary about Zachariah and Elizabeth’s good news, as assurance to her that what he has said about her is true; she will be the mother of the Messiah. Soon after this encounter with God’s messenger angel, Mary sets out for a visit with Elizabeth, and sure enough, as soon as she arrives, Elizabeth knows that Mary is pregnant. So, what the angel said is true. End of story, right?
This is one of those glossed over passages in the Bible. Sure, people mention it, it gets read in churches and homes during the Christmas season, folks know Mary visited with her cousins for three months, during her first trimester, but that’s as far as it goes. Mary shows up on Elizabeth’s doorstep, sees that her much older cousin is pregnant, and sighs in relief that she doesn’t need to be locked up in the asylum after all. Now, let’s get to those shepherds and wise men. But wait, let’s look at this for a moment. God does everything for a reason, whether we know the reason or not, and He is in control of everything. Gabriel wasn’t just being an early form of Facebook, announcing the pending birth of baby John to some distant relatives, and Mary didn’t go just to make sure she wasn’t crazy. And Elizabeth hadn’t been barren all those years just because she and Zachariah didn’t do the deed during the right days of the month, only to have suddenly gotten it right after 40-50 years during the one, final ovulation of a good egg. Seriously. Yes, it was nice to hear that your childless cousins are finally being blessed with a baby. Sure, it was great for Mary to know she didn’t imagine talking with an angel. And Elizabeth really has been barren all those years, but no longer, by the grace of God. Now, how does all of that work together to form a greater picture?
Let’s start with Zachariah and Elizabeth. He was a priest; she was barren. In those days, being married and childless was neither desired, nor looked well upon. People would have accused them both, but especially Elizabeth, of harboring some sin, of being outside the will of God. Zachariah would have been disrespected as a priest, not taken seriously, and Elizabeth would have borne the barbs of gossiping neighbors and relatives. We’ve all heard of in-law horror stories. Most of them probably couldn’t hold a candle to what all Elizabeth endured those many, many years. People would have refused to interact with them on anything, would have falsely accused them of an untold number of things, they would have been whispered about, and endured decades of persecution from people all around them. It would have been a very long, lonely life for the two of them, during which time, they would have grown stronger in their faith of God, their trust in His sovereignty, and their belief that for whatever reason, it was for His will. They had decades of not knowing why and decades of swinging between questioning and standing firm in their faith. Furthermore, it would have worked in their marriage, making things difficult, and ultimately making them stronger. They would have learned how to be content, just the two of them and how to lean on each other for support during those most difficult days. They had a lifetime of learning how to do that.
Mary was a young woman when she was blessed with the announcement of her pregnancy. Most likely, she was only in her mid-teens, engaged to married to Joseph. At that time, becoming pregnant before marriage was not only considered immoral, it was illegal, punishable by death. There was one thing extra special about her pregnancy, however, she was still a virgin, which would have actually nullified the capital punishment, but since pregnancy without sex doesn’t happen naturally, it was a no-win situation for Mary. To top that off, her going around telling people that an angel told her she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit overshadowing her, thus making her the mother of God’s Son was downright blasphemous, also punishable by death. It’s no wonder that Gabriel gave her a proof of what she had been told by telling her of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. At least those closest to her would have to admit something super-natural going on when the upcoming birth of baby John was confirmed. Elizabeth had “hid herself” and kept the pregnancy a secret for five months, according to Luke 1:24, so no would have known, especially cousins who lived several days’ travel away. When Mary told her family and Joseph about the angelic encounter, she would have had something to back her up, Elizabeth’s pregnancy. If that were true, then it stood to reason, the rest of her story was true. So, off she went to Judah.
However, there’s even more going on here than that. We learn in Matthew 1:19 that Joseph wasn’t so ready to believe Mary, despite any proof she may be able to offer. It was just too preposterous. Maybe he thought she had heard whispers from other people about Elizabeth, things she had thought were rumors but were perfect timing for excusing her own shameful situation. Maybe he was just scared because even if he believed her story and went ahead and married her, then it would be thought that he was the father and they had jumped the gun on the honeymoon, which could mean death for him. Whatever the reason, it’s likely that Mary left for her visit to her cousins heartbroken that her fiancé was not willing to believe her. There probably was a fight, words said, tears shed, you know the drill. Not to mention, there was the doubt of her family. They may have let her go to Judah just to give them time to decide what to do with her, how to handle the situation. She probably left Nazareth all alone, heartbroken, and fearful for her very life, afraid of a mob of people ready to pelt her with stones the moment she arrived back home. It was the beginning of a lifetime of people heaping shame and false guilt on her. By replying to Gabriel, “Let it be to me according to your word,” (Lk. 1:38), she was agreeing to a lifetime of false accusations, snide remarks, cold shoulders, being gossip fodder, and accusations of dishonor and shameful behavior. For a young, teenage girl, she needed the comfort and wisdom of someone who had been there. Enter her cousin Elizabeth.
Mary was welcomed by Zachariah and Elizabeth. They did not doubt for a moment what she told them about the baby growing in her womb. In fact, she did not even have to tell them she was pregnant; the Holy Spirit told them Himself. Even unborn baby John knew who was walking through the gate the moment he heard Mary’s voice. That was confirmation that she wasn’t crazy. She had talked to an angel, and he had told her she would become pregnant, and she was, in fact, pregnant with the Son of God. But more than that, she spent three quiet months gleaning wisdom and understanding from the two people who knew what kind of life she was starting. Two people who believed her and could teach her about the hard-learned faith in God that she would need. The two people who could pray with her for a change in Joseph’s heart and tell her how to lean on him if and when they were married. The two people who understood how it felt to be the parents-to-be of a child who by all laws of nature should not be growing in a woman’s womb. The only two people who had that unique insight to what young Mary was experiencing because they had been there. In that moment, I imagine it all became clear for Zachariah and Elizabeth, why they had been unable to have children, why they, Godly people, according to God Himself (Lk. 1:6), had endured decades of persecution and accusations, why they had had their marriage tested to the outer limits, why they had had their faith tested to the outer limits.
And to Mary, this visit was suddenly so much more than just a testament of truth to her story and a chance to lend a helping hand to a heavily pregnant 60-year old. It was refuge and rejuvenation. It was a chance to put her thoughts together, to think about what lied ahead, and to glean from the wisdom and experience of her cousins. It was time to grow her own faith and trust and strength in spirit. This was a time to come to terms with the possible outcomes of her situation.
What Mary didn’t know was what was happening back in Nazareth. God was working on Joseph, at least. The Bible does not talk about Mary’s family, but it does talk about Joseph. God was taking this time to reach out to Joseph, and through an angel and a dream, He assured the young man that taking Mary as his wife would not be shameful. She was still a virgin. She was only doing God’s will. The baby she carried was truly the Son of God. And Joseph believed God and changed his heart and mind. He married her.
So what looks like just a simple three-month visit with distant family was actually a perfectly orchestrated moment in time. God had it all planned out. There was plenty of heartbreak and sadness and difficulties that led up to that time and followed that time. Some people are like elephants, they never forget, and years later, when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus moved back to Nazareth, I am sure there were plenty of people who “remembered” all that had happened. They remembered how Mary turned up pregnant before being married; they remembered how Joseph had married her anyway; they remembered how the couple had fled until they felt enough time had passed to return without so much gossip. Then when this child, conceived out of wedlock, grew up, He began saying He was the Son of God, a blasphemous pronouncement indeed. He went around saying He was the Messiah. These same townspeople actually tried to run Him off a cliff and stone Him. Those three months in Judah were Mary’s preparation for a lifetime of being outcast and looked down upon.
I don’t know exactly what you may take from all of this, but for me, it’s a deeper look into what is so often a forgotten crumb to the Christmas story. It’s proof of God’s control of all things, His perfect timing. It’s assurance that when I’m going through something difficult, there is a reason, I may know why, I may know why later, or I may never know why, but I know there is a reason. And that needs to be reason enough.