Every year around this time I like to remind myself and the world that Christmas is not the feast of the Incarnation, but rather the feast of the Nativity. Jesus was born on Christmas, but He incarnated, took flesh, on the occasion of what we call the Annunciation, the story of which we just heard. The Archangel Gabriel, the third most glorious creature of God, annunciated God’s plan of salvation to that very gracious young Mary and she said yes, lending God her flesh and changing the entire course of history.
So “there is an ancient story that comes from the part of the world that is so contested now, the Middle East. A man was talking with a friend about his love life. “I thought I had found the perfect woman,” he said. She was beautiful and had the most pleasing features a man could imagine. She was exceptional in every way, except she had no knowledge. So I traveled further, and met a woman who was both beautiful and intelligent. But, alas, we could not communicate. After further travels, I met a woman who had everything: a perfect mind, perfect intelligence, great beauty, all the features I was looking for, but… “What happened?” asked the friend who was listening. “Why didn’t you marry her at once?” “Ah well,” he replied, “as luck would have it, she was looking for the perfect man.”1
I wonder if Joseph had thought that he had found the perfect woman, if Mary thought she’d found the perfect man. Both were, at the very least, admirable people, respectable people, salt of the earth. Each probably thought the other to be something of a catch, Joseph being a self-supporting small-town guy, Mary being the quiet, faithful girl down the street. But there’s danger in leaving it there, remaining “on the romantic and subjective, giving us the young, innocent, compliant greeting card girl whose life is caught up in a whirlwind,”2 the carpenter who’s a little too compliant when things go screwy.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, to be his wife. Betrothal is one of those words we hear once a year, and it sounds kind of romantic. But “betrothal in the ancient world was part of a two-stage marriage process. The initial phase, the betrothal, involved a formal, witnessed agreement to marry and the giving of a bridal price. At this point the bride legally became the groom’s and could be called his wife. About a year later the actual marriage followed, and the husband took his wife home. In the first century betrothal could take place starting at the age of twelve. Mary’s age is unstated (but she was probably not much more than 14 or 15; Joseph’s age is unstated as well, but men at the time usually married once they were financially viable). It is during this betrothal stage that Gabriel breaks the news.”3
Mary has difficulty processing this news, as you might imagine. She had a lot of questions, and unlike today’s 14 year-old girls, she didn’t have a smart phone on which to google what it means to be overshadowed by power of the Most High; MTV’s Teen Mom wouldn’t premier for another two thousand and nine years, on Mary’s birthday no less. Mary, in her fear and confusion and bewilderment probably only accessed two thoughts: I am the handmaid of the Lord and Wow is Joseph going to literally kill me.
Doan pointed out to me the other day that we forget sometimes that there was nine months between the Annunciation and the Nativity – Jesus didn’t just sorta pop out a couple days later. Nine long months of honesty and secrecy, of praying for the best and hiding a scandalous baby bump, nine long months of wondering how in the world Joseph didn’t have her stoned, but knowing that with God nothing is impossible, even finding the perfect man.
In a few days we will celebrate once again the Nativity, the birth of the incarnate Son of God, Jesus by holy Name, and our eyes and minds and hearts will rightly be on Him and Him alone. But for the next few days, for the remainder of this blessed Advent, let’s set our hearts on Joseph and Mary, that couple that God saw as perfect for each other and for His Son, and who risked everything for the sake of Christ.
1Bishop Kenneth Carter, Day 1, http://day1.org/3361-call_and_response
2The Rev. Dr. Fred Anderson, Day 1, http://day1.org/1124-its_not_about_mary