Gerald N. Lund is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (“Mormon Church”). He is the author of The Coming of the Lord, as well as several adventure novels, among them The Alliance, The Freedom Factor.
The Christmas Story Began in Nazareth
“And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth.” (Luke 1:26.)
The rabbis of ancient Israel had a saying: “Judea is wheat, Galilee straw, beyond Jordan, only chaff.” The urbane and worldly wise Jerusalemite, privileged to dwell in the Holy City, looked down on all others with faint condescension; but they especially viewed the Galileans as crude, unlearned, and earthy peasants. For the most part the people of Galilee were men of the soil and of the sea. This kept them in touch with basic values; and in spite of the feelings of the Judeans, they were known for being hard-working and warm-hearted, and for showing unrestrained hospitality and uncompromising honesty.
As for Nazareth itself, like many other villages of Judea and Galilee, it sat amid steep, tree-covered hillsides so as not to utilize precious agricultural land. For a village now so famous to us, it seems to have been of singular insignificance then. It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament or in the extensive writings of the ancient historian Josephus. Nathanael expressed what must have been a common feeling even among the Galileans when he said, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46.) Evidently, the suggestion that the Messiah had come from such a civic backwater was unthinkable.
But that is not to say that this home village of Mary and Joseph, and later the Master Himself, was a drab and dull setting. One writer describes it as follows: “You cannot see from Nazareth the surrounding country, for Nazareth lies in a basin; but the moment you climb to the edge of the basin . . . what a view you have. Esdraelon lies before you, with its twenty battlefields. . . . There is Naboth’s vineyard and the place of Jehu’s revenge upon Jezebel; there Shunem and the house of Elisha; the Carmel and the place of Elijah’s sacrifice. To the east the valley of Jordan, . . . to the west the radiance of the Great Sea. . . . You can see thirty miles in three directions.”
This was the setting in which our story begins.
“To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” (Luke 1:27.)
As we are dropped into the midst of their lives, Joseph and Mary are “espoused.” (Matthew 1:18.) Espousal among the Hebrews was significantly more binding than are our engagements today. It was entered into by written agreement and was considered the formal beginning of the marriage itself. While the couple might not actually live together for as much as a year after the betrothal—a time designed to allow the bride to prepare her dowry—the espousal was as legally binding as the formal marriage.
No hint of the age of either Mary or Joseph is given in the scriptural text, but from existing sources we can make some educated guesses. We know that puberty began somewhat earlier in the Middle East than is common in Western countries today. Therefore, marriage at earlier ages than to which we are accustomed was the general rule. Speaking of men, one rabbi described the stages of development as follows: At five he began study of Torah; at ten, study of the Mishnah (the oral laws); at fifteen, the study of Talmud (the extensive commentaries on the scriptures); at eighteen, marriage; at twenty, he pursued a trade or business and so on. For a girl, probably the most common age of marriage was fifteen or sixteen. Sometimes it was later, sometimes earlier, but it is likely that Mary was around sixteen and Joseph, her espoused husband, only two or three years older than that.
Nazareth was a small village. Joseph and Mary must have known each other well. How fascinating it would be to know the circumstances that brought them to the point of betrothal. Much is made of the fact that in those days marriages were arranged by the families through the auspices of a matchmaker. No doubt that was true, but that does not mean that the individuals involved had no voice in the matter. We know from contemporary sources that, once the arrangements were made, the consent of the couple was required. The man had a direct say in the choice of his bride, and the woman could refuse the marital arrangements if not to her satisfaction. So what was it that drew these two together?
We know Mary must have been of unusual loveliness. Nephi saw her in vision six hundred years before her birth and described her as “exceedingly fair” and “most beautiful and fair.” (1 Nephi 11:13, 15.) But was it only the outward beauty Joseph saw, or did he sense the same qualities that caused Gabriel to declare that this woman was “highly favoured” of the Lord? (Luke 1:28.) No wonder Joseph loved her! Imagine finding a woman of such remarkable grace and beauty in a small village in the mountains of the Galilee.
And what of Joseph? What was it about this man that caused Mary to give her consent to the marriage arrangements? Only a few scriptural verses tell us about Joseph. He was a carpenter, that we know. (See Matthew 13:55.) And because fathers commonly taught their sons their own trade, it is likely that Joseph was raised in a carpenter’s shop at the knee of his father. His hands would have been rough and callused. He was a man of labor, a man who created things through his own craftsmanship.
Matthew also describes him as a “just man.” (Matthew 1:19.) It is a simple phrase, yet it speaks volumes, for those same words are used to describe men such as Noah, Job, Nephi, and Jacob. Was it purely by accident that such a man was in Nazareth waiting to be Mary’s partner in this most significant of dramas? Surely God the Father had seen in Joseph a man worthy to raise His Son and help prepare Him for His mortal ministry. While it would not be Joseph’s privilege to actually father the “Firstborn,” it would be his labor that would provide for His needs, his voice that would encourage His first steps, his hands that would guide the boy’s fingers across the sacred scrolls of the Torah in those first Hebrew lessons. It was also Joseph who would put a mallet and chisel and plane in those smaller hands so that one day this boy from Nazareth would also be known as “the carpenter.” (Mark 6:3.) No wonder Mary loved him!
Mary the Mother of Jesus
“And the virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:27.)
One of the most common feminine names in the New Testament is Mary, or Miryam (Miriam) in Hebrew. Oneconcordance identifies at least seven different Marys in the New Testament, so it is not surprising to find a virgin of that name in the village of Nazareth. But perhaps there is more to it than that. Among the prophets, even a hundred years before the birth of the Savior, the actual name of the woman who was to mother the Messiah was known: It was to be Mary. (See Mosiah 3:8; Alma 7:10.) If that was so among Book of Mormon prophets, is it not possible that it was also known among Old Testament prophets as well, and therefore among the people of the Holy Land?
We know from existing records that the people at the time of Christ’s birth generally believed that the birth of the long-awaited Messiah was imminent. What mother would not hope that her daughter might be the promised vessel for such an honor? Such maternal optimism might explain the frequency with which daughters were named Mary at this period of time. But for whatever reason, Mary’s mother fulfilled prophetic promises when she named her child, little dreaming that it would indeed be her daughter that would do so.
And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be. And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. (Luke 1:28-31.)
It was August in Galilee. The heat, even at night, can be stifling and oppressive. Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were likely of poor families. If that be the case, the house of Mary’s family would have been small, no more than one or two rooms curtained off for sleeping and privacy at night. We are not told if it was day or night, or if she was alone in the house; surely she must have felt a sudden clutch of fear when she looked up and saw a personage standing there before her. All of us have had someone come up behind us, or appear in a doorway unexpectedly and startle us. We give an involuntary cry of surprise and feel the quick burst of adrenalin that leaves the heart pounding, the palms sweaty, and the mouth dry. So it is not difficult to imagine the shock of having not just a man appear suddenly in your room, but a being of transcendent radiance and glory.
But the shock of Gabriel’s sudden appearance could not have been any greater than the stunning impact of his words. First there was the “impossible” announcement that she was about to conceive. Her response is so spontaneous, so logical. It adds even further to the power and simplicity with which Luke tells us of this night. One can almost picture her blurting it out, in spite of the glory of the being that stood before her: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34.)
But that was only the first of the stunning pronouncements. The Messiah had been foretold for four millennia. Now to realize that the long centuries of waiting had come to end, that the Messiah was about to be born, and she—Mary of Nazareth—was to be the mother! Add to that the declaration that, for the first and only time in the history of the world, this was to be a virgin birth, and the revelation was even more staggering. This simple, pure woman from a little-known city in Galilee was to carry in her womb the divine offspring of the great Elohim Himself. Her son would also be the Son of God!
Only when we consider the magnitude of those statements do we begin to appreciate how marvelous is Mary’s answer. There were no questioning looks, no stammering demands of “Why me?” There were no murmurs of doubt. There was no disputation, no hesitation, no wondering. She simply said, in glorious and touching simplicity: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38.)
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 1:18.)
At the command of great Gabriel, Mary left Nazareth to visit her cousin Elizabeth, wife of Zacharias the priest, living in Judea, now six months pregnant with a miracle of her own. There Mary abode with her kinswoman about three months until it was time for Elizabeth to deliver.
Consider for a moment what it must have meant for Mary to come back to Nazareth at that point. She suddenly, unexpectedly departed from her home for an extended stay far to the south. When she returned, the growing within the womb was pushing outward, expanding now to swell the mother’s belly. It is not a secret that can be hidden for long.
This was not a society like our own where immorality is not only tolerated but often openly flaunted. Modesty and virtue were deeply ingrained into the fiber of the nation and was especially strong in the small towns and villages of Israel. Imagine the effect on that tiny village when Mary returned and the first of the village women began to notice the change in her.
Anyone who has ever lived in the tightly knit, closely bonded society of a small town or village can predict with some accuracy what happened next. At first there would have been only questioning looks and quick shaking of the heads. Surely such could not be so. Not Mary. Perhaps she was just putting on a little weight. And then more and more voices would have questioned, not openly, of course, but in whispers, at the well each day as they came together for water, or while doing the laundry on the banks of a stream.
Was Mary allowed to tell others of her visit from Gabriel? Matthew’s comment, “she was found with child,” would imply not. But even so, would such a “wildly fantastic” claim have quelled the rumors? A virgin birth? Mother of the Messiah? A child fathered by God Himself? Either she was mad or took them for absolute fools to imagine they would believe such a story. Now her departure from the village “in haste” took on new and ominous significance. (See Luke 1:39.) And poor Joseph. Victim of such infidelity. What would he do now?
Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. . . .Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife. (Matthew 1:19-20, 24.)
Neither Luke nor Matthew gives us much detail, but we can read the pain and embarrassment between the lines. Here was a good man, faithful in every respect. What pain must have filled his soul to learn that his betrothed was with child! How could it be? Surely not Mary, not his lovely and chaste Mary. We can only guess at the agony of spirit he must have experienced at the confirmation of her “unfaithfulness.”
How many men would let the bitterness and anger of such betrayal fester and boil over into the blind desire for revenge that causes one to strike out, seeking to hurt as deeply as you yourself are hurt? By Mosaic law, adultery was still punishable by death. (See, for example, John 8:5; Leviticus 20:10.) He could have taken her to the elders of the village and demanded justice. But, in spite of the pain he must have felt, in spite of the personal humiliation, he would not put his beloved Mary through the shame and danger of a public trial. He would simply dissolve the marriage contract quietly.
And then again, in one blinding instant of revelation, all was explained and put right. In response to the incredible announcement by Gabriel, Mary had simply said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Now Joseph heard the same stunning pronouncement. We gain a glimpse of the greatness of the man from his response. Matthew says it in one phrase. “Then Joseph being raised from sleep. . . took unto him his wife.” (Matthew 1:24.)
Again, as with Mary, the fantastic nature of the declaration was accepted without question. There was no vacillation. Surely he knew his fellow villagers well enough to know that a hasty marriage in the middle of the night would only fuel the rumors. All he would accomplish by such an action would be to bring the onus of doubt and shame upon himself. But the angel had spoken. His doubts were resolved. His Mary had been proven faithful. And so he arose from his bed and took her to be his wife.