A Rude Welcome: Notions on the Nativity
By Audrey Stallsmith
It occurred to me recently that the people who could most thoroughly relate to the Nativity story these days would be Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their countries too are occupied, as Israel was at the time of Jesus' birth, by a more powerful foreign nation. They too live in tribal societies where women are considered inferior beings. And they too are often subject to harsh forms of justice from their own people.
Old Testament law called for persons who committed adultery to be stoned to death. By the New Testament era this punishment was apparently not carried out too often, as the time that the adulterous women was brought to Jesus for judgment seemed to be the exception to the rule.
But a recent proposed stoning in Iran proves that the practice still hasn't entirely died out in the Middle East. It's often, I imagine, a matter of whether someone with vengeance or ulterior motives in mind decides to press the issue.
Since betrothals were considered as binding as marriages in her culture, Mary would have been considered an adulteress if she were found to be unfaithful to her prospective husband. And, in Mary's case, suspicion would probably have centered around the fact that she had actually been away from Nazareth (visiting Elizabeth) for several months about the time when her pregnancy must have begun.
And I imagine Zacharias and Elizabeth were the only persons who believed that angel story, since they had experienced something similar in their own lives. So, when Joseph originally tried to divorce Mary as privately as possible, he may have been concerned for her safety as well as her reputation.
And there must have been some reason that he later chose to take her to Bethlehem with him, since it appears--from Elizabeth's example--that pregnant women generally remained in partial seclusion until after the birth. Perhaps he feared Mary wouldn't receive the proper care from the local midwives, if she was being shunned by her family and the community.
Or perhaps it was the Child for whose safety he feared. The midwives might, after all, have thought they were doing both him and Mary a favor if her illegitimate Infant didn't survive.
Having to hurry his marriage may well have put Joseph in a financial bind as well. A young man had to pay a bride price and was generally then allowed a period of about a year between betrothal and marriage so that he could make enough money to support a family. Mary's condition may well have forced an earlier marriage. And his acceptance of her pregnancy would have implied to the community that he was either the man responsible (a fornicator) or a fool. So it probably would have cost him business. And having to travel so far to pay a tax wouldn't help.
I can quite see a young Moslem couple in similar desperate straits, trekking south through a sandy landscape. Passing through military checkpoints, where the foreign soldiers might have pitied the pregnant teenager for having a husband who would force her to accompany him in her condition.
In fact, the pair would have seemed to observers the weakest of the weak. Young, poor, uncultured, and now looked down on even by their own families. For God to have put Himself into the hands of such a couple appears to us an awful risk. But the pair seem to have also possessed the dogged idealism that is often found only in the inexperienced. It is usually the young or the young at heart, after all--those who haven't yet become cynical and resigned--who start revolutions.
And, though they couldn't have entirely understood God's plan, both of them knew that the Baby Mary carried would change the world forever. All they had to do was deliver and protect that Infant until it reached adulthood. Easier said than done, of course, when circumstances seemed to be fighting them every step of the way.
It sounds as if they left Bethlehem soon enough that they didn't have to witness what their presence cost that town when Herod sent his soldiers there. But they may well have heard of the slaughter later, and had to ask themselves, "What have we done?"
Not only had the Child cost so many young lives, He had cost Mary and Joseph their reputations as well, and turned the formerly law-abiding pair into fugitives. They even had to flee to Egypt for a while. (Though whether that period was simply a few months or even a couple years, it is impossible to say.) So they, in a sense, emerged from "the land of bondage" just as their ancestors had so many years earlier. Though, in their case, that bondage would have been simply fear. As with most new parents, they were probably more concerned for their Baby's safety than their own.
We can only hope that they received a warm welcome when they returned to Nazareth. By that time their families would, no doubt, be worried about what had become of them. And a young Child can soften the hardest heart. Perhaps all was forgiven--if not entirely forgotten.
The Pharisees, no doubt, investigated Jesus' background after he became popular. And their statement that "We be not born of fornication," may well have had emphasis on the "we." The villagers too may have felt a certain constraint as they watched Jesus grow up, wondering Whose son is he--really?
They were later offended when Jesus tried to preach to them. Although part of their protest against Him was that he was just one of them, that they knew his mother and siblings, I notice that they didn't say they knew His father. So they may most have resented the fact that a man whom they thought the product of fornication should presume to set Himself above them!
(I frequently suspect that much of the vitriol against our current president may be caused by the same sort of latent prejudice, in his case the sort that resents a black man presuming to set himself over us. Although we may disagree with Obama's policies, that does not excuse our disrespecting the man--or any other, as all of us are made in the image of God.)
But we need to return again to that fact that most of the Pharisees obviously didn't know Christ's Father. As Jesus was to point out Himself, people who really knew God should have recognized the family features in His Son. Since the majority of the religious leaders of His day didn't, they must have had a skewed image of the Almighty. The same may be said for those modern church leaders who secretly prefer Old Testament justice to the new covenant.
We have to get it through our thick skulls that Jesus was God in the flesh. And, if we don't like what He said, we really don't like God either.
We can only imagine Mary and Joseph's awe over the fact that they were holding their Creator in their arms. That he had made Himself that vulnerable for their sakes. It must have made up for much of what had gone before.
But, in a sense, all of us have the same experience. Again and again, God puts Himself in our hands, allows we puny humans to decide what we are going to do with Him--either worship or another crucifixion.