Monday, December 21, 2009


I was looking at a photo from 1907, from a wedding held in the front yard of the home where I grew up. The bride and groom sit in the foreground with about a hundred guests and family standing around behind them, and in the back is my house. I'd always wondered why the bride was scowling in her wedding photo. A year or so before my father died, I asked him about that. Dad was born in 1921, but apparently this had been a family story that got handed down somehow among those closed-mouthed Norwegians. "Morning sickness" was his terse reply. I was shocked. "I thought things like that didn't happen back then!" I chided. He didn't even look up from his newspaper. "Happened a lot more back then than today," was all he said.

Pregnancy in a small town. Everyone gets involved -- the aunts, the uncles, the gossips, the guardians of public morality. A small town woman once told me that pregnancy is funny. "Seems like the first child can show up anytime," she said, "but after that they usually take about nine months."

A few years ago Bruce Hornsby recorded a song that captures a little bit of the shame that used to go with Mary's condition:

Out in the hall they were talking in a whisper
Everybody noticed she was gone awhile
Somebody said she's gone to her sister's
But everybody knew what they were talking about

The Bible doesn't go into painful detail about Mary's embarrassment, but if you know small towns the clues are there. This young woman travels far from home in dangerous territory to the hill country of Judea to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, and stays with her three months. She comes back to Nazareth and almost immediately turns around and leaves for Bethlehem with Joseph. Why would her parents allow these journeys? I have a fourteen year old daughter -- probably about Mary's age at this time -- and I can't imagine letting her do these things. In our day of cars and cell phones, we can't conceive this kind of a journey. It would be about like letting her drive from here to Alaska. No way. Not unless there was some other consideration, some other factor that outweighed my concern for her personal safety. Though cable TV and the internet have brought huge changes even in small towns, there is still a sense there that nothing could be worse than being shamed before your neighbors. Mary needed to get away from the gossips.

Some critics of the Christmas story object to Mary traveling to Bethlehem, saying it's not plausible that Joseph would take Mary -- not yet his wife, and not required to accompany him -- along for the arduous journey under this census. But imagine what life might have been like in Nazareth for Mary. Maybe she was shunned. Certainly she was the subject of gossip. The recent movie, "The Nativity" (a great Christmas ritual, by the way, to watch this with people you love) captures this -- all the village wags look down their noses at Mary & Joseph, who used to be the delight of the whole town. As they leave Nazareth with their neighbors scowling and frowning at them, Joseph whispers in sardonic tones to Mary, "They're going to miss us." It's finally a relief for them to get out of town, to leave their home, to be on the road to a strange place.

Luke doesn't say too much about Mary joining Joseph on the journey:

"He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child" (Luke 2:5).

Then very quickly we're on to her giving birth to her firstborn, a son, and the manger and all that. But we don't often recognize what Mary's submission meant for her. "Behold, I am the Lord's handmaiden; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). Yes, Mary, even if it costs you your standing among your peers? Your status in the community? Your dignity? Your home? Are you willing to look like a fool for your claim that you were visited by an angel telling outlandish stories?


As a man, I have a difficult time understanding the submission a woman goes through in pregnancy. This tiny glob of cells inside her immediately becomes the ruling tyrant of her life, demanding much of her, and more as it grows into a baby -- much of her energy, her eating habits, her stomach, her lungs, her sense of beauty and her balance and sometimes her mental stability are sacrificed for this new life. Mary submits to Jesus in a way that leads us all.

May we all have that same kind of focus, that same submission to Jesus no matter what the cost!

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