A Tale of Two Nativities

While in college, I worked for three years in a toy store. Three Black Fridays, friends. I sold toys by the trash-bag-full and gave away free Tickle Me Elmos and Furbies to reward customers for keeping the American economy alive for one more year. Many years later and I still struggle with the traditional sentimentality of Christmas, because, folks, I’ve seen its dark underbelly. Give me the unbelievers made mute and the shame of nontraditional wedlock against the backdrop of ancient tyrannies every time.

Anyway, the Nativity in the Gospel According to Luke spans all of chapter 1 and the beginning of chapter 2, and my notes here are thin. But I do have some observations.

I find it interesting that Luke spends more time talking about the foretelling and birth of John the Baptist than on that of Jesus. I don’t blame him. Of the two foretellings — one to Zechariah and one to Mary — Zechariah’s is the more dramatic of the two. I didn’t say more important. I said more dramatic.

Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” – Luke 1:18

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” – Luke 1:38

I was taught in Sunday school to see Mary’s response as righteous and Zechariah’s as unrighteous, as evidenced by Zechariah’s punishment of being made mute until the naming of John. We praise Mary for her compliance and rebuke Zechariah for doubting Gabriel to his face. Yes, on the surface Mary’s response is definitely the better of the two, and yes, Zechariah was wrong to doubt. But I have two observations here.

First, Zechariah has it tougher. God’s apparent deafness to his decades of prayer for a child give him cause (though not the right) for bitterness. Mary, on the other hand, has not spent the last few decades in disgrace (see v. 25). She’s young, betrothed under normal circumstances until now, her whole life ahead of her. In other words, she has less to lose. Yes, a sword will pierce her own soul too (2:35), but she doesn’t know that yet. Whereas Zechariah has become accustomed to disappointment.

Second, (and this is the more tenuous of the two), just because Mary says what she says, does that mean she feels what she says? I think she’s in a state of fear, not of joy. It isn’t until she visits her cousin Elizabeth and witnesses her joy and encouragement that Mary finally sings her song (v. 46-55). I might even go so far as to say (and this is the most tenuous of the tenuous) that at best she is not active in Jesus’ ministry, and at worst she becomes disenchanted. After all, Mary doesn’t actually follow Jesus during his ministry. She’s not counted among the women supporting Jesus and the apostles “out of their own means” as they travel from town to town (8:1-3). She and some of her son’s “came to see him but were not able to get near him because of the crowd” (8:19). And then we get that troublesome verse:

He replied, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.” Luke 8:21

But that’s a topic for a later post. Regardless of what we believe about Mary’s state of mind in the face of Gabriel, there is only one person in this portion of the first chapter of Luke who we know for sure has no doubts and does not speak out of fear, because we know her words are directly from the Holy Spirit:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” – Luke 1:41-42

The point of all this is that even though I fully acknowledge his wrongdoing, I want to cut Zechariah some slack. Because I get it. Because I would’ve been bitter too. And I think if Gabriel had visited Mary half a century later than he did, it’s possible Mary’s response might have been different. I think it might have been like Sarah’s:

So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my lord is old, will I now have this pleasure?” – Genesis 18:12

RNM

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