The Real Mary

Posted by Marty Tornquist on December 11, 2021
The Real Mary

When I select Christmas cards, I always look for cards that feature Jesus, not Santa Claus, not the Grinch who stole Christmas, but Jesus. And I am often drawn to reproductions of Nativity Scenes painted by the old masters (e.g, Renaissance artists such as Raphael, Filippo Lippi, Leonardo Da Vinci, etc.). These stylized paintings usually conform to certain features: they are set in Europe, not in Palestine; they feature regal European clothing, not the plain garb of a peasant girl or hard-working shepherds. The virgin Mary is usually dressed in a red gown with a blue cloak and has a halo over her head. She looks serene as she holds and admires a chubby baby who also has halo over His head and seems to radiate light. I think these paintings were intended to picture the newborn Jesus as royalty, receiving worship even at His birth. To produce a beautiful scene worthy of a king is admirable and that is why I am drawn to them, but these scenes are unrealistic. Mary was a real young woman who just went through the agony of childbirth and she was probably in a stinky shepherds’ cave.

I wish I could find a card that features a girl who is clearly exhausted after the ordeal of giving birth. She is in a dirty, dingy place probably reclining on a bed of straw, but there is a look of wonder on her tear-stained face as she holds her newborn baby boy.

My point is that Mary was a real woman who had been asked to give herself for the most significant birth ever in human history. God became incarnate in her womb. And yet His birth was humble, odd in many ways. And I wonder to what extent Mary was surprised, even disappointed with her surroundings for this event.

I wonder to what extent Mary was surprised, even disappointed with her surroundings for this event.

What do we know about Mary? She was a young peasant girl, perhaps still a teenager. Although she was from the obscure village of Nazareth, she was of the royal line of King David. After Gabriel announced to her that she had been chosen to become the mother of the Messiah, she left immediately to go south to Judea to see her relative Elizabeth. Perhaps to convince Mary of the genuineness of his message, Gabriel told her that Elizabeth had conceived in her old age, adding: “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

What do we know about Joseph? He is described as a “righteous man” (Matthew 1:19), also from the royal line of King David. He probably studied the Scriptures, and it would not be unreasonable to assume he was aware of the prophecy in Isaiah: “The Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Although he may not have doubted that a virgin would conceive, he might have been understandably astonished that the virgin was his beloved little Mary! But when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him she was the one, he immediately took Mary as his wife and honored and protected her.

Perhaps Joseph and Mary were also aware of the prophecy that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), but they were in Nazareth. Then when Caesar Augustus ordered everyone in the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral home for a census, as descendants of David, they would be going to Bethlehem, the city of David. By the time they joined another caravan going south from Nazareth, Mary was “great with child.” They both knew this miracle baby would, indeed, be born in Bethlehem.

Reflecting on the announcement given to her by the angel Gabriel, Mary might have had certain expectations about what would await her in Bethlehem. He said her Son will be “great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David; and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end” (Luke 1:32–33, emphasis added). Certainly the birth of a king would call for special accommodations. I wonder if she eagerly awaited their arrival in Bethlehem expecting to find the nice, clean birthing place she needed. Then, what a shock to find “there was no room in the inn” for her! How could it be that her royal Son was to be born in a shepherd’s cave? Where was God? Why had He let this happen to her?

Mary had been given a tremendous honor, and yet, just when she needed to be honored most it appeared God had abandoned her. Today we may see tremendous symbolism for the Lamb of God to be born in a sheep-pen and His first worshipers to be shepherds, but Mary at that moment probably just felt abandoned, exhausted, and disillusioned. What happened?

Mary had been given a tremendous honor, and yet, just when she needed to be honored most it appeared God had abandoned her.

How many of us have felt a similar sense of disillusionment? We prayed for God’s guidance, sought counsel, studied His Word, and concluded He was leading us down a certain path. We went out by faith, trusting Him, excited to be in the center of His will, only to have the bottom fall out and to be completely baffled, even crushed. What happened? Did we miss the signs? Were we somehow disobedient? We might even experience metaphorically a “Mary in the stinky cave” moment. And yet, as mysterious as this is, we might be just as much in the center of God’s will as she was.

God did send a delegation of angels to announce the birth of His Son and the frightened, but excited shepherds ran into Bethlehem with the news. What assurance for Mary—her Son was being celebrated, and God had not abandoned her. Wouldn’t it be nice if God would send us maybe just one angel to reassure us that we had not missed the way? That God had not forgotten us? But then, where is the faith? I think that’s the point—“without faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). Most of us would probably say, “Yes, I want to please God!” But then when we experience the darkness that requires faith, we get weak in the knees. Oh, how human of us! Let’s learn from dear, sweet, little Mary—God is right there with us in the “cave.” He is making good on His promises, even if we don’t see it right now. 

Marty Tornquist

Marty is a deaconess over Faith Bible Church women's Bible studies. She is a graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, IL (M.A, Church History) and has taught at several Christian colleges. She has been a speaker at women’s conferences and has written and taught many women’s Bible studies.

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