A Virgin’s Dream
In Nazareth, betrothed to Joseph, Mary anticipates the blessing of getting married and having a family.
While busy with her daily routine at home, Mary spent most of her morning daydreaming of Joseph and raising their family. As mature adults of highly respected families in Nazareth, everyone expected their lives to be above reproach, following every letter of the Law.
Money was never a motive for marriage, not in Galilee. Nevertheless, according to tradition, Joseph had paid the purchase price, and she belonged to him. Their betrothal was sealed with a drink of wine together.
For others, a bill of divorcement might be possible, but their marriage was as certain as the rising of the sun. They laid claim to the royal lineage of King David. With her aunt Elizabeth married to Zechariah, she also had association with the priesthood. She and Joseph would be blessed in every way—socially and financially, having many children.
The typical groom might take a year to prepare a home for his bride, but Joseph was far ahead of schedule. Through the entry, four rooms surrounded the courtyard—better than most houses—with space for their garden, a place to shelter animals, and a room for his carpentry work.
With her father in the fields and her mother at the market, Mary had uninterrupted time to dream about married life as she put wood in the oven for baking bread.
How many days would it be before her marriage would be consummated? Four months, perhaps. It shouldn’t be longer.
As soon as preparations were complete, Joseph would meet with her father, Eli. The date would be set.
The torches coming down the narrow street at night would herald the groom’s arrival. People would cheer, joining the procession, shouting, “The bridegroom is coming.”
With circular motion, then back and forth, Mary ground the grain, the rhythmic pace wishing for a tambourine to complete the melody. Through this ritual, the oven would surrender several loaves of barley bread and a few raisin cakes.
She would leave the house of her parents, take Joseph’s hand, and walk with him beneath the canopy held aloft by four poles. In the public ceremony, she would voice her commitment before going to the privacy of their house for an intimate time together. Then he would go out to announce to the guests: “Our marriage has been consummated.”
Joseph would remain with her in seclusion while the village danced and sang and drank wine, but on the evening of the seventh day, they would join the joyous celebration.
She prepared the dough, added leaven, and let it rise.
Later, she formed the flat, round pieces. Standing in front of the dome-shaped mud oven, she stirred the coals and stepped back from the heat, the wood crackling and spitting fiery flashes.
“I can’t give you a palace,” Joseph had said, but Mary felt like she was about to be crowned queen.
A chill ran down her spine, and she gasped.
The shadows beyond the oven had brightened like polished brass in the noontime sun. A man stood in the midst of the brightness, dressed in spotless white. Dark hair fell in waves to his shoulders.
With open hands, he reached toward her. “Do not be frightened, Mary. I am Gabriel, sent from God.” His voice, calm and reassuring, was as strong as the call from a ram’s horn. “God is pleased with you.”
Mary took a deep breath and stammered, not knowing what to say.
The man smiled as if he understood her apprehension. “You will become pregnant and give birth to a son. You must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will make him king like his ancestor David, and he will rule over Israel forever.”
“How is this possible?” Mary said. “I have not yet slept with a man.”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, your child will be holy and will be called the Son of God. No one thought your aunt Elizabeth could have a child either, but she is now in her sixth month. Nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary bowed, dropped to her knees, and faced the ground. “I am God’s servant,” she said. “Let all you have said happen to me according to his will.”
When Mary looked up, the angel was gone.
Had she heard right? She would become pregnant before she ever slept with a man? If true, this could ruin her wedding plans.
While the family sat at the evening meal, Mary considered what would probably happen if people knew she had become pregnant before her wedding night. Joseph would know he wasn’t the father. When the council learned of it, the reputations of their families might be ruined.
At the evening meal, Anna broke away from her conversation with Eli. “Why so quiet, Mary? Is something wrong?”
“No. I was just thinking about the wedding.” She stared at the bit of raisin in her cake, hoping her mother wouldn’t detect her concern.
That night, Mary couldn’t sleep. With every turn on the bed, her vision—or whatever it was—kept repeating in her mind. You must name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will make him king like his ancestor David, and he will rule over Israel forever.
What did the angel mean, Son of the Most High? If she really was pregnant, how would the child become a king? How would he rule forever? By the time her daydream faded and her eyes finally closed a few hours before dawn, every word Gabriel had said was firmly set in her memory, like commandments chiseled on stone tablets.
The morning looked almost like the day before. Yellow flowers brightened the countryside. The birds sang their joyful songs. Mary tried to laugh, but the day wasn’t quite the same.
Something had changed.
We Need to Talk
With no doubt she has become pregnant, Mary must decide when and where to tell her story. How can she avoid disgracing her family and Joseph’s?
Three weeks after Gabriel appeared, Mary found plenty to worry about. The wedding didn’t matter anymore.
Her pregnancy was something she couldn’t hide forever. What would happen when people found out?
With the jar balanced on her head, Mary walked down the street toward the well that supplied the village with water.
She imagined Gabriel appearing before the council, defending her, proving her virginity. The dream felt good, but it wasn’t real. Everybody knew how virgins became pregnant, and it wasn’t from talking to angels. Nobody would believe her story.
Who could she tell? Joseph was a kind and understanding man, but probably not under these circumstances. He wasn’t the father, and that meant somebody else had to be.
Mary sometimes confided in her older sister, who was married and had two children. That would be the perfect approach if she didn’t care if the news spread throughout the village. Her father, Eli, was sure to seek justice and vengeance against someone, trying to save the family’s reputation.
Her friend Rachael was already at the well, drawing water. “Shalom, favored bride,” Rachael said in a joyful tone. “Can your day come too soon?”
Mary wanted to smile but couldn’t. “I am learning to be patient.”
“Why the solemn look? You are always so cheery.”
“I’m tired of dreaming. One can never know what will actually happen.” She looked at Rachael, considering. Her best friend might be trusted, but how could she help? No, she couldn’t.
When Mary arrived home, Eli had already left for the fields.
Anna was sitting at the loom, making the shuttle dance between the threads. “You look tired,” she said. “Did you not sleep well?”
Mary sat on the cushion near loom. “I am all right. I just have much to think about.”
“Indeed. Such is the life of a bride. Your day will come soon.”
“Yes, I know, I—” She bit her lip to silence the weakness in her words. Did she dare say anything? What could her mother do? Still, Mary’s heart cried to talk to someone who wouldn’t immediately expose her secrets. She looked around the room, finding reassurance that they were alone. “Have you ever seen an angel?” She tried to speak in a casual way, as if she were making social talk.
“Me? Of course not. No one has—or at least nobody I have ever known. Why?”
Mary took a deep breath and sighed. She had opened the door. Now she had no choice but to walk through it. “I have.”
Anna dropped her shuttle. “You are sure?” Instead of surprise, her look showed awe and curiosity. “Where? When?”
“Here. A few weeks ago. While I was baking.”
“You waited this long to tell me?” Always quick, Anna leaned back, apparently sensing a problem she couldn’t figure out. “What happened?” she said.
Mary had seen an angel. Of course she would normally have said something immediately. But she hadn’t. How could she explain why? This was not a normal situation.
“In a brilliant light,” Mary said breathlessly, her hands trembling, “a man appeared, dressed in spotless white. He said his name was Gabriel. Wasn’t he the angel who talked to Daniel?”
“You talkedto him?”
“I thought I would die.” Mary paused to catch her breath. “I was so scared, I couldn’t speak.”
Anna moved close and held Mary’s hand. “Tell me everything he said.”
“His words were gentle, as calm as the sea. Yet in my ears, they were as loud as a ram’s horn.” Mary choked back her tears. “I couldn’t say no.”
“What are you not telling me? Say no to what?”
Mary’s thoughts went to the angel’s words. “He said I would become pregnant and give birth to a son named Jesus. He will be great, called Son of the Most High. God will make him king like David, and he will rule Israel forever.” She shook her head, feeling helpless. “I said yes, but now I don’t know what to do.”
Anna relaxed as if a deep worry had departed. “Why are you troubled?” Her face was bright and her voice overflowed with excitement. “The angel was talking about your marriage. How wonderful. You will bear Joseph a child of destiny.”
“No, you don’t understand.” She took a deep breath. “The angel said, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.’” She rubbed her belly. “The child is already here.”
Anna’s look went from a broad smile to a hardened look of disbelief.
“Please believe me,” Mary said. “I speak only the truth. I have not been unfaithful, not to Joseph, not to God.”
“I want to believe you, but such a thing has never happened before. It’s impossible.”
“That is what I told the angel.” Mary held out her open palms in the same way she had expressed her bewilderment to the angel. “He said, with God, all things are possible.”
Anna shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. All you say may be true, but no one will believe you. Our families will be disgraced, shamed by the whole village.” She paused, thinking. “People will want to believe Joseph is the father, which is better than being promiscuous.”
“But he is not the father. No man is.”
“Yes, I know what you said. But that makes the problem worse. If Joseph won’t lie, saying he is the father, you will probably face the council as a harlot.”
“Joseph would never lie. I won’t ask him to.”
“We have an impossible situation. We need a miraculous solution. I cannot image how anything good can come of this.”
“A miracle? You won’t believe what Gabriel said. Your sister, Elizabeth, is pregnant—in her sixth month.”
Anna frowned, obviously rejecting the absurdity. “Come now, child. That’s impossible. Are you sure that is what he said?”
“I missed no word. How could I misunderstand something like that? I remember as clearly as when he stood before me.”
“I don’t know how this information helps us,” Anna said. “Maybe it will. Have no doubt though. We need a plan—a good one.”
The Perfect Plan
In the marriage of her daughter, Anna wants an especially joyous celebration. How can she convince her husband, Eli, that Mary’s story is not a silly explanation for sleeping with a mystery man?
After three days, Anna was still trying to think of a solution. A midday walk to the well let her ponder the possibilities. She passed lines of flat-roofed houses, white against a cloudless sky. In greeting women returning from the well, she spoke in the usual, friendly tone while wondering how quickly her friends would become enemies if they knew of Mary’s condition.
How could the family image be preserved? As soon as rumors started, people would judge from what they had heard, imagining the worst. After that, Mary’s story, no matter how well it might be told, would be viewed as an impossible fantasy.
Society viewed stoning as an obsolete punishment for adultery. In their modern, gracious culture, such indiscretions often passed with little notice. By the next time it rained, the rumors were forgotten or forgiven. But that would not be true in Mary’s case. There was no escape.
Mary’s situation was different. Their family was too prominent—too highly respected—too perfect in their reputation, making them the target of inspection for the tiniest of flaws.
Mary didn’t have to worry about stoning. No, it would be worse punishment than that. People’s harsh, cutting words would strike harder than stones.
If anyone found out that Mary was already pregnant, the news would spread like windblown fire across sun-parched plains. The family would be shunned by everyone. Eli’s word would not be respected. He might not be wanted in the fields. If that happened, they would have to leave town. Whether in Nazareth or somewhere else, the family would be alone, without friends, without support.
Joseph’s family might not fare much better.
What could be done? Admitting guilt was the easiest, most practical approach. With no evidence at all, people would recognize a woman’s transgression, pass judgment, and eventually, the sin would be forgotten.
Mary’s claim to innocence made the situation impossible. Since she wouldn’t admit guilt, undeniable proof of her story was required. Without that, people would judge her guilty, no matter how well she told her story. The best they had was Mary’s tear-filled insistence that she was telling the truth, which wouldn’t be enough.
When Anna returned home, Mary was preparing the evening meal, the usual practice in anticipation of a bride who wanted to please her man. Eli was still in the field.
“Your pain is mine,” Anna said, “but I see no hope other than disgrace.”
Mary seemed to be at peace. “The angel said, with God, all things are possible.”
Anna put her hand to her mouth, not believing she had failed to recognize the obvious. “Oh, my! That is it. You must go.”
Mary looked confused, as if Anna’s words made no sense to her.
“The miracle,” Anna said. “Elizabeth.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Don’t you see? You would never make up a story about my sister being pregnant. That is too absurd to imagine. It proves you really did talk to an angel, and all you have told me must be true.”
Mary looked excited, eager to tell her story. “Then Eli and Joseph will believe me.”
“No, we cannot take that risk. This must be our secret until you have returned with proof.” Anna put her hand on Mary’s shoulder, gently and lovingly. “Daughter, you have never lied to me. But what if Elizabeth isn’t pregnant? What then?”
“But the angel said—”
With her raised hand Anna prevented Mary from speaking. “Yes, I want it to be true too. But what if it isn’t? If my sister isn’t pregnant, you will stay with her and raise your child there. It is the perfect plan.”
Mary said nothing for a moment, looking troubled. “Would I ever be allowed to return?”
“Maybe when the child is older. When people aren’t so curious, so inclined to ask questions.”
“I am sorry.” Mary shook her head, as if she thought her question left a hint that she might be lying. “I had no need to ask that question. Elizabeth must be pregnant. It has to be true, because I have not lied about anything.”
“I know, my love.”
“Joseph must know why I have gone. What will Eli say to him? How will Eli know what to say if we don’t tell him why I am going?”
“I don’t know,” Anna said. “There must be a way.”
That evening, while they reclined at the table, Anna said, “Mary, how long has it been since you saw your aunt Elizabeth?”
“Five years. Maybe six. By now, her hair must have turned from gray to white.”
Anna glanced at Eli, making sure he had been drawn into their conversation, then turned back to Mary. “After you are married, you will be too busy to visit her. When the date is set, we will send a message, inviting her to the wedding.”
“At her age?” Eli looked doubtful. “How would they make the journey?”
“You are right,” Anna said. “Zechariah and Elizabeth are much too old. We should not make them feel like they must come. But we should be careful not to offend them either.”
“Joseph’s house is not yet ready,” Mary said. “It will be several months. Instead of Aunt Elizabeth coming here, I could visit her in Judea.”
“Yes, that would be better.” Eli paused, apparently considering the arrangement. “Next week, you can join the caravan traveling to Jerusalem for the feast.”
“Joseph must be told the plan,” Anna said.
“Yes, of course,” Eli said. “I will speak to him tomorrow morning.”