The Christmas story is full of surprises: a baby born to save the world; news announced to lowly shepherds; a God who uses what is weak in the world to shame the strong. A Heavenly King laid in a manger is just the beginning of God coming into the world He made and shaking up our religious assumptions.
Yet even those of us for whom the Christmas story is familiar see the world in similar ways to those living in the near east 2,000 years ago. We expect great things from power, not poverty. We look for quick and easy solutions that don't involve suffering and death. We want freedom from our political and financial problems more than from the sin in our hearts. We think that people who are successful, healthy, and secure are blessed and maybe even favored by God. We assume that being a good (and especially religious) person should lead to favorable circumstances in this life.
But scripture tells a different story and we see it right in the midst of the Christmas narrative. Mary, an ordinary young Jewish teenage girl - without power, status, or notoriety - is visited by an angel who proclaims that she is most favored among women. Because the Christmas story is so familiar to us, this seems reasonable. After all, she was given the privilege of bringing Jesus into the world and millions of people have venerated her since. There are statues, monuments and paintings of her across the globe, often depicting her in blue garments- the most rare and costly dyes at the time - reserved for those of highest stature. People pray the "Hail Mary" alongside the "Our Father". Some believe she has power to answer prayers and intercede on the behalf of people in need. She sounds special and certainly favored to us.
But history's treatment of Mary is far from her lived experience. She was young and vulnerable. Scholars think she may have been the tender age of 14, and her pregnancy was not well received. Luke's account only shares her Joseph's response but imagine the scandal: a young, unmarried girl is pregnant in a patriarchal, conservative Jewish community. This type of grievous breaking of religious and societal rules led to women in earlier gernerarions being stoned and Mary couldn't been kicked out of her community for bringing shame upon them. Even after an angel convinces Joseph that Mary is telling the truth and he spares her from this fate, undoubtedly rumors swirled. Who would believe that a virgin was pregnant? Who would accept her story of being visited by an angel? No one, but her cousin Elizabeth who was experiencing her own miraculous pregnancy. And so Mary, who millions now venerate, was likely rejected, despised and shamed by many.
Her baby was born away from home, on a trip forced upon her by the rulers of the day. No woman would choose an arduous journey by foot or donkey in her last month of pregnancy, but Mary was not a woman with choices. The night she gave birth, which we sing about as a "silent night" when "all is calm" was likely anything but peaceful or quiet as Joseph frantically looked for a safe space her to deliver their child.
The remainder of the Biblical narrative gives us glimpses into the hard life that Mary lived. When Jesus was a toddler, his parents were forced to flee a murdurous ruler who wanted him killed. Jesus' life was spared but all the boys age 2 and under were killed. What was it like for them to return to a community in which all the boys his age had been killed? Was Mary resented by grieving mothers for having a living son?
She went on to have more children with Joseph but her son who was promised by God grows up to be rejected by their community (Matthew 13:53-57). He didn't fit in or fulfill societal expectations for an oldest son. He didn't marry and had no children. He didn't carry on the family name or stay involved in the family business of carpentry. Her husband Joseph died leaving her widowed during a time when widows were at great risk of harm. She watched her oldest son be brutally murdered in an act heinous act of religious and political corruption and cruelty.
Does this sound like a blessed life? Is this what we think a person favored by God would experience? Likely not. At least it's not the kind of blessing and favor that we would want for ourselves or someone we love.
We equate being favored with being powerful and blessed: prayers answered, comforts given, social status recognized by many, if not all. But God says to be favored is to be a recipient of his undeserved grace. This most favored woman did not receive an easy life, but through her suffering, God worked to save the world.
God indeed invited her to be a part of something amazing, but it came at great cost. When Mary said yes to God's plan, she said no to her own. God asked her to give up comfort, normalcy, reputation, and safety to be a part of something far greater than her.
Decades after his birth, Jesus explained the upside-down nature of God's Kingdom in which our view of blessing is disrupted (Matthew 5:3-12). He tells us that is those who hunger for righteousness and see their own spiritual poverty are the ones who are blessed. God's favor rests on those who are meek, poor in spirit, and cry to God for rescue.
We value ease but God values humility. We want comfort but God wants us to seek him as our Comforter.
You may not be feeling very blessed or favored right now. Maybe life has been hard; full of loss and pain. Maybe your dreams aren't coming true and your relationships are strained. Yet Christmas reminds us that God's favor sometimes comes through circumstances that seem everything but favorable. If you are weak, vulnerable or weary this Christmas, take heart - the same God who sustained Mary is the one who will sustain you.