First-century Nazareth was renowned for only one thing–its sin.
The city catered heavily to soldiers who occupied a Roman garrison at Sepphoris, located just four miles away. It is likely that Nazareth’s sullied reputation led Nathanael to say, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46a). It was here that Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived.
The customary age for betrothal among Mary’s people was 13 or 14 years old. She was likely a young girl when her parents announced her betrothal to Joseph in the synagogue. It was at that time that the angel Gabriel visited her. Although she was troubled, her faithful spirit accepted his proclamation: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
Jewish society treated unmarried pregnant women with shame and scorn. Adulteresses were commonly stoned to death. “When she answered, ‘Behold the bond-slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38a), she showed that her thoughts and longings were directed to God alone,” writes Edith Deen. “She was willing to obey and surrender herself to divine love.” Mary’s faith was strong. Expecting the worst from Joseph, her family, and her society, she gratefully accepted God’s will for her life.
Joseph reacted in the only way he knew how–he made immediate plans to divorce Mary and send her away.
But the angel visited Joseph as well, and he and Mary began their lives’ journey together. Soon after, a census taken by Caesar Augustus required them to travel to the city where Joseph was born, 90 or more miles from their home.
Because they were not people of means, they made the journey on foot or with the help of donkeys. Either way, the passage took several days. Most likely, they followed the eastern bank of the Jordan River, an uncommercialized route. They would have slept under a tree for shelter because December nights in the hill country were frequently cold and rainy. Mary arrived in Bethlehem nine months pregnant, having made an incredibly arduous journey across the desert. The overcrowded city teemed with weary travelers, and she and Joseph could find no inn with a vacant room. Desperate for a place to rest, the couple resorted to a stable.
According to Jewish tradition, the stable behind the inn would have been a rudimentary cave like the many that perforate the hills around Bethlehem today. The teenaged girl gave birth to her baby on the hard ground of a cold, damp, and dark stable. Mary had no doctor or midwife to assist her through the labor pains. Only Joseph and the animals were present for the delivery. Because there was no cradle, she wrapped her tiny infant in cloths and laid him in a feeding trough. Mary and Joseph were too poor to provide a lamb sacrifice at His birth. Instead, they later offered two doves at the temple altar. There was no ceremony when this King entered the world.
God chose Mary to usher our Savior into the world because she was favored for her righteousness.
How can it be that this meek, unassuming woman played such a pivotal role in history? Mary was an ordinary girl with extraordinary godly character and a mighty spirit that gave her an uncommon faith. Mary possessed the strength and courage to live out her faith through excruciating difficulties. Her vision was so focused on the Lord that she never questioned the incomprehensible demands put on her life. Completely trusting in her God, Mary was in every way a good and faithful servant.
When she was chosen by God to live her life for the sake of others–most of whom she would never meet–and for the sake of a prophecy she did not understand, Mary responded with an immortalized hymn of sincere gratitude. “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has had regard for the humble state of His bond-slave,” she sang. “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever”(Luke 1:46-55).
Mary is a model of inspiration for ordinary women who can fulfill their deepest vocation by placing themselves at the service of others in their everyday lives. She lived her life in relative obscurity, yet the world has celebrated her obedience to God for nearly 2,000 years.
She never traveled outside of her homeland, but her story has traveled to the farthest corners of the earth. Her tragic and glorious life culminated at the foot of the Cross, but it continues to exhort and uplift millions.