The angelic appearance in the fields surrounding Bethlehem is sometimes referred to as the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The Annunciation, which has been celebrated in many famous paintings, was the announcement to Mary that she would become pregnant even though she had not “known” a man: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, . . . ‘And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.’ . . . And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have no husband?’ And the angel said to her, . . . ‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’”
(The Virgin Birth is in the Bible. The bizarre notion of the Immaculate Conception is not.)
The Bible contains another annunciation of the virgin birth. It comes earlier in the Bible than the one to Mary, but later in time. Mary is already pregnant, and Joseph, engaged to Mary, for obvious reasons knows he is not the father. He plans a divorce when an angel appears in a dream and tells Joseph not to reject Mary for she has conceived through the Holy Spirit. The angel continues that the son should be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” As a result, Joseph did not reject Mary “but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”
Mary is honored for her faith in accepting her pregnancy, but perhaps Joseph’s conduct should be celebrated at least as much. His action is an incredible expression of faith, much more it seems to me than that of Mary. Mary finds herself pregnant, but she knows that she is a virgin. Perhaps it is not so hard under these circumstances to accept that the Holy Spirit was responsible. However difficult the acceptance was for Mary, surely it was much harder for Joseph. He finds his fiancée pregnant. He knew he did not impregnate her. It is an extraordinary man of faith that would accept what the unnamed angel told him. If you are going to celebrate faith, this is an act for celebration.
Mary’s annunciation story presents few facts about her. She is a virgin. She married Joseph. She accepts what Gabriel tells her. We learn little about her actions, personality, or character other than the angel telling her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
We do not know why she has found favor. It surely can’t be that she is a virgin. The story is based on the notion that virginity was expected on the wedding day. There were many virgins in the land. Perhaps she was favored by the Lord because she led an exemplary life that we should emulate. But if so, we can’t try to be like her because we do not know why God singled her out. As far as we know, she found favor just as a powerball winner finds favor. Mary has been simply the winner in God’s lottery.
On the other hand, Joseph’s annunciation story reveals something about the kind of man he was. When he finds himself a cuckold because his betrothed is pregnant, my Bible says, “Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Of course, after the angel speaks to him, he abandons this thought, but look at his character. When many men would have been vindictive or trying to save face, he was thinking of another, the one who apparently wronged him. He did not want to shame Mary. Joseph is not just a man of incredible faith, he is a helluva nice guy. The Bible does not tell us that Joseph was favored by God. No reason is given for him to be the “father” who raises the savior. But we do know that this is a faithful man who can put others before himself. We can see at least a bit of Jesus in Joseph. Joseph seems to be someone to emulate, and perhaps he should be pushed more to the center of the Christmas story.
For some the Christmas stories constitute a test of faith. Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe in the guiding star? I am not a believer in any of the Christmas story. For me, its truth is simply irrelevant. His “resurrection,” another test of faith, is also irrelevant. Instead, I would like to believe what truly matters and what points the way for a better life for me and a better world for all is the life He lived.
I like Christmas. Every year during the season I feel a few moments of that spirit where maybe someday there could be peace on earth and good will towards men, or more realistically, a bit more peace and good will. For a few moments each year, the concluding part of the song about the midnight clear haunts me with its possibilities:
“An ye, beneath life’s crushing load/ whose forms are bending low/ who toil along the climbing way/ with painful steps and slow/ look now! for glad and golden hours/ come swiftly on the wing./ O rest beside the weary road,/ and hear the angels sing!
“For lo! the days are hastening on,/ by prophet seen of old,/ when with the ever-circling years/ shall come the time foretold/ when peace shall over all the earth/ its ancient splendors fling,/ and the whole world send back the song/ which now the angels sing.”