Over Christmas, I got a chance to rewatch The Nativity Story (2006), a movie based on the story of Jesus’ birth. Among other things, it stars Oscar Isaac (who was also in Star Wars: The Force Awakens).
The movie focuses on the journey of Mary and Joseph as they deal with a divinely-conceived baby in a highly conservative traditional Jewish society. As I watched the movie over the festive season, I realised that the Christmas story that fills us with hope each year must have been a harrowing, uncomfortable process for them to live through. Everywhere they went, from Nazareth to Bethlehem to Egypt and back, they were outcasts and refugees. Everyone had reason to hate and condemn them.
We remember Christmas for the birth of Jesus, but we’ve got a lot to learn from two other key players in the story, his parents, on how to deal with opposition to our faith.
WHAT MARY AND JOSEPH FACED TO RAISE JESUS
1. Mary, the “shotgun” mum, should have been stoned to death
If you think Singaporeans are overly conservative and judgmental when it comes to teenage pregnancies, wait till you meet the folks down in Nazareth in 32BC.
Back in the day, Nazareth was a relatively small kampung, with a population estimated at about 400, according to some sources. This means that when Mary’s pregnancy inevitably became evident, it would have been a huge scandal among the other 398 Nazarenes.
Rumours and gossip of Mary having committed adultery probably spread like wildfire, and her explanation of divine conception probably made her the butt of many jokes.
Remember that back in Jewish society then, the punishment for adultery was stoning to death, according to the laws spelt out in Leviticus.
If Joseph had chosen to turn against her, a painful death by stoning would have been her fate, but instead he chose to claim the baby as his own, which meant that he instead bore the brunt of all the judgment, gossip and mockery from his family, friends and relatives for having undergone a “shotgun” marriage.
They both had to give up their reputations to obey to God.
2. Baby Jesus and his family, refugee outcasts, were always on the run
Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, but they had to go to Bethlehem for the nationwide census declared by Herod. This means that they were strangers in a strange city, where they knew not a single soul, which is why Mary had to give birth in a manger. Shortly after Mary gave birth, they had to unexpectedly flee for their lives to a foreign country, Egypt.
Journeys from town to town within Israel may have taken days or even weeks back then. Journeys from one country to another would have taken even longer. There was no way that Joseph or Mary would have brought enough money, clothes or provisions for such a long journey, when they only expected to travel to Bethlehem. This means weeks of walking through the desert, carrying a crying newborn baby, with no income, little or no food, and no water. If you think Joseph and Mary struck it rich when the Magi gave them expensive first month presents, think again. I’m guessing they had to sell all of it just to survive when they had to flee to Egypt.
This was a family of refugees. Homeless and hungry, unwelcome wherever they went. The King born in the lowest of circumstances – the extravagant humility of our Saviour God.
3. Jesus, the boy of sorrows, was rejected by men
Once they were back in the kampung that was Nazareth, Mary – rumours still swirling around her family – was likely shunned by her neighbours and labelled a bad influence, with whom good Jewish girls should not associate with.
If it was hard for Mary, imagine how hard it was for Jesus. When he attended the local neighbourhood school, all the other kids would have been warned by their mums not to hang around with him. They would have had many nicknames to hurl at him; the word bastard immediately comes to mind. Kids can be so mean.
No wonder Isaiah says about the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.” (Isaiah 53:3)
4. Mary and Joseph never salvaged their reputation
In one scene in the Nativity Story, Mary asked Joseph when he thought they would know that their child was more than just a child. I doubt they imagined that it would take 30 years before Jesus started His ministry as the Messiah.
For Mary and Joseph, the only thing that would restore their dignity and acceptance by the society that condemned them would be for Jesus to reveal himself as the Messiah. That 30-year wait must have seemed like a lifetime for them. They must both have been constantly wondering when He would manifest His divine powers so they could finally put to rest the rumours and negativity surrounding their family.
For Mary and Joseph, the miracle at Cana must have seemed like things were finally moving – that the time for their family to be glorified had come. Little did they know that God’s intention for the Messiah was far different from what they thought! In fact, when Jesus came back to Nazareth in the course of his ministry, he ended up being driven out of the town and could not perform many miracles there – the prophet without honour in his own hometown (Mark 6:4).
It must have been a bittersweet surprise for Mary and Joseph that at the end of this long wait, they were not freed from the condemnation they had been tolerating for so long, and in fact probably got worse by the time of Jesus’ death. What faith and hope they exhibited to get them through their family’s lifelong trial – for a reward they did not see in their lifetime.
Yet today, we all know what happened in the end. Both Mary and Joseph are remembered around the world, their actions commemorated every year. They will be honoured for all eternity for their obedience to God’s will above all else.
When you face obstacles, resistance and persecution in our attempt to walk to narrow road that leads to life, consider the example of Mary and Joseph, and what they had to go through to from that first day when an angel appeared to Mary to tell her the life what was to befall her. I wonder how many of us can say the words she said when we’re put under pressure for our faith:
“I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.” (Luke 1:38)
What would we be willing to face to raise Jesus higher in our lives?