The Heart of Love: Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem


Courtesy: Adoration of the Shepherds by Dutch painter Matthias Stomer, 1632

He was wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger. This is what the Gospels say about the birth scene of Jesus Christ. “The word “manger” comes from the Latin word manducare which means “to eat.” A manger or crib is a wooden or stone feeding trough or food box that holds hay for larger farm animals like cattle, horses, and donkeys.” The food box used by the Jews during the first century AD was made of stone. “The stone trough was a manger. Of course, it wasn’t made of wood. Wood was precious and expensive in an arid land where few trees grew straight and tall. That’s why the legendary cedars of Lebanon were so prized. There weren’t many trees, but there was plenty of rock.” Not a comfortable place for the King of the Jews. 

The newborn was a special child, yet the only place they could find was this stone manger. It was rough, it was meant for animals to eat from. Just imagine the thoughts that must have crossed the minds of Mary and Joseph, if they were us. The manger and the Holy Cross are two emblems that remind us of the birth of Jesus, that is, God in human form. Both these emblems signify discomfort and sacrifice. But later, both symbols became the source of comfort and healing. God became man and built a highway for us to Heaven through his Sacrifice on the Holy Cross. 

The manger is a symbol of lack when we consider how two human beings were forced to take refuge there, in the dire need of the hour. Mary was about to give birth, and Joseph could not find another place for them, in the fully packed Bethlehem. We must remember that during that time of the year, a census was going on across the land of Palestine, which was under Roman rule. People were supposed to go to the cities of their original ancestors and register their names. Caesar Augustus was the Roman ruler who had a peculiar liking for census. Since Joseph belonged to the lineage of David, the legendary King David, he went to Bethlehem, the hometown of David. 

Bethlehem must have been a crowded place during the days of the census. There was no place for Joseph and Mary to stay, especially because the inn owners and whoever saw Mary understood she might give birth to a child soon. It was clear they did not want to take a lot of risk at that time of the year. The situation was more than enough to fill anyone with bitterness. There would certainly be, if it were us, a lot of gnashing of teeth and bitterness. How did the Blessed Mother of Jesus and Joseph, the Wonder Worker, manage to stay above the bitterness of it all? For Mary, accepting the will of God defined her whole existence. The “Yes” of Mary did not just make her part of the salvific plan of God, it saved the entire humanity. The “Yes” of Mary echoes in the trust laid by Joseph upon the instructions he received through his dreams. Mary’s “yes” was an act of courage. “And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”[b] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be”( Luke 1: 28, NRSV). Mary was ‘perplexed’, says the scripture. The term ‘perplexed’ means confused. It could also mean being in shock by seeing something unexpected. It means “confused and anxious because you are unable to understand something.

Mary’s anxiety was understandable. She was a young girl, betrothed to another man. She must have been panicking when the angel appeared in front of her. However, in her panic she does not wrestle with the Lord’s messenger. In the Bible we find many who confront messengers from God. It is quite interesting to observe how they respond to these heavenly messengers. The Book of Genesis shows Jacob wrestling with the angel of God. Mary, although perplexed, was willing to say “yes” to the will of God. Seeing Mary’s anxiety, the angel explains, “30 “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”” (Luke 1:30-33) The words of the angel are directly from God. The angel does not infuse one’s own will either in the language or in the intention of the communication. The message is a direct echo of God’s voice. However, the message is delivered through the person of the angel and for Mary it acts as a consolation. 

Mary does not wrestle with the Angel, but she asks the most logical question from a human perspective: ““How can this be, since I am a virgin?”” (Luke 1: 34) The question is a reflection of human limitation, which the angel subverts with a statement about God’s power. The angel explains to Mary about the Holy Spirit and how the Son of God will be sinless. The angel also informs Mary about Elizabeth who had miraculously conceived a son at her old age. Elizabeth was a barren woman, incapable of childbirth. Both these messages- one about the intervention of the Holy Spirit and the other about Elizabeth conceiving a child- form a preface to what the angel was about to declare. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), the angel declares. With God, everything changes; human limitation changes to heavenly reality. The angel’s words come down to Mary in a sweet logical succession from which it is easy to deduce her own conclusions. And Mary, consciously, willingly, declares, ““Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”” (Luke 1: 38)

Joseph had a dream of an angel. In the dream, the angel told him “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”” (Matthew 1: 20,21, NRSV). Joseph was also informed of the intervention of the Holy Spirit, like Mary, and was told the name Jesus. The angel also consoles the anxious Joseph by assuring him about taking Mary as his wife. Just like the perplexity felt by Mary when she saw the angel, Joseph felt anxiety about taking a woman as his wife who is pregnant with a baby, before their life together. He was anxious about the stigma placed by society upon such a pregnancy. The angel’s words helped him strengthen his decision to marry the same girl. Joseph accepts the will of God to be his own life’s anchor. 

Joseph was “righteous”, says the Bible. So he, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly” (Matthew 1:19, NRSV). Joseph resolved to do this. This resolution was shattered by the vision of the angel, where the angel tells Joseph about Jesus. Just like Mary, Joseph also trusted the angel’s words. It’s a trust imbued with love for God. In Bethlehem, when the people around them offered them no refuge or help, Joseph and Mary did not feel their pride hurt. They did not feel bitter. Both Mary and Joseph did not set out on this journey for the love they had for each other. Mary and Joseph had one common denominator, a common love: Jesus. 

This love for Jesus, made their journey tolerable. Bethlehem became the heart of their love, where the whole world saw God in human form. Bitterness and agony was won over with love for Jesus. This is one of the messages we need to learn during the Christmas season. Clearly, Mary and Joseph loved God even before the angel visited them. This is what helps them accept and follow the angel’s words. 

So in our lives too, love for Jesus should come first. We shouldn’t wait for miracles or miraculous encounters with angels to prove to ourselves of God’s love for us. We should love Him even without seeing him. We should love Him before we encounter His miracles because we are the best of his creation, and in us, a miracle has already unfolded at the time of our birth. 

by Anu Lal


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