From all indicators, her life would not be extraordinary.
The Characters of Christmas
By Daniel Darling
Mary, the Simple Girl at the Center of Everything
Walsh, Colorado, is not just a small town. The next closest town is also a small town. I’m not really that good at geography, but I do have a general rule about the size of town: when you have to drive an hour to find a Dollar General and another hour to find a Walmart and another hour to find a Starbucks, you know you are in a small town.
Walsh, Colorado, is that kind of town.
This is where my sister and her husband and family live. I visited them not long ago and was just struck by the way life slows down in small-town America and how people (like me) who live near big or medium-sized American cities can easily blow past these towns without thinking and how major media very rarely features perspectives from this part of the country. And yet in these tiny little towns, there are people going about living their lives, trying to fulfill their hopes and dreams as much as people who live in any major metropolis.
Walsh, Colorado, is the kind of town you only visit if you know someone who lives there, the place that you only see on Google when you zoom in really close. And yet, this is the kind of town in which the angel Gabriel announced the birth of the Son of God.
Nazareth would not have shown up quickly on your map. To get to Nazareth, you had to bypass Jerusalem, the city of David, and the center of religious life among the Jewish people. To get to Nazareth, you had to head straight to the part of Caesar’s empire that was the least desirable: Judea. Nazareth was such a backwater that the first thing Nathanael, who would become a disciple, said about Jesus was, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” In other words, he was asking, “Why would I be interested in someone who comes from a part of the world that nobody respects?”
In fact, if we could rewrite the Christmas story, this is probably where we’d make most of our edits. You just can’t have a hero emerge from a place like Nazareth. And yet here we find the opening act of the Christmas story.
What’s more, Gabriel didn’t choose to make this announcement to Herod’s daughter or a member of elite Jewish society but to a poor, illiterate, unimportant Jewish girl in Nazareth named Mary. As we celebrate Advent this season and as we examine all the characters of Christmas, there is none so unlikely to be at the center of this divine story as Mary. Mary was not looking for prominence. She was, like every other Jewish peasant girl in Nazareth, simply living out an ordinary life in an ordinary town with unassuming dreams. Listen to how pastor and author Kent Hughes describes her likely future, before Gabriel descended on her home:
From all indicators, her life would not be extraordinary. She would marry humbly, give birth to numerous poor children, never travel farther than a few miles from home, and one day die like thousands of others before her – a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere.
And yet it is Mary who not only receives the first announcement of the Christ child, but who is chosen by God to bear the Son of God. This tells us something about Mary – her simple faith and her willingness to say yes to God – but it tells us more about Mary’s God. We often think God works through extreme giftedness or among those who are wealthy and well connected. But the Christmas story reminds us that God moves in and among those who society most often leaves behind, that the thread of redemption woven throughout Scripture winds its way through a lot of small towns and seemingly little lives.
Nobody knew Mary’s name. Nobody but God, of course. And God knows your name. This is what it means that God is Immanuel. He visits the lowly of station and lowly of heart. He dwells among the broken and contrite. To quote the hymn writer Charles Wesley, Jesus has “come to earth to taste our sadness. He whose glories knew no end.”
To fully understand Christmas, you have to immerse yourself in the setting of Luke. This visit by Gabriel to Mary was so improbable, so unexpected. The people of God were weary and downtrodden. Once a mighty nation ruled by David and thriving under King Solomon, Israel divided into two countries, often ruled by wicked rulers who would both plunder their people and lead them away from worship of the true God. There would be sporadic revivals and periods of renewal. There was even a return to the homeland and rebuilding of their city and their temple. But never would they return to their former glory. All along the prophets promised a coming time when David’s kingdom would be restored, when a suffering servant-king would come and rescue them and lead them to peace and prosperity. But it became increasingly difficult to cling to these promises.
Meanwhile, it seemed that the world moved on. Alexander the Great conquered these lands and established Greek culture and language. Then the Romans conquered the Greeks and while keeping Greek culture, also instituted their own pagan practices.
It also seemed that God had moved on. The prophets stopped speaking to His people. For four hundred years it seemed as though God was silent. False claims of messiahs would come and go. A revolt by a family named the Maccabees revived fresh hopes of renewal, only to eventually be crushed by Roman power. Now they were ruled by a ruthless and corrupt governor, Herod, installed by Caesar and distrusted by the people.
So when we open the New Testament and peek in on Mary, we find her among a people mostly cynical about the promises of God. Ruled by the Romans. Divided by sectarian religious tribes (Pharisees and Sadducees and loyalists to Rome). Jaded by the corruption in Caesar’s palace and among the religious establishment. Yes, they believed the promises, because this is what Jewish people believe. But would the Messiah come in their time, and would He come to them and among them? Mostly they lost hope.
And yet, in the midst of this bleak midwinter, in the midst of a dark world, to a people who had lost heart, God broke in to announce the coming of the Son of God.
This was Gabriel’s second appearance in the Christmas narrative. Months earlier he had appeared to Zechariah, the husband of Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. This was to announce another unlikely conception, the baby who would be John the Baptist, the last Old Testament prophet and the one who would prepare the way for Jesus.
Gabriel’s presence is significant. His only other appearance in Scripture occurs in the book of Daniel. Gabriel revealed God’s plan for Israel’s future destruction and the coming of an anointed one. That anointed one would now reside in the womb of this young peasant girl in Nazareth. Gabriel was God’s special angelic messenger, sent to initiate the eternal plan of redemption.
After four hundred years, light had dawned once again on God’s people.
Excerpted from The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus by Daniel Darling (© 2019). Published by Moody Publishers. Used by permission.