The gospels are all about understatement. A few words convey a mountain of meaning.
“Then they crucified him,” says Mark’s gospel. Nothing about Roman soldiers hammering nails into Jesus’ ankles and wrists.
“The time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son,” says Luke’s gospel, read on Christmas Eve. Nothing about the pain of Mary’s labor or her and Joseph’s fears, fending for themselves in the cold.
The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises ask retreatants to go beyond such understatement, to imagine in minute detail the sounds and smells and feelings of gospel scenes. This week and last the exercises, following the liturgical season, focus on the annunciation and Jesus’ birth.
“Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call him Jesus,” the angel tells a petrified Mary, who recovers enough to eventually reply, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”
In Matthew’s gospel, Joseph grapples with news that his betrothed is suddenly pregnant, but not by him. “Joseph, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose (Mary) to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.” That is until the angel appears to him as well and says, “It is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.”
What’s left unsaid in these two scenes could fill pages.
Think back to the panic or dread you may have felt over a surprise pregnancy, particularly a very young girl’s. Think of a shattering betrayal by a lover or a spouse, how the once sure earth disintegrated underneath you. The comparison, in some small way, begins to get close to what both Mary and Joseph must have felt.
For Mary, the stakes were, literally, life and death. Even as a teenager, she had to know she faced not just shame in her family and village and disbelief of her wild story, but possibly a gruesome death. Stoning was the punishment for bearing a child not of one’s husband or betrothed.
Joseph, Mary’s apparently cuckolded husband-to-be, faced not death, but the same shame and ridicule and a searing blow to his trust. God impregnated Mary, the angel told him. Really? Think of even devout men you know. How would they react? How many believe in miracles like this one? How many would accept Mary, as Joseph did?
Spiritual writer and scholar Cynthia Bourgeault reminds us that we look back at the gospels with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. We rarely consider or appreciate the fantastic leaps of faith believers made, right in the moment. Jesus was not the Son of God in all his glory, but a unknown carpenter from Nazareth when he convinced the first apostles to drop their fishing nets, their families, and their place in the community to follow him, an itinerant pauper preacher, all around the countryside.
Mary and Joseph could not see into the future when this “angel of the Lord” suddenly showed up making outrageous claims and upending their lives. The gospels do not tell us all that happened between the angel’s first “you will conceive in your womb” and Mary’s complete surrender to God’s will. Nor do they chart Joseph’s turmoil.
Yet we do know that both Mary and Joseph made a decision to trust in God, in real time, in their tiny village, surrounded by doubting family and suspicious friends. They risked their own security, status, standing — everything, really — in hope of things unseen.
Imagine, this Christmas Day, if we could do the same.