"You have another daughter." The midwife held the
squalling infant up as Anne collapsed back on her pallet,
exhausted after hours of labor.
Anne's heart sank at the news. She turned her face to the
wall, not watching as the midwife cut the cord, washed the
baby, and rubbed salt over the quivering little body to
"Your daughter," the older woman said.
Anne took the tiny wizened infant tenderly in her arms and
wept, knowing her husband would be bitterly disappointed.
He had been fasting and praying for a son.
Kissing the baby, Anne held her up to the midwife. "Give
the child to her father, so that he may bless her." As the
woman left the house, Anne shifted on the pallet, wincing
at the pain. She strained to hear what her husband had to
say, but it was the excited voice of their older daughter,
Mary, she heard.
"Can I hold her, Father? Please. Oh, she is so sweet."
Joachim spoke too softly for Anne to hear. When he entered
the house, she searched his face. Though he did not look
at her with reproach, she saw his disappointment. Leaning
down, he placed their newborn firmly in her arms once
again. What could he say to ease both their hearts? God
had not seen fit to give them a son.
"I love her," Mary said, coming into the house.
"We all love her," Joachim said quickly.
Ah, but Anne understood. A son would work alongside his
father. A son would go to synagogue and give distinction
to his father. A son would provide for his mother if his
father died. A son might one day grow up and stand against
Israel's oppressors. Or even turn out to be the long-
awaited deliverer, the Messiah for whom all Israel prayed.
But a girl? What use was a girl, other than to share in
the daily chores? She would simply be another mouth to
feed until the time came for her father to find her a
"I've been considering the name Deborah," Anne said
quietly, head down. This baby was more delicate than her
first, but there was a sweetness in her face that gripped
"We will call her Mary."
"But Mary is my name," their older daughter said, looking
Joachim put his hand on her head and spoke gently. "Your
sister shall be little Mary."
Anne reached out to her older daughter. "Don't be
distressed, dear one. Go outside so that I may speak with
your father." When she was alone with Joachim, she looked
up at him. "Won't you please consider another name, my
husband? Deborah is a strong name. And there are so many
Marys. It has become the most common name in all Israel."
"And when there are enough, perhaps the Lord will finally
hear our cry!" Joachim's voice broke. Color seeped into
his cheeks as he looked away. "Her name shall be Mary." He
left the house. Anne overheard him tell their older
daughter to play with her friends and leave Mama alone to
Anne studied her newborn's face. "Mary," she
whispered. "My precious little Mary." Her heart was heavy,
for both of her daughters now bore a name that
meant "bitterness and suffering." The name Mary declared
the depth of every Jew's despair under the oppression of
Roman conquerors. Mary was a cry to the Lord for rescue.
Raising her knees slightly, Anne cradled her baby on her
thighs. She unwrapped the cloth and stroked the small
arms, studied the legs bowed from nine months in the womb.
Tears streamed down Anne's cheeks as she kissed the tiny
hand that clasped her finger. Little Mary's skin was
softer than a baby rabbit's. "Lord, Lord, please let her
name come to mean more than ‘bitterness and suffering.'
Let it come to mean ‘strength is from the Lord.' Let it
come to mean ‘God's love upholds us.' Let it mean ‘trust
in God, and let nothing defeat faith in you.' Oh,
Lord . . ." She wept softly as she lifted her baby to her
breast. "Let the name Mary remind us to obey without
Mary sat alone beneath a mustard tree, her hands covering
her face. Did all brides feel this way when the contracts
were signed, gifts given, and futures sealed by the will
of others? She trembled at the prospect of life with a man
she hardly knew, other than as a man admired and
befriended by her father upon his arrival in Nazareth
three years ago.
"He's of our tribe, Anne," Joachim had announced after
meeting Joseph at the synagogue. "And descended from the
royal line of David."
"Is he married?" Her mother cast an eye toward Mary.
Thus had plans for her future been set in motion, for her
father was quick to find out that Joseph was looking for a
wife from the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, a
young woman of unquestioned virtue and faith. Mary knew
their ambitions. Mary's older sister was married to a
Nazarene, and her parents hoped to marry their younger
daughter to another man of their own tribe. And of course
he must be devout, kind, and able to provide a good home
for her and any children she might give him. So they
invited the carpenter to their home frequently, and Joseph
was receptive to their hopes.
"Why did he not seek out a young woman in Bethlehem?" Mary
had asked her mother once.
"Why ask such questions?" Her mother had been
impatient. "Just accept that God sent him here to
Her father had been less inclined to believe that God
would be intimately involved in the personal life of a
humble carpenter or a poor man with failing health and a
daughter soon of marriageable age. "Joseph needs work like
anyone else, and Sepphoris is growing. Carpenters and
stoneworkers can earn more money there than in Bethlehem."
The men had begun to discuss a match, but when her father
died, Mary's future was left for her mother to settle. And
she intended to settle it sooner rather than later.
"Your father wanted to give you more time, Mary," she had
said, "but time can be an enemy. You are ready to marry,
and, considering our circumstances, there's no time to
waste. I've already spoken to Joseph, and he has agreed to
take you as his wife. All will be well now, Mary. We will
not be left to fend for ourselves."
Now, sitting beneath the mustard tree, Mary buried her
face in her arms. Would they have been left to fend for
themselves? God promised to care for those who put their
faith in him. Mary believed the Lord's promises.
All she had ever wanted was to be close to the Lord. Her
heart yearned for him. She longed for him as a deer panted
for streams of water. How she wished she'd been among the
people delivered from Egypt. How blessed they'd been to
see God's miracles, to hear the Law for the first time, to
see water spring from a rock, and to taste the manna from
heaven. Sometimes she almost wished she had been born a
man. Then she could have gone to the desert cliffs of
Qumran and dedicated her life to God.
Was it youth that made her restless? Her deep thirst for
the Lord frustrated her. How could she love the Lord God
with all her heart, mind, soul, and strength if she was to
be given to a man? How could she love God fully and still
give proper honor to her husband?
And yet she understood the practicality of marriage. Women
were vulnerable. How often she heard the hoofbeats of
Roman soldiers approaching her little village of Nazareth.
Countless times she had seen them at the well, filling
their waterskins. Then they took whatever foodstuffs they
needed from the resentful, downtrodden citizenry.
Sometimes they took young women as well, leaving them
abused and ruined. Life could become unbearable for an
unprotected woman, especially a young one. Mary's mother
had taught her to run and hide when she heard the sounds
of horses or marching feet. Her heart squeezed tight with
anxiety, for she could hear them coming closer now.
Pax Romana had brought anything but peace to Israel, for
Mary's people fought Rome's control. Wouldn't it be wiser
for her to remain unwed rather than to marry and bring
children into such a world? Many Hebrews fought against
Hellenistic influences with all their being, nursing their
grievances, fanning their hatred into violence. Others
turned traitor, rejecting the God of Abraham, Isaac, and
Jacob, and adopting the customs of their conquerors.
Where was God in all this? Mary knew he was as powerful
now as he had been when he created the world. Was she
disloyal to wonder if her people had brought this
wretchedness upon themselves? She knew the history of her
people. She knew how God had disciplined them in the past
in order to make them turn back to him. Why must Israel
repeat her cycles of disobedience, generation after
generation? And how much longer would it be until God once
again sent a deliverer?
For as long as Mary could remember, she had heard her
people crying out for rescue from Roman oppression.
Someday the Lord would send the deliverer, the one
promised after Adam and Eve's fall from grace, the one who
would make all things right, all things new. The Messiah.
Every day Mary prayed for him to come . . . as she prayed
now, sitting beneath the shade of the mustard tree,
struggling with questions beyond her ability to
understand. Torn by the turbulent world around her as well
as her own now-settled future, Mary cried out for a savior.
Oh, Lord, when will you send us a deliverer? Rescue us
from the foreign oppressors who carry golden idols,
arrogantly proclaiming their capricious emperor a god!
She must cease this struggling. She would be wed to
Joseph. The matter was settled. Mary honored her mother
and would obey.
Oh, Lord God of Israel, I don't understand these things.
Is it wrong to want to belong to you? My soul longs for
you. Help me to be obedient, to be a proper wife to
Joseph, for you are sovereign and must have chosen this
man for me. Make me a woman after your own heart. Create
in me a clean heart, and renew a right spirit within me.
A strange tingling sensation spread over her skin. Her
hair prickled as she raised her head and saw a man
standing before her. Heart thumping with terror, she
stared at him, for she had never seen anyone like him
before. Was it merely the sun at his back that made him
look so terrifying?
"Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!"
Trembling, she sat still and silent, wondering at his
words. She shut her eyes tightly and then opened them
again. He was still standing there, looking down at her
with kind patience. What did his greeting mean? Were not
all God's chosen people favored? And why did he say the
Lord was with her? Was he the Lord? Fear filled her, and
she closed her eyes again, for surely anyone who looked
upon the Lord would die.
"Don't be frightened, Mary, for God has decided to bless
A sob welled up inside her throat, catching her off guard,
for she wanted nothing more than to please God! But the
Lord knew how undeserving she was. She blushed,
remembering that only the moment before, she had resisted
the idea of marrying Joseph, though he loved God as much
as she. And now, this man said precious words that filled
her with joy!
The stranger drew closer, his head inclined toward
her. "You will become pregnant and have a son, and you are
to name him Jesus."
Jesus. The name meant "the Lord saves."
The angel was still speaking. "He will be very great and
will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God
will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he
will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never
Mary swallowed, her mind whirling with the implications of
his words. He was telling her she would bear the Messiah!
As soon as the words were uttered, she felt attacked by a
chorus of dark voices.
You? Why would the Lord choose anyone so low? The Messiah
will not come from some Nazarene peasant girl. What evil
is this, that one so unworthy should dare imagine she
could bear the Messiah! Ignore this madman. Look away from
him! Reject what he says. Close your eyes! Say nothing!
Yet another voice spoke, a quiet voice, a voice her heart
What is your answer, Mary?
She stood, tilting her head as she looked up at the
angel. "But how can I have a baby? I am a virgin."
The angel smiled tenderly. "The Holy Spirit will come upon
you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.
So the baby born to you will be holy, and he will be
called the Son of God. What's more, your relative
Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age! People used
to say she was barren, but she's already in her sixth
month. For nothing is impossible with God."
Mary drew in her breath with a smile and clasped her
hands. Oh! She knew how Elizabeth had always longed for a
child. Nothing was impossible with God! Elizabeth would be
like Sarah, who bore Isaac in her old age. She would be
like Hannah, dedicating her son to the Lord. The news made
Mary's faith leap. She wanted to race to Elizabeth and see
this miracle for herself, but the angel stood in front of
her, silent, waiting for her answer.
If she said yes, she would become the mother of the long-
awaited Messiah. Why the Lord had chosen her to be part of
his plan she couldn't even guess. She was uneducated,
poor, and lived in an obscure village that most Jews
disdained. Yet she also knew from listening to Scripture
readings in the synagogue that God often used the most
unlikely and unworthy to fulfill his purposes. It didn't
matter who she was. God would accomplish his purposes in
his way. The angel of the Lord was asking her to be part
of God's plan. And everything within her heart and soul
cried out a joyous yes.
Do you really think you can be the Messiah's mother? Do
you think you will know how to rear God's Son to be king
over Israel? The dark voices again.
No. I won't, her heart answered. But God will.
Gathering her courage, Mary looked up. "I am the Lord's
servant." She spread her hands. "And I am willing to
accept whatever he wants. May everything you have said
As soon as she made her decision, the angel was gone. She
uttered a soft gasp of dismay. She would have thought she
imagined the entire episode had not the air still trembled
around her. Shaken, she clutched her hands against her
chest until she remembered the angel of the Lord had said
not to be afraid. Letting out her breath softly, she knelt
and lifted her face to heaven. She lifted her hands, palms
up. Lord, your will be done.
Her skin tingled strangely as she saw a cloud coming down.
She placed her hands over her heart as she was
overshadowed. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the scent
of spring flowers, earth, and the heavens. Her skin warmed
as her body was flooded with sensation. She drew in her
breath and held it. For one brief space in time, nothing
moved; no sound was heard as all creation paused.
Within the womb of a poor peasant girl from an obscure
village in Galilee, God the Son became one with the seed
Joseph glared at Mary. "How can you expect me to believe
such a story?" All his hopes for a bright future were
demolished. He would never have thought a girl like Mary—
so young, so sweet, so devout—could betray him in so foul
a manner. Pregnant! He was attacked by emotion, shaken by
it. He shut his eyes, fighting against the violent
thoughts filling his mind: Denounce her! Cast her aside!
Report her to the rabbi! Have her stoned!
"No!" he cried out, putting his hands over his ears. He
opened his eyes and saw Mary's mother, Anne, cowering and
weeping in the corner.
Only Mary was calm. "You will believe, Joseph." She looked
up at him, her dark eyes innocent. "You will. I know you
How could she appear so calm when, with one word, he could
have her killed?
"There is only one way a woman conceives."
"For God, anything is possible."
"And God would choose you to bear the Messiah?"
She laughed at his sarcasm, her face filled with
joy. "Hasn't God always chosen the weak to confound the
strong? Oh, Joseph." She clasped her hands, excitement
radiating from her. "Think of him. God never chooses as
man would choose."
"I can't believe this. I can't! It defies all reason!" He
had to get out of this house. He couldn't look at her and
"Joseph!" Anne rose and came after him. "Joseph! Please!"
She cried out as he went out the door and left it ajar
behind him. "Joseph!"
He ducked around the corner and walked quickly away,
heading up a narrow street toward the end of town. He
didn't want people noticing he was upset and asking
questions. He had to think!
Out of sight of Nazareth, he wept. What should he do now?
Forget she was the daughter of a man who had befriended
him, a man who was of his own tribe? Could he ignore the
fact that she was pregnant with another man's child? She
had committed a sin of abomination! She was unclean! If he
married Mary now, people would point the finger at him.
Both their reputations would be ruined. The gossip would
circulate for years to come. And when the child was born,
what then? Everyone would know he was conceived before the
wedding ceremony, and would whisper behind their hands as
Why were women such weak vessels, so easily deceived? He
kicked the dirt angrily. Who could have done this to her?
Who would dare take advantage of an innocent, fatherless
girl? And why would she concoct such a ridiculous,
outlandish lie to cover up her sin? He grimaced. An angel
came and told her she was to bear the Son of God! What man
in his right mind would believe such a story?
When Joachim had offered Mary to him, Joseph thought he'd
been offered a future and a hope. Now, he held disaster in
his hands. If he exposed her, he would have to stand by
and watch the daughter of Joachim stoned to death for the
sin of fornication. And the child she carried would die
Yes! Do it! rasped the dark foreign voice. Why shouldn't
she die for betraying you and her father? Why shouldn't
she be cut off from Israel for rejecting the Law you live
by? Kill her! Kill the child!
The violence in his thoughts frightened Joseph and he
cried out, "Oh, God, help me! What should I do? Why do you
throw this catastrophe at my feet? Haven't I tried all my
life to do right? to live according to your law?" He sat,
dragging his fingers through his hair. Gritting his teeth,
he wept angrily. "Why, Lord? Make me understand!"
The sun set, but he was no closer to an answer. Weary,
Joseph rose and walked back to town. The streets were
empty, for it was late and everyone had returned home. He
entered his workshop and sat at his worktable. He'd never
felt so alone. "Where are you, God? Where are you when I
need your counsel?" He considered going to the rabbi for
advice, but rabbis could not always be trusted to keep
confidences. Joseph wanted no one else to know about Mary
until he had decided what to do. He ran his hand over the
yoke he had been carving, then picked up his tools.
Perhaps work would ease his mind.
Who was he to condemn Mary?
Joseph followed the Law, but he knew in his heart that it
was only on the surface. Beneath the dutiful hours in
synagogue, the giving of tithes and offerings, his heart
was rebellious against the yoke of Rome, the yoke of
corrupt rabbis, and the weight of the Law itself. How
could any man help it? Sin taunted Joseph every time he
saw a Roman soldier mocking a woman at the well, or a
rabbi haranguing some poor widow for her tithe, or a rich
patron who ignored what was owed for work rendered, or a
beggar who cursed him when he had no money to give. Though
Joseph had taken countless lambs to the Temple in
Jerusalem for sacrifice over the years, he had never felt
completely cleansed of sin. The blood of the sacrificial
lamb covered it over, and then he'd sin again. He wanted
to do right, but he found himself failing again and again.
Stretching out on his pallet, Joseph flung his arm over
his eyes, still undecided what action to take regarding
Mary. The Law was clear, but his heart was torn. He closed
his eyes, hoping sleep would enable him to think more
clearly in the morning. But his sleep was tormented by
nightmares. He heard angry voices and a girl screaming. He
cried out, but when he tried to run, his feet sank into
sand. As he struggled, darkness surrounded him and someone
spoke from it. Kill the girl. Kill her and the spawn she
"Joseph, son of David," came another voice he'd never
heard before, but knew instantly. A man in shimmering
white stood above him. "Do not be afraid to go ahead with
your marriage to Mary. For the child within her has been
conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and
you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people
from their sins."
Joseph absorbed the words, his soul trembling with
delight. All his life he had heard people talk of the
coming Messiah. Since the time of David, the Jews had
waited for another king to triumph over Israel's enemies.
And more than that, the promised Messiah would reign over
all the earth. Now the time had come, and God was sending
the Anointed One. And Joseph would see him. He would stand
at the side of the Messiah's mother and protect the Chosen
One as his own son.
You, a simple carpenter, stand as guard? Dark laughter
surrounded him, and Joseph moaned in his sleep. I will
kill them. And you, if you stand in my way.
Joseph groaned again and rolled onto his back. He opened
his eyes and felt the darkness around him. Fear gripped
him, until a whisper pierced it.
He will save his people from their sins. . . .
Joseph's longing for righteousness welled up in him like
the thirst of a man lost in the desert. And he remembered
the words of his ancestor, David, whispering them into the
darkness: "Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. . . . I will
not be afraid of the terrors of the night, for God will
order his angels to protect his Son. The Lord himself will
The darkness rolled back, and Joseph saw the stars through
his window. He stared at them for a long while. Smiling,
he went back to sleep.
Anne wept in relief, but Mary seemed not the least
surprised by Joseph's decision to marry her quickly. In
fact, she crossed the room and put her hand on his arm,
surprising him with a demand. "I must go to my relative
Her mother protested. "Why would you want to go there? The
hill country is a hard journey—"
"Oh, Mother, it doesn't matter. Elizabeth is with child!"
"Don't be ridiculous! She's long past her time of bearing
"The angel told me she's with child."
"And what do you suppose people will say when you suddenly
marry Joseph and then go off to the hill country of Judea?"
"What does it matter what people say if it's the Lord's
will I go?"
Joseph saw how the journey could solve several problems.
The angel had said nothing about announcing to the
citizenry of Nazareth that Mary had conceived by the Holy
Spirit and would give birth to the Messiah. What if the
news did get out? What sort of dangers might present
themselves to the child? When Mary's pregnancy became
apparent, there would be gossip. However, if they went on
this journey together . . .
"As soon as we are married, I will take Mary to visit her
"People will talk," Anne said.
Yes, people would talk, but the condemnation would be
aimed at him rather than Mary.
When Mary's pregnancy became apparent, some in Nazareth
thought they now understood the reason for Joseph's haste
in marrying her. Women whispered at the well while the men
shook their heads and clucked their tongues in the
synagogue. What did anyone really know about Joseph, other
than that he was a carpenter come from Bethlehem? Poor
Joachim. The man had trusted the carpenter because he was
a relative, a descendant of David. Surely Joachim's bones
were crying out now that it was evident Joseph had taken
conjugal rights before those rights were due. Some went to
the rabbi and insisted the couple be disciplined so that
other young people wouldn't think such behavior was
condoned in Nazareth! The rabbi said Joseph had acted
within his rights under the contract, gifts having been
exchanged and documents signed.
A voice came out of the shadows at the back of the
synagogue. "Will you not destroy the evil among you?"
The rabbi raised his head from the Torah. "Who speaks?"
"Does Scripture not say the Lord hates haughty eyes and a
lying tongue?" The voice was deep and dark and familiar to
many. "We must destroy the wickedness among us." Men
glanced at one another and voices began to swell as the
accuser remained in the shadows. "Who is this carpenter
who defies the Law? Who is this girl who plays the harlot?"
A man stood, face flushed. "He's right!" Others joined in
Chilled, the old rabbi raised his hands. "The Law also
says there shall be two witnesses. Let them come forward."
A low rumble moved through the gathering of men, but no
one moved. Men looked about. Trembling, the rabbi rolled
open the Torah. "The Lord also hates a false witness who
pours out lies, a person who sows discord among brothers."
He spoke quietly, but the words carried.
The accuser departed.
Soon after, all gossip regarding Joseph and Mary died when
Roman soldiers arrived in Nazareth carrying a decree from
Caesar Augustus. A census of all who inhabited the earth
was being taken. Men cried out in dismay. Did this
Roman "god" realize what chaos his decree would create?
For the order was that everyone must return to the village
of his birth in order to be counted.