There was no good way to hurry the pregnant young bride as she traveled the caravan route from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Her husband, Joseph, may have wanted to encourage her to greater speed, but she already was doing her best.
They needed to make it to Bethlehem before the baby arrived or their tax would increase by fifty percent. The Roman government required all Jewish citizens to register in the town of their family of origin, and Joseph already could ill afford this head tax. It was difficult enough to pay for the two of them, but three would stretch him to the limit. It certainly would help if they could reach the village and register with the Romans before the baby was born. And every day on the road was a day away from his carpenter shop. No work meant no income. If all went well, they could travel to Bethlehem, register with the Romans, and soon return to Nazareth. Maybe the baby would wait until they got home to make an appearance.
Nazareth was not a particularly important place. A frontier town, it was located in northern Palestine and set in a high valley not far from major caravan trade routes. Because the government didn't always have political control over the area, an independence of style of life and perspective marked many of its citizens. The mainstream of Jewish culture tended to look on those from Nazareth with disrespect and contempt because it was in Galilee and not Judea, but this probably suited Joseph just fine. It was a good place to live, far from the larger cities with their inherent problems.
As the couple traveled southward, Mary must have thought about her cousin Elizabeth. She was married to a priest named Zechariah, and they were exempt from the travel part of this oppressive census. The priests' heritage didn't include "ancestral homes" like everyone else. So Mary was struggling to make this journey, difficult in the best of times but many times worse at nine months pregnant. She needed to rest, her feet were swollen, and where could she relieve herself? All this while Elizabeth was no doubt sitting comfortably at home nursing her new baby.
But Elizabeth had lived with many years of infertility. There wasn't a greater burden any woman could bear than never to have children. Once Elizabeth had passed menopause, she and Zechariah had given up and accepted their destiny as from God.
Zechariah, a direct descendant from the first high priest of Israel, Aaron, was part of an honorable but crowded profession. There were so many priests that they were separated into divisions and assigned to duty in the Jerusalem temple on a rotating schedule.
The honor of a lifetime came to old Zechariah while his division was serving at the temple. As part of the liturgy, he was selected for the sacred assignment of burning incense to God. Filled with awe and nervous beyond description, Zechariah carefully lit and burned the incense at the altar while thousands of Jews worshipped in the outer courts of the temple.
And then, multiplying Zechariah's already heightened anxiety, an angel appeared at the right of the altar. The angel told him, "Don't be afraid, Zechariah. God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a son, and you are to name him John. He will be a joy and delight to you as well as many others. He will be great in God's opinion. Your son will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the day he is born. He is never to drink wine or other alcohol. He will restore many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. Your son will walk before God in the spirit and power of the prophet Elijah, turning the hearts of fathers and children back to each other and leading people who are disobedient back to right living. He will prepare his people for the coming of the Lord."
Genuinely wanting proof of this incredible announcement, Zechariah recovered from his fright enough to ask, "How can I be sure this is really going to happen? I'm an old man, and my wife is past her child-bearing years."
The angel's answer surprised Zechariah again. "I am Gabriel. I am the angel who stands in the presence of God waiting for his instructions. God himself sent me to tell you this good news. Let me give you some proof—you are going to lose your ability to talk so you won't be able to speak until the day John is born. Every silent day you will remember that you didn't believe my words, right up until the day you see them come true." Meanwhile, those thousands of worshippers waiting outside wondered about the priest's delay. When Zechariah came out, he indeed was unable to speak and tried to communicate with a quickly improvised sign language. The audience sensed that something supernatural had happened, but they didn't know they were eyewitnesses to the beginnings of a miracle with implications far beyond a priest who had suddenly become mute.
As for Zechariah, he did his best without speaking during the rest of his priestly tour of duty. When he returned home to the hill country of Judea, sexual intimacy with his wife, Elizabeth, resulted at long last in conception. While the angelic encounter was the significant event for Zechariah, the pregnancy itself was the dream come true for his wife.
Elizabeth didn't leave her house for the first five months of her pregnancy. Expecting a child was difficult to explain at her age, but she was not ungrateful. Her constant thoughts and words were that "the Lord has done a miracle for me. He has blessed me and removed the disgrace of my life that everyone knew about."
What a memorable day it must have been when Mary's family first heard of Elizabeth's pregnancy. We can almost see Mary's smile behind her hand and her mother's reproving look at her. Who could remember anyone that old having a baby?
Elizabeth's extended family eventually learned that this late-in-life pregnancy culminated in the normal birth of a son. The neighbors and relatives shared in the excitement and celebrated the birth with joy while Zechariah celebrated in silence, still unable to speak. When their boy was eight days old, his parents took him to the synagogue for his circumcision and naming in accordance with ancient Jewish traditions.
The custom was to name a son after his father, and the expectation was that he would be named Zechariah. Elizabeth surprised everyone and announced that his name would be John. Objections were voiced because there was no one else by that name in the family, and mothers didn't normally name their sons. Everyone turned to Zechariah to overrule his wife's choice of a name. Zechariah wrote, "His name is John."
Breaking traditions was fodder for gossip in rural villages, and the story of this unorthodox naming spread around the countryside. Not that the people of the hill country were critical. On the contrary, it was the beginning of a growing sense that something unusual was happening and that the baby John was destined for greatness. They of course could not have known the boy would grow to enormous fame and influence that would someday impact their nation and history.
As Mary thought about all that had happened to her cousin, she must have wondered what her own labor and delivery would be like. At least Elizabeth was at home with family and a midwife to help. What was she going to do if her water broke and the baby started to come here during the trip? What could she expect from Joseph? After all, it wasn't his baby.
She thought back to how she had become pregnant thirty-six weeks earlier. It certainly hadn't been something she, who had never been intimate with a man, had anticipated. She had fully intended to come to her wedding night as a virgin—the alternative was unthinkable and the stigma would have been unbearable.
Almost two years earlier, Mary had been engaged to marry Joseph. In their culture it was common for parents to make the arrangements. When the engagement moved toward the formal betrothal, a girl might consider backing out, but that was unlikely because it would bring shame to her family.
If theirs was a typical engagement, Mary may have met Joseph only a few times and never had been alone with him.
If her parents believed he was the right man for her to marry, it wasn't a young woman's place to ask questions about her future husband's personal history. Truth be told, a girl in Mary's situation may have worried about his sexual experience in contrast to her innocence, but that wasn't the kind of thing she could talk about to anyone else. Mary certainly knew of married couples who loved each other, and that's what every bride wanted and prayed for.
Betrothal was serious—equivalent to marriage without living together. The day they were betrothed, she was referred to as Joseph's wife and he as her husband, and it would take a legal divorce to end their relationship. A year would pass before they would actually marry and she would move in with Joseph and his family. Brides in every century and culture have dreams about their weddings, and Mary would have known what to expect. The wedding, which would include the whole community, would last for a week, and the celebration would be a joyful time of eating and dancing around the "king and queen."
A smile curved Mary's lips as she remembered the wedding, but she quickly sobered as she acknowledged there had been no wedding-night intimacy with Joseph. Her thoughts went back even further to the most defining moment of her young life. As had happened to Zechariah, an angel had appeared to her and identified himself as Gabriel. "Greetings, favored one!" he said. "The Lord is with you."
Gabriel's greeting began in the typical manner, but the rest of his declaration was upsetting and troubling to the teenager. Recognizing her fear, Gabriel added, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God has specially favored you. You're going to become pregnant, give birth to a son, and name him Jesus. He will grow up to be famous and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his fore-father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. His kingdom will never end." In less than a minute, she was told of an imminent pregnancy that would produce a son of divine origin, and he would have a royal position and power that would last forever.
Mary probably blushed every time she relived the angelic encounter, remembering how she had immediately cut to the most practical part of the prediction. She had asked, "How is this going to happen, since I'm a virgin?" The obvious and expected answer: that she would marry Joseph and immediately become pregnant. But that was not the explanation Gabriel gave. He said, "The Holy Spirit of God is going to make this happen. In the shadows of the supernatural, you will experience the power of the Most High God. You are going to give birth to a holy child who will be called the Son of God. And this isn't all. Your relative Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, is six months pregnant even though everyone thought she would never have a baby. You see, nothing is impossible with God."
Mary had been taught from childhood that nothing was impossible with God, but all this went far beyond her understanding. The angel had said that the Holy Spirit was going to do this. But how?
Anticipating Mary's need for some accreditation of this extraordinary prediction, Gabriel had included Elizabeth's miraculous pregnancy in the announcement. Since conception was unlikely for a woman past menopause and impossible for a teenage virgin, if the first proved true then Mary could expect that the second was the "divine impossibility" the angel had revealed to her.
Now walking down the caravan road with the full-term baby inside her, there must have been a thousand questions swirling through her mind. As she struggled to make sense of all that was happening, she held on to the words she had told Gabriel: "I am the Lord's servant. May everything happen to me just as you said."
Many events had occurred during the year since the angelic visitation. She had hastily announced a trip to see Elizabeth, who lived south of Nazareth. Whatever explanation she had given to her parents, they must have accepted it and let her go. Mary wanted to verify the first half of the prediction. If her relative Elizabeth was indeed pregnant, then Mary could know what to expect.
When Mary arrived unannounced at Elizabeth's house and greeted her, Elizabeth had a supernatural experience of her own. She felt her baby suddenly move inside of her and at the same time had a sense that her whole body was filled with the Holy Spirit of God. She was so thrilled that she called to Mary, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so special, that the mother of my Lord should come to visit me? The moment you said hello, my baby jumped for joy inside of me. God bless you, Mary, for believing that God is going to do what he said!"
Mary responded in poetry, words very much in the style of the Old Testament prophets she heard quoted each Sabbath in the synagogue:
"My soul glorifies the Lord!
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, who has paid attention to the simple life of his servant—me!
Every generation from now on will know my name and call me blessed, because the Mighty God has done great things in my life.
Holy is his name!
God is merciful to every generation of those who fear him.
Look at the miracles he has done.
He has scattered those with proud hearts; he has even crumbled the thrones of monarchs.
At the same time God has honored the humble.
He has filled the stomachs of starving people and sent the rich away hungry.
God has specially blessed his servant Israel, keeping his promises of mercy to Abraham and his descendants forever."
Certainly this expressed her own heart as she reflected on the greatness of God to her Jewish people and particularly to her. Mary was deeply humbled by the honor of bearing a supernatural child, and her words were reminiscent of the famous Jewish mother Hannah, who rejoiced over the birth of her son Samuel, one of Israel's greatest spiritual and political leaders. But more than Mary's feelings and her familiarity with Hannah's words, God had divinely inspired Mary. Here was far deeper meaning and greater significance than she could have realized at the time.
It was not a brief visit to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. Mary stayed there for three months, the remainder of Elizabeth's pregnancy. She may have been there to hold Baby John when he was only a few hours old.
There was no way Mary could have known then that John would turn out to be such an unusual man. He left home at adulthood and lived in the desert, part of his personal journey to especially connect with God and prepare him to become one of Israel's greatest prophets.