I’ve heard the story of Jesus’ birth many, many times, but it’s not really a story about him. He’s a newborn at his most prominent moment, and does nothing but lie in his manger. The story is really about Mary, and everyone else is a supporting character.
What happened in the Bible always seemed pretty straightforward to me, until I also became a mom. Over the years, more and more things have jumped out at me as being a little off. In the spirit of Christmas and honoring the women’s stories who so often get erased from history, I want to present my top seven questions about Mary’s story. I don’t really have great answers to any of them, and I’m not counting on a Relief Society lesson to cover it for me – but here goes.
1. Why didn’t anyone ever ask Mary if she wanted to be Jesus’ mother? The angel Gabriel just showed up and informed her what was going to happen without ever offering her the option to say yes or no. What about her free agency? Shouldn’t she have been allowed to say no? I learned in primary to always choose the right – something that is literally impossible to do without your God-given gift and privilege of agency.
Wasn’t it Satan’s plan to make everybody be good and do the right thing and make it back to heaven together? If Mary was just told what to do in the grand plan of salvation without being offered the chance to refuse, was she not having Satan’s plan forced on her? Why is everybody okay with this? Apostles get extended their callings. Joseph Smith was allowed the opportunity to say, “Nope, I’m good, I’ll pass on this martyrdom thing”. Even Jesus himself went to the cross willingly. Why is Mary the only person in the whole history of the gospel that was just told what to do, rather than invited?
2. Did Mary have to be so young? Historians think Mary was about 14 years old when she had Jesus. I just so happen to have a 14 year old child right now (a boy), and I’m feeling extra certain this year that 14 year olds are not emotionally mature enough to handle something as intense as parenting the savior of the universe. In fact, they can barely handle something as intense as their science fair project. While biologically a 14 year old can produce another human being, if God needs to send His only begotten son to a mother who was prepared to mold the mind of literally the most important person ever born, wouldn’t He wait until the mom’s brain was fully developed before putting her in charge of baby Jesus? You cannot prepare a 14 year old to be mentally mature enough to handle such an enormous responsibility any more than you can make a two year old grow to be 6 feet tall before they’re an adult.
3. Why couldn’t God have waited to impregnate her with Jesus until AFTER she was married? An illegitimate pregnancy at 14 (while betrothed to another) would have made her the gossip of the town. Her unbelievable story (“I swear you guys – the Holy Ghost got me pregnant. I’m a virgin. It’s like, a miracle!”) would never be widely believed by most people she knew. I know that Joseph believed her after an angel visited him, but how mortifying would it be for everyone she grew up with to think she was not only immoral, but then a liar (with a ridiculous, absurd lie) about what happened? That seems unnecessarily cruel to her. How long was it going to be before she was married? Could God not have waited a few months to send Jesus to earth?
I remember being fourteen. I was very embarrassed over far smaller things than an unwed pregnancy. There just *had* to have been mean/popular girls in Mary’s hometown, because they are everywhere. Mary must’ve been humiliated (at least, if she was anything like every single self conscious 14 year old girl I’ve ever met in my entire life). That just seems so mean! Why did she have to get pregnant with Jesus right BEFORE getting married instead of right AFTER getting married? (Or if it absolutely had to be a miraculous virgin birth, couldn’t it have happened closer to her wedding date so that her community wouldn’t have realized it occurred before she was wed?)
4. Why did Mary have to travel to Bethlehem at such a late stage of her pregnancy? First off, it’s weird to me that you had to travel to wherever you were born to pay your taxes. Isn’t that wildly and unnecessarily complicated? How often do you do this – is it every year? What if citizens don’t have any money left to pay taxes because they’re forced to leave their farms and jobs and income sources to travel for weeks to get to another place to pay? And were they not going to every town anyway to collect the taxes that are owed by everyone who was ever born there? Why not just have them pay their taxes in the city they currently reside in?
But, fine. Apparently you had to travel to pay your taxes. Couldn’t Joseph have gone without her? First off, the trip would’ve been much faster (and cheaper) without a pregnant girl on a donkey. Maybe he could’ve made the trip, paid the taxes, and been back by Mary’s side before Jesus was even born.
And by taking Mary to Bethlehem with him, she lost her entire support system during childbirth. As a young new mother, I think she would’ve been much better off staying at home with her family. She would’ve had her mom, aunts, grandmas, older sisters, and female friends who already had children nearby. Joseph was her husband, but he did not know anything more about newborns than she did.
My own husband was not there at the birth of our first child. He was deployed with the military in the Middle East. Instead of him by my side, I was taken to the hospital by two female neighbors. My visiting teacher spent the night and sat next to me while I gave birth. Female friends visited me, drove me home, and gave me lots of breastfeeding advice. Ideally I would have had them AND my husband there, but if given the choice of only one or the other – other women are significantly more useful with a newborn than a first-time dad.
Mary did not need to be with Joseph right then. She needed to be home with her female support system. It makes zero sense to me why she wasn’t at home on her due date, even if someone had to go pay their taxes.
5. Had Joseph and Mary even been intimate yet, since she was already pregnant at their wedding? How pregnant was she when they tied the knot? Did they wait until after Jesus was born and she’d recovered from childbirth to have their honeymoon? Assuming Mary loved Joseph and looked forward to a married relationship with him, was she robbed of her first romantic encounter by experiencing them as a nursing mother who’d recently given birth? Normally a woman is at least somewhat sexually experienced by the time she has her first baby. The first time she returns to intimate relations with her husband can be challenging even in the best of circumstances, because the body parts involved in the encounter might be recovering from some tears, stitches or cuts. That’s usually not a huge deal, and the new mother can anticipate things getting back to normal, because she knows what normal felt like. But was Mary not only a new mother, but also a virgin new mother, trying for the first time to experience a sexual relationship with her husband while recovering from a traumatic childbirth in an animal stable (with no doctors or pain medication)?
6. How did Mary handle the stress of King Herod trying to kill all the babies under the age of two in an attempt to kill her son? Not only did Mary have the stressful and often terrifying experience of an unwed (and unchosen) pregnancy as a 14 year old girl, she spent her first years of motherhood in constant fear that her child would be ripped from her arms at any moment and brutally murdered. In fact, soldiers across the land were specifically hunting for her and her baby to do exactly this. She surely would’ve heard about many other children being killed and know that if she stepped forward and gave up her own son, the slaughter would be stopped.
It sounds like the plot to a psychological thriller/horror movie where a teenage girl is running for her life from killer assassins and must outwit them with her limited survival and defense skills. She must do this while hiding an infant and experiencing the deep moral dilemma of whether her child’s life is more valuable than all the other baby boys combined under King Herod’s reign of terror. Why do we only show a peaceful Mary in a manger scene and never acknowledge the horrors she was about to experience?
7. Did Mary know that her son would have to suffer and die at some point? Like I said earlier, I have a 14 year old son. On the days that I don’t feel like locking him in his room for a few years, I’m actually quite looking forward to the human being he will become. If I knew instead that his future was a ticking time bomb counting down to a horrific future murder, I would lose my mind. How did Mary not ever lose her mind?
We always talk about Jesus and his unspeakable suffering for all of us – but why do we not talk about Mary and HER unspeakable suffering, too? Our Christmas hymns sing about peace and calm, but the story of Mary is also one of public humiliation, an uncomfortable and unsafe childbirth, and isolation from her loved ones in her time of greatest need. Maybe we should reflect on Christ’s suffering at Easter, and use Christmas to reflect on Mary’s.
So this week, let’s talk about Mary at least as much as we talk about baby Jesus. I think the Christmas story really belongs to her, not him.