Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”
// Luke 1:26-33
It’s important to understand that the Semitic culture of Mary's day held very different views of marriage than we do today. We think of an engagement as pliable: one can enter into the contract to marry and also to break it off if things go awry. But in that day, once you were engaged you were legally married; it’s just that, until the wedding day itself, there would be no consummation of the marriage. So for Mary to be with child during her engagement to Joseph meant she’d have been seen as an adulteress in the eyes of fellow villagers and neighbors. They’d have thought that either she and Joseph had shacked up or she'd slept with a man who was not her betrothed husband. We know from Moses’ Law that the penalty for such behavior was death by stoning.
Mary, in short, was a dead woman walking from the moment Gabriel announced to her this Immaculate Conception. The Bearer of the world’s innocence would have His birth besmirched by scandal; His mother stigmatized much in the way we see Hester Prynne labeled (literally) in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It’s for this exact reason that we find the Jews always asking Jesus later in life, “Who is your father?” for they knew well the tale of His notorious birth. They might not have had Twitter back then, but gossip has always had its very swift feet.
So, within that context does Gabriel announce to Mary that she would bear the Son of the Most High. Think about that: salvation was promised to come through a stigmatized woman, and eternal life would emerge from a body marked for being stoned to death. God wrapped His Son in a scandal and embedded Him in the body of a woman who seemed, to all, to be an adulteress. The promise of innocence was to be found in the very heart of a scandal.
So what does this say of how the Lord sees our shame? What does He see when He looks at the scandal of our sinfulness? When our social reputations swell up with the public scorn of our failure, when it seems obvious to all just how ruinous our sins have been to our misshapen lives, when our lives seem pregnant with sin and death, do we ask what He sees? What do we see growing within us: sin or Christ? Do we push past the ridicule to see His truth about ourselves, that we’ve been re-made in His image – innocent, blameless and above reproach?
Perhaps it’s time we gained fresh eyes in order to see what He sees, to behold the Christ Child growing in our hearts, displacing our sin and shame with His own glory.