West Point Grey United Church
Dec 24, 2023

The Life of Mary and the Nativity


The Christmas story as told in Matthew and somewhat differently in Luke is familiar to all of us. But, as we look at paintings found in museums and art galleries around the world that depict the Life of Mary and her parents, Anne and Joachim; Joseph and the Birth of Jesus, we are aware that there must have been published in other holy writings, more details of the story. In my search for this story that is depicted in many famous paintings at The Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, just to name a few, I came across the Infancy Gospel of James. This gospel, thought to be written in the 3rd Century, was well known even though it was not included when the books of the Bible were put together around 382 AD.  The Infancy Gospel of James, among other writings, was banned by the Catholic Church in the year 496. But it was too late – as the story of the early life of Mary and her parents was known by the people and much of the information not only enriched peoples’ feelings for Mary but also informed many Renaissance paintings. The original manuscript was only recently found in 1958 and is located in the Bodmer library in Geneva. 

Many stories, like those in the Infancy Gospel of James were written at a time when the people were trying to understand the life of the extraordinary man, Jesus. Today, as we make meaning of the story for our lives, let us think about how we can yes to the love and spiritual within all of us, how we can let the love and spirit grow in us as it did in Mary; and how we can, in the way that Mary did, and in our own way, in our own lives, give birth to a new world, a world that is marked by what we would like the human community to be, rather than what it often is.

The Birth of Mary  (Birth of the Virgin) to Anne and Joachim.

We begin the story with Joachim and Anne. In the histories of the twelve tribes of Israel, Joachim and Anne, were a prominent, wealthy, elderly, but childless, couple living in Nazareth. Joachim, a good man, is nonetheless chastised when offering his gifts to God for forgiveness of his sins. The priests tell him that he cannot offer his gifts because he has not conceived a child in Israel.  He is so chagrined that he goes off to the wilderness to fast and pray for 40 days and 40 nights but does not tell his wife Anne where he is going. He says to himself, he will not eat or drink until God visits him and tells him why he is childless.

Anne, similarly upset and mourning walks in her garden and laments the absence of her husband and her childlessness. She sees a laurel tree, sits under it and prays:

O God of my ancestors, bless me and hear my prayer, just as you blessed our mother Sarah and gave her son Isaac to her.”

While praying Anne looked up to the sky, saw a nest of sparrows in the laurel tree and began to lament, saying to herself:

Poor me! I am not like the birds of the sky, nor like the domestic animals,

Nor like the wild animals of the earth, because all of these creatures reproduce in your presence, O Lord.

Poor Me! I am not like the water, because even the waters are productive in your presence, O Lord

Poor me! I am not like this earth, because even the earth produces its crops in season and blesses you, O Lord

Suddenly a messenger of the Lord appeared to her and said to her: 

“Anne, Anne, the Lord God has heard your prayer. You will conceive and give birth, and your child will be spoken of all over the world. “ And Anne replied:

As the Lord God lives, whether I give birth to a boy or girl, I’ll offer the baby as a gift to the Lord my God, and this child shall serve God all its whole life.”

At the same time, a messenger had come down to Joachim in a dream and told him that God had heard his prayer and that his wife Anne was pregnant. Go find her the angel said. Both Anne and Joachim were ecstatic with this news.

Anne decided she would wait for Joachim to return from the desert at the Golden Gate.  She saw him coming with his flocks and ran to him, throwing her arms around his neck.

Joachim, the Lord God has blessed me greatly. I am a widow no more – you are here – and once childless, I am now pregnant.

And so her pregnancy came to term and in the ninth month Anne gave birth. Women surrounded her. And to the midwife she asked:

Is it a boy or a girl? 

And the answer was: It is a girl.

I have been greatly honoured this day. Let me feed this baby and call her Mary.

After Mary’s birth, Anne cares for her, teaches her to walk, talks to her, plays with her and turns her bedroom into a sanctuary so nothing unclean can touch her.  Her parents vow that a young age she will be taken to the temple of the Lord. When Mary’s first birthday came, Joachim held a great celebration, took her to the priests and they blessed her saying: God of our Ancestors, bless this child and give her name eternal fame among all generations.

And everyone said. “So be it. Amen.”

When Mary is three her parents fulfill the vow they made at her birth by presenting her to the priests of the temple in Jerusalem.  There are 15 steps to climb corresponding to the 15 gradual psalms or pilgrims songs. The priest welcomes her, blesses her and says: The Lord God has magnified your name for all generations. There she spends the rest of her childhood. 

At the age of twelve, Mary is about to become a woman and the priests want her to be married,

The high priest is instructed by an angel to summon all the widowers of Israel. Each is to bring a staff. A sign will determine which of the suitors is to receive her as his wife. The trumpet of the Lord sounded and all the widowers rushed in. The priests prayed over the staffs and returned them one by one. Joseph’s staff was the last one – suddenly a dove came out of his staff and perched on Joseph’s head. Joseph, the high priest said, you have been chosen by lot to take the virgin of the Lord into your care and protection.  But Joseph objected:

I already have sons and I’m an old man; she is only a young woman; I am afraid that I will be ridiculed among the people of Israel.”

Joseph was told that bad things could happen to his family if he objected so out of fear he agreed to take Mary as his ward. 

Joseph then said:

Mary, I’ve gotten you from the temple of the Lord, and now I bring you in to my house. I’m going away to build houses, but I’ll come back to you. The Lord will protect you.”

While Joseph is away, the priests of the temple ask pure women from the house of David to make a veil for the House of the Lord. Mary is chosen to spin the true purple and scarlet threads of the veil. Then one day, as is also told in the story of Luke, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth.

The Annunciation (The Announcement of Mary’s Pregnancy)

Solo: Gabriel’s message

Mary heard a voice saying to her. “Greetings, favoured one. The Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women. Don’t be afraid Mary. You see, you have found favour in the sight of the Lord of all. You will conceive by means of his word.”

But as she listened, she looked left and right to see where the voice was coming from.  There, in the room with her and Gabriel, was the dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the lily, the symbol of purity and the olive branch, the symbol of peace.  

Mary was unsure, doubtful but accepting and said:

How can this be, since I have no husband? Shall I conceive by the Lord, the living God, and will I give birth the way women usually do?

The Angel says “You will not conceive in the human way  –  as a virgin you will bear a child and as a virgin you will feed your baby from the breast. He who is to be born of you will be uniquely holy – he will be called the Son of God. You will be blessed by all the generations of the earth.

Mary, still uncertain saidBehold. I am the handmaid of the Lord before him; be it to me according to your word. I shall do according to your will. I pray that all that you have told me comes true.”

The Visitation (Mary meets her cousin Elizabeth)

At the same time the angel said to her.

Behold, Elizabeth your cousin has also conceived. It is the 6th month for her.”

Mary rejoiced and left to visit her relative Elizabeth and as soon as they met Elizabeth said:

Where have you come to me from? Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me? You see, the baby inside me has jumped for joy and blessed you.”

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”

And Mary after this wonderful meeting came forth with the words that have been called the Magnificat

The Magnificat (The Song of Mary)

Mary spent three months with Elizabeth and each day her womb kept swelling.  She was afraid to be seen but she returned home in her 6th month. She was 16 years old when these mysterious things began to happen to her.  

When Joseph came home and found her pregnant, he rebukes her sharply and resolves to send her away. 

Joseph says “Who set this trap for me? Who has done this evil deed in my house? How could you have done this? Why have you brought shame on yourself?  Has not the story of Adam been repeated with me?  For just as Adam was praying when the serpent came and found Eve alone, deceived her and corrupted her, so the same thing has happened to me.”

Mary began to cry.

I am innocent. I have not had sex with any man. As the Lord my God lives, I don’t know where it came from.”

Joseph was frightened and angry and thought he should leave her. But that night Joseph has a dream and the angel Gabriel explains to him that Mary is conceived of the Holy Spirit.  “She will have a son and you will name him Jesus.”

The priests though were angry with both of them and sent them out into the wilderness with no food as a test to see if they had wronged God. 

Because they returned safely, the priests dismissed them and they lived quietly.  When Mary is almost ready to deliver her baby, Mary and Joseph heed the Emperor Augustus call for the census. Joseph says he will enrol his sons but is unsure how to enrol Mary. The Lord will decide he thinks.

The Nativity (The Birth of Jesus)

The journey to Bethlehem is long and tiring and after several hours Mary Says:

Joseph, Help me down from this donkey – the child inside me is about to be born. Joseph sees a cave nearby and takes her inside. His sons guard her while he goes to look for a Hebrew midwife in country around Bethlehem.

Joseph saw a venerable woman coming down from the hill country and said he was looking for a Hebrew midwife to care for the woman to whom he was pledged to marry. The midwife said:

She isn’t your wife?

She is Mary who was raised in the temple of the Lord. I obtained her by lot as my ward.  But she is not really my wife. She is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.

Really? Said the midwife. I will come with you.

My name is Zebel and I am the best midwife of the Jewish people. I will help her be calm and strong to give birth.

Joseph and Zebel went to the cave. They stopped at the entrance, and a VUdark cloud overshadowed the cave. After a few moments the cloud withdrew and such was the illumination, both inside and outside the cave, that human eyes, could not gaze on it and the midwife  Zebel who saw the maiden Mary with her face looking upward to the heavens said:

Daughter, do you not feel some pain?

 Mary, as if she heard nothing, remained immobile like solid rock, intent on heaven. There was great silence.

A short time afterwards the light withdrew and the baby appeared, surrounded by angels and soft light. Then the baby took the breast of Mary. 

Solo: Here With Us

Hymn: What child is this? VU #74

Zebel said:My soul is magnified today. For my eyes have seen wonderful things: for salvation is born to Israel. This day is great for me because I have seen a new sight. But I am seized by fear and terror at the sight of these miraculous events and as I examined him, I could not find a blemish or trace of blood on him.”

The midwife  Zebel left the cave looking for Salome, the second midwife that she knew was coming. On seeing Salome, she said:

Salome, Salome, a virgin has given birth, and you know that’s impossible”

Salome did not believe Zebel and went into the cave to make an internal examination of Mary. 

Salome said, “unless I examine her I will never believe that a virgin has given birth”. As Salome made her examination, she began to feel her examining hand consumed by flames.  She repented at her disbelief and asked for forgiveness. An angel appeared to Salome and told her to go to the child and touch him with her hands. The angels told her she would be healed and know salvation and joy.  

After the birth, as Mary held and adored her baby, named Jesus, the magi appeared after following a star of exceptional brilliance in the sky. They brought the baby presents of gold, incense and myrrh.

 Solo: Ave Maria