Christmas Humiliation?

I’m a magnet for embarrassing moments. In second grade, I entered a spelling bee contest that had me exiting the stage on the first word: “shop.” In college, I made a dramatic fall off of a treadmill in a gymnasium packed with students. This past summer, my antiperspirant rebelled. Attending a wedding, I noticed friends moving their eyes from my face to my arms in conversation. A passing peek at a mirror revealed the mystery: extremely sweaty underarms.

These are my stories but you probably have your own. Shame is a shared human experience, we see it first in Genesis 3:7. After swallowing the fruit, Adam and Eve look up to find a fallen human in their view. The initial gaze must have been shocking. The glare reflected in the other’s eye was enough to send both scurrying for leaves--anything to cover the nakedness.

I’m thinking of shame this Advent season. The Christmas story is packed with drama. God chooses a virgin for His purposes in sending Christ. In so doing, young Mary is never the same. Her humble existence becomes the stage on which the Incarnate Son of God emerges. And her submission to God comes with a cost.

Curt Thompson, a psychiatrist who studies the intersection of neurobiology and Christian spiritual formation explains that people “experience shame most powerfully in glances, tones, and body language rather than through literal words.” As I read the story of Christ’s birth, I wonder: what “looks” did Mary endure when “found” to be with child in Matthew 1:18? Did her cheeks burn under the gaze of Nazareth? Did she suffer feelings of shame at the eyes of a doubting Joseph (Matthew 1:19)?

It’s amazing to consider that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” and under the ignominy of a curious pregnancy (Galatians 4:4).

Mary’s Abrupt Pregnancy

In Elizabeth’s third trimester of pregnancy, the angel Gabriel is sent from God’s presence to a city of Galilee named Nazareth. The town had a bad reputation (John 1:46; 7:52). It’s people were despised and the city--mentioned nowhere else in Scripture--was considered commonplace with no obvious prophetic importance.[1]

Gabriel enters this town and advances to the home of a lowly virgin, Mary, betrothed to a simple carpenter, Joseph, of the house of David (Luke 2:27). The place and people looked obscure but God’s word to Mary was anything but that.

She would conceive and bear a son named Jesus. He would be great and would be called the Son of the Most High. God would give to Him the throne of His father David, and He would reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there would be no end (Luke 1:28-33).

Women before Mary had carried children whose births were foretold by God (Isaac, Samson, the Shunammite’s son). Others had mothered mighty deliverers in Israel (Moses, Joshua, David). But what mother had ever heard these words? Mary’s son would be called the Son of the Most High. God would give Him the throne of His father David. God had promised David an everlasting throne through an offspring whose kingdom would never end (2 Samuel 7:12-13; Psalm 89:3-4). Would this be Mary’s son?

If so, the young woman had to ask: “How will this be, since I am a virgin” (Luke 1:34)? The response must have stunned her ears: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God”  (Luke 1:35). Mary’s first born son would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and not by the seed of man. God was sending the Seed of the Woman (Genesis 3:15). And lowly Mary was that woman.

Human wisdom would have painted the mother of Christ as powerful and esteemed of men. Instead we find a poor, seemingly insignificant girl with the weight of an unexpected pregnancy. Mary’s submission in Luke 1:38 meant the threat of stoning (John 8:3-5; Deuteronomy 22:13-21). It meant the likely end of an engagement (Matthew 1:18-25). And it amounts to lifelong suspicion and stigma (John 8:39-41).

Christmas brings Mary a Son born of God; her soul magnifies the Lord and her heart ponders His mighty works...but there was also the ignominy of questioning eyes.

The Condescension of the Incarnation and the Humiliation of the Cross

But Mary is not the only one to suffer humiliation in the Christmas story. No doubt, Joseph’s reputation is scarred after his marriage to the pregnant girl (Matthew 1:18-25). And then there’s the baby in the story.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows the virgin, the Son (though in the form of God) does not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but makes Himself nothing (Philippians 2:6-7). Christ submits to the Father’s plan and is conceived in the womb of a poor and despised girl. J.I. Packer calls the incarnation “the great act of condescension and self-humbling.” The eternal Word is born a speechless, cooing baby, dependent on a mother.

But Jesus’ “self-humbling” goes beyond the feeding trough to the cross. There, a sinless man is numbered with transgressors as the sin of those declared righteous are imputed to His account (Isaiah 53:12; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

If you and I blush at the examining eyes of fellow humans, how could we endure the gaze of a holy God? How could I stand in the light of God’s presence with all my sins exposed (John 3:20)? Yet my Judge became my Justifier on the cross (Romans 3:26). Christ hung naked on my behalf before God and creation. He took on my humiliation and covers me in His clean garment (Genesis 3:21; Zechariah 3:1-5).

I can magnify God with Mary on Christmas for our earthly embarrassments have become only light and momentary afflictions (2 Corinthians 4:17). Jesus Christ has come. He died, He was raised, He will come again. Rejoice! “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (Romans 10:11).

[1] The MacArthur Study Bible, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008) 1363.