Why Does the Story of Mary Sound Like Satan’s Plan? (and Other Christmas Questions)

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. 

You may also like...

13 Responses

  1. Allison says:

    Love this!

  2. Anna says:

    Abby, maybe you should have been raised Catholic, they honor Mary so much more than Mormons do. Just kidding, I think. I do think we Mormons take Mary too much for granted, and fail to teach her story.

    But to try to answer some of your questions, at the time Mary was born, it was every girl’s dream to be the mother of the promised Messiah. That was probably part of why her parents named her the prophesied name of the Mother of the Messiah. Every other girl back then was named Mary in the hope that she would be the lucky Mary, or have you ever wondered why Jesus knew sever or eight women all named Mary. So, the angel comes to Mary and tells her she is the lucky girl, chosen to be the Messiah’s mother. And Mary DOES say yes. She does give her consent. She say, “behold the handmaid of the Lord. Be it unto me as foretold.”

    Mary was also of the house of David, and it wasn’t where you were born, but who your ancestors were. So, all of Mary’s family went to Bethlehem. Mary to pay HER taxes. (How [I’m teasing] sexist of you to assume that Joseph could pay her taxes)

    The Bible calls Mary Joseph’s “espoused wife” not his “wife” so they were only engaged when Jesus was born. They would have waited until they were married for sex.

    And thank you for recognizing the terror Mary must have felt to know that the king wanted her son murdered and how she must have been torn knowing that the killing would stop if she turned over her child.

  3. Maya says:

    Something I remind myself often is that the information we have about Mary is through a male-centric lens. Written by men, taught by men, and preached in a patriarchal world. We do not know everything that happened between Mary, God, Joseph, and their families. There is so much to read between the lines and we are only given a few sentences.

  4. Joni says:

    Well, what if God HAD asked for her consent? It probably would have gone something like this…

    “You’re special.”

    “You were chosen by God.”

    “If you say no to this, all of humanity will be doomed.”

    “If you say yes to this, all of humanity will be saved.”

    (Not coincidentally, this is A LOT like what Helen Mar Kimball testified later in life that Joseph Smith said to her when SHE was fourteen.)

    We have a name for that kind of behavior now, it’s called grooming and it’s NOT OKAY.

  5. Kaylee says:

    I wish that thinking about the story from Mary’s perspective was more common. I remember watching the church’s nativity movie at a ward member’s house one Christmas Eve. The one where Mary has a tear dramatically dripping down her face when she’s talking with the angel. One of the men there was like “Why is she crying? You’d think she’d be shouting for joy!” I was a few weeks pregnant, and his comment made *me* want to cry. He had no sense of what was being asked of her: the shame of unwed pregnancy, the overwhelming responsibility, how massively her life was being altered in that instant.

    I remember feeling a little put out when my oldest turned one. Why are birthday parties all about the kid? I was the one that did all the hard work on that day, and it was a big milestone in my life too! Certainly we celebrate who they are and who they are becoming, but I try to make time to tell them their birth story in addition to the festivities. I’m glad we at least get a part of Jesus’ birth story in the scriptures.

  6. Rubygonemad says:

    Something tells me that most, if not all feminist s, will not be exalted.

    • Em says:

      Questioning the righteousness of others is a violation of our comment policy. Also it is the height of arrogance to imagine you are qualified to discern who will be exalted.

  7. Tina says:

    Mary is definitely someone I would love to have a conversation with and ask a whole bunch of questions. When asking questions about events in the New Testament, one of the most useful practices I learned is to keep in mind who wrote the book, to whom were they writing, and for what purpose they were writing. Luke and Matthew both record stories of Jesus’s birth and our concept of the nativity that we celebrate today is a mishmash of both stories along with modern additions, like the donkey, that aren’t actually mentioned in either account.

    Matthew was a Jew and wrote specifically to other Jews with the intent to show that Jesus is the person who fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Luke didn’t personally know Jesus; he became a follower after the crucifixion when Paul taught him. Luke addressed his gospel to someone named Theophlius. I imagine Luke, years after the events of the nativity, deciding it’s time, like others have done, to write what he learned about these events. He starts writing and realizes he has more questions. If Jesus grew up in Nazareth how exactly did Mary and Joseph end up in Galilee for his birth? He fills in the gaps as best he knows. (I have a friend trying to do exactly this — find out more information about the circumstances of her mother’s birth in Europe during WW II. It’s hard because everyone involved, including her mother, have passed away.) Perhaps they were there because of the census. It’s not because of taxes — modern translations such as the ESV use registration or census. Historians have a hard time with this though because the known census doesn’t match up timewise with Jesus’s birth. Perhaps, as seems to be alluded to in Matthew, Mary and Joseph were already living in Bethlehem at the time and didn’t move to Nazareth until after the return from Egypt. Or perhaps, as I’ve wondered, they traveled there for Passover, similar to what they did when Jesus was 12. In that case, they probably traveled with extended family for the holiday and Mary would have had a family support system. The holiday would also explain the challenge of finding an inn or guest house with adequate privacy for a birth.

    There is so much more I would love to write about this — such as 14 being a minimum age but I’ve seen sources estimate anywhere between 14-20 with 18 as the ideal marriage age set by rabbis at the time, to not assuming that her childbirth experience was without support, to reading the account in other translations because the ESV translation of Matthew makes is clear that Mary and Joseph weren’t intimate until after she gave birth — but it’s already a long comment. So yes, I totally agree, let’s talk about Mary as a part of the Christmas story. After listening to a recent Maxwell Institute podcast about Mary, I came away with a feeling that she was a powerful woman. I want to know more of her story. It reminds me of the line from Hamilton: Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story? I want to learn the stories of women like Mary who came before me and shaped the world. I want to write my own story.

  8. Anna Maria Junus says:

    A few things…

    If you look closely at the scripture where Gabriel comes to tell her – she actually gives permission. He explains the plan and waits for her answer. I know it’s called the “annunciation” and it does read like he’s telling her – but she tells him that she’s a willing servant. He didn’t just show up and say something and leave. They have a conversation and he waits for her permission. She agrees to do it. She could have said no and then God would have picked someone else. It’s not like she was the only virgin on earth.

    I thought about why Mary went to Bethlehem, and the only conclusion I came up with, was that God commanded her to go to Bethlehem. There’s no other reason. And just because it isn’t in the scriptures – doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I’m sure there are a lot of things that didn’t get into the scriptures.

    I also came to the conclusion that angels attended Mary’s birth and helped her. It wasn’t just her and Joseph. But it makes sense that God would send female angels to be her midwives.

    It says in the scriptures that Joseph and Mary did not have sex until some time after Jesus’s birth.

    The shepherds came to her and told her about the wonderful chorus of angels. She treasured all this up in her heart and likely brought it up in times of need and sorrow. We don’t know how much Mary knew, but I think it was important that she not dwell too much on who she raising. God needed her to raise him as a person, not as a God. And to be fair – none of us know what’s in store for us. We can live life expecting disaster around every corner, or we can live in faith.

    I suspect that there’s a lot to this story that we don’t know and so sometimes we have to fill in the gaps.

    As for why we don’t speak much about Mary – it’s because women are forgotten.

  9. Mary Young says:

    The Roman Empire was much more interested in a census than in collecting taxes from people only in their ancestral city. When you think of that, the grueling trip makes much more sense. Saying “I’ll just stay home” to Rome wasn’t feasible or safe.
    I was a faithful Catholic growing up and I’m grateful for the perspective that gives me on Mary. I highly recommend a close reading of the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). If Mary was only 14, she was an incredibly well-read, astute, and faithful young woman. She is cognizant of the promises made to her people and of their history. She sees with clear eyes the injustices suffered by the poor and also expresses a calm faith that things will change. She knows who she is, and she knows who her Child is. I knew I was named after a strong, wise, and good woman.
    On another note, in the Catholic tradition, angels are often depicted as women. I miss that in Mormon iconography.
    I enjoyed your essay; thank you so much!

  10. Dani Addante says:

    I recently read the section about Mary in the Koran, and it was very interesting! It mentioned the hard things that Mary went through, with the pregnancy, birth, and with people shaming her. From what I read, it sounds like Mary was alone the whole time, and it also explains that God took care of her.

  11. SisterStacey says:

    Just to add a few comments. I’ve been reading the Christmas story in the ESV Bible. Mary does give consent. She does say “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord.”
    And I don’t believe she went to Bethlehem alone. As newer translations say, it was to register and for me, that means her and Joseph’s whole family went. Because they do the same thing for the Passover. So she has her mother and her aunts with her. That’s what I believe.
    An Institute teacher once pointed out that Jesus could have been a premature baby. We honestly don’t know. So much is left out of the story. Maybe they had to stay in Bethlehem for a while. I’ve always wondered why they were still there two years later when the Wise Men came! And why Luke doesn’t mention the flight into Egypt or the killing of the children, but Matthew does, while not mentioning the Nativity!
    As for the shame, well, if she’d gotten pregnant after being married to Joseph, then it’s bit harder to claim a miraculous pregnancy of the Son of God.
    I wish I knew more about Mary.
    And I think she also knew on some level. I think of the words Simeon spoke to her “a sword shall pierce thy heart also.” <3

  12. E. Jan says:

    There are many parts of the traditional Christmas story that do not add up or that are not fact. Sometimes it makes it difficult for me to enjoy traditional nativities because of this–but I’m a good sport about it. ;). The stories (Matthew and Luke) were written after the fact with details filled in and suppositions made to match Old Testament prophesies. And, then, who knows what changes have been made over the centuries. The fact that the dates of the census and Christ’s birth do not match up is problematic for some however, I believe that not only are we reading scriptures that were written long ago, and edited and retranslated multiple times since but we also don’t have the benefit of understanding cultural norms. Perhaps even more significant is that we read them from a western perspective. We are more likely to consider the story a historical record rather than a narrative that was more concerned with telling religious truths than facts.
    The responses and discussion given from people are so interesting and have given me insights. I would add that the family was in the place of the census registry for an extended period of time. It is doubtful that Mary was on the verge of delivery when they traveled. And about that whole manger experience… I would have much preferred a stable for delivery than an inn for privacy reasons. Perhaps the “inn keeper” was even looking out for Mary when he offered it to her. I also believe that the threat of losing a child to murder was not limited to Mary. Unfortunately it was a fact of daily life faced by many people of the day. Jews had a history of brutality, massacres and etc perpetrated against them. Many sects and people did. Horrible brutality. I’m guessing was often in the back of a mother’s mind.
    Like you all, I would find it amazing to talk to Mary. It has been fascinating to read these comments. I wish we could all meet for a discussion. You all sound so informed, considerate and authentic women. It would be a delight to meet you.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.