Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Behold the Handmaid"

The following narrative was a blessing given to me by my Heavenly Father as inspiration for a youth lesson I was asked to give several years ago. The historical aspects have been taken largely from Luke 1-2, as well as "Jesus the Christ" by James E. Talmage. Many of you may have read this before, and I invite you to share it with anyone you feel might benefit from it's message.


In the small village of Nazareth there resided two very special young people. One was a handsome young man in his early twenties, a carpenter, named Joseph. Joseph considered himself to be a very fortunate man, for he had been betrothed to his cousin’s beautiful daughter, Mary.

One particular night Mary had been sleeping when a most remarkable thing happened - an angel appeared. He spoke unto her, saying,

“Hail, thou that art highly favored, The Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.” (Luke 1:28-33)

Mary, who was only in her late teens, readily accepted the words of the angel, and had only this to ask: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34)

“And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:35)

Before Mary could take all this in the angel also spoke of her cousin Elizabeth, who had been barren and was well past child bearing years, but was now blessed with a baby.

“For with God nothing shall be impossible.” (Luke 1:36)

Mary answered this, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy Word.” (Luke 1:38)

The angel Gabriel departed, leaving Mary alone in her tiny room to ponder the incredible news. Can you imagine her thoughts at this time? All her life she’d been told of the coming of the Messiah and knew of the circumstances by which He would come. She knew herself to be of the proper lineage. Perhaps she had dreamed, not once, but many times that it could be a blessing bestowed upon her, all the while never truly believing it would actually happen.

Yet it was happening, and she had a heavy responsibility laid on her shoulders. How long did she live with the secret before taking leave of Joseph and her family, departing for another city where her cousin, Elizabeth, lived? What hopes lay in her heart, that this woman, who she may not have known very well at all, would understand, could comprehend what had happened to her? The angel Gabriel had told Mary Elizabeth was also pregnant after having been barren. Could they find comfort with each other, a comfort that only womanhood could provide?

While in her sixth month Elizabeth received a surprise. Her young cousin, Mary had come to visit. At Mary’s salutation something amazing happened – Elizabeth felt the quickening of the spirit of the baby growing inside her belly as it moved in response to the voice of the Messiah’s mother. Did Elizabeth shout out her knowledge right away unable to repress the joy and wonder at this remarkable news? Or did she invite her weary cousin inside, giving her refreshment, before saying,

“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43)

The relief Mary must have felt at those words. She had traveled all this way at the angel’s bidding, not knowing what would wait for her there. The words must have poured out of her mouth as she said,

“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; as he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.” (Luke 1:46-55)

Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zacharias for three months before heading back home. Try to imagine what the journey must have been like. Did her parents already know she was pregnant? If not, what would they do? And what could she possibly say to Joseph? Knowing how hurt he’d be – would he even give her a chance to explain? A betrothal was just as binding as the marriage covenant, and the betrayal of such severe.

Mary would have been about six months along by now, her condition obvious. Can you see Joseph, excited beyond words that Mary had returned after being gone for so many months? He must have missed her terribly. What do you think happened when he walked in to greet her? Did he welcome Mary immediately, not noticing her swollen belly? Or as she stood to greet him was he stunned, incapable of moving? Did they quarrel – Mary frantic to make him understand and Joseph so hurt he couldn’t hear what she was saying? Did Joseph turn and run away, unable to face what he thought to be unspeakable betrayal?

I would suppose neither of them slept very well that night, both unsure of what to do next. One can only hope Mary knew that as the mother of the Christ-child nothing could be done to hurt her. No, the truest wound was in knowing that at any time Joseph, the man she was counting on to provide both love and protection, would most likely put her aside.

Jewish law provided for the annulment of a betrothal in one of two ways – by a public trial and judgment, or by private agreement. Joseph was a good, kind man and truly loved Mary. He did not want her to face public humiliation and embarrassment. He had decided to annul the betrothal in as much privacy as possible, though the thought of doing it rested heavily on his heart.

That was when the angel of the Lord appeared to him, though to Joseph the visitation came in the form of a dream. The angel said,

“Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying, ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

The elation Joseph must have felt upon waking! The woman he loved was carrying the Messiah. Was he ashamed of his first reaction? Did he rush right over to her house, hoping she could forgive him? Did he sit there in awe of the woman in front of him, and wonder at the child and mother placed under his protection? Was he scared of not living up to his Lord’s expectations as the guardian of this most heavenly son?

As the angel had directed, Joseph quickly set about making the marriage happen as swiftly as possible in order to give Mary the protection of his name, for it was obvious to all she was soon to deliver her child.

The birth of Mary’s baby was fast approaching, and at this time a decree went out from Rome ordering a taxing of all the people. It was a way to take a census upon which the basis of the taxation would be determined among the different peoples. Had the census been taken by the usual Roman method each person would have been counted at the town in which they currently lived. The Jewish custom, for which the Roman law had respect, required registration at the cities or towns claimed as their families respective ancestral homes.

This is the reason Joseph had to leave for Bethlehem, with Mary choosing to go with him. Certainly the journey was long and hard, but no harder than the people of their day were used to.

Camping out was a familiar thing for travelers, a way of life for all. Because of this many shelters had been built along the way where weary travelers could lay out to rest. These buildings, known as 'khans,' offered the protection of walls and a roof, as well as water. Some of the larger ones even had an enclosed court for the beasts with enough water for all. These khans were very much a blessing for those who could get them.

Joseph and Mary found their way into Bethlehem and discovered the inns were all full. They were fortunate when one innkeeper told them of a khan nearby, one large enough to keep their animals in. On that night, in early springtime, Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus the Christ, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger.

I can’t help but think of the thoughts of both Joseph and Mary as they beheld the tiny baby. Could they even comprehend the mission that lay before Him, of how they would have to watch their son surpass them in every respect, only to watch as His life was cut down far too soon? Or were their only thoughts of what a blessing this little one was to them, their hearts full of love and peace, grateful He was healthy and safe in their arms?

At this time of the year it was common to find shepherds watching over their flocks grazing in the hills just outside Bethlehem. Unto certain of these shepherds came the first proclamation that the Savior had been born.

“And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them; and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14) How incredible a visitation for a few lowly shepherds. And even more of a blessing was the gift of a sign, which they had not asked for, but was given freely to guide them in their search.

These men didn’t wait, but went quickly, not just believing, but knowing what was told to them was true. “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.” (Luke 2:15) And they found the baby, lying in a manger, just as the angel had said. Then they went out and testified of what they had seen.

As was required by Jewish law, when the baby of Mary was eight days old He was circumcised and given the earthly name of Jesus. Mary remained in retirement for forty days following the birth of her son, as directed by Mosaic Law. Only then did both Mary and Joseph present their child, as was custom for the first-born male of every family, preferably in the temple when possible. Jesus had been born within five or six miles from Jerusalem where he was taken to be redeemed before the Lord.

It is not known how long after the presentation of Jesus in the temple passed (a few days, weeks, or months?) when Herod, the appointed king of Judah, heard reports of a Child of Prophecy, one destined to be King of the Jews, had been born. Into Jerusalem came strange men from afar asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)

Herod cried for his chief priests and scribes, demanding to know where, according to the prophets, this Christ was to have been born. “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him. “For thus it is written by the prophet, and thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.” (Matthew 2:5-6)

This news worried and angered Herod. He was not willing to give his control and power away, and certainly not to any Jewish baby. A plan formed in his devious mind and secretly he sent for the magi, the wise men, and asked them to go to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.” (Matthew 2:8)

Not knowing Herod’s reputation they left Jerusalem, rejoicing when the new star was once again visible.

They found Mary, Joseph and the baby, whom they recognized as the Christ-child. They “fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they had presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.” (Matthew 2:11)

The gifts were significant to the magi. In the oriental lands these men were high in rank. It was the custom of their people to offer gifts to those even higher in rank, whether of a spiritual or a worldly nature. Remember, they did not offer gifts to Herod. Yet now they willingly, humbly knelt at the feet of a baby, to acknowledge him as a superior being.

The magi left, with every intention of keeping their promise to Herod, when in a dream they were warned that they should not return to him, and so instead they left for their own country another way.

Herod was furious when he realized the magi were not returning. After estimating how old he thought the child could be, Herod ruthlessly, maliciously sent out the order to slaughter all the children, not only in Bethlehem but in all the coasts thereof, from the age of two years old and under.

Heavenly Father protected His Son and sent an angel to Joseph, saying,

“Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” (Matthew 2:20)
Herod never found the Christ-child, and when he died an angel went to Joseph to tell him it was safe to go home.

At the time of the Savior’s birth, Israel was ruled by alien monarchs. The rights of the royal Davidic family went unrecognized; and the ruler of the Jews was an appointee of Rome.
Had Judah been a free and independent nation, ruled by her rightful sovereign, Joseph the carpenter would have been her crowned king, with the virgin Mary his queen; and his lawful successor to the throne would have been Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.

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