There are miracles, and there are miracles.
The ones we talk about, sing about, teach and preach and remember this time of year are known to every child and even to those who don't darken church doors very often. The star in the sky. The midnight host of angels. The Virgin who gave birth to the Holy Child.
But there are others, lurking between the familiar lines of Scripture, and generally lost amid the pageantry and carols. For instance: how did Mary survive to give birth to Jesus? She was an unwed mother, whose explanation for her pregnancy would have been a hard sell, to say the least, to those around her. The penalty for what must have looked to most like sin was death, under Jewish law. Even if she was spared that, her prospects – divorce by her intended, Joseph; anathema to the people of her community; likely outcast by her own family – were nil.
Why Joseph didn't divorce her, we know, though his willingness to believe an angel's explanation and embrace a woman whose reputation could now only cloud his own is evidence of an extraordinary love and grace too often passed over in the rush to get to sugar-coated manger scenes. But that the couple's respective families, friends, and Nazareth neighbors were willing to accept them – enough so that Mary and Joseph could come back, a few years later, and make their home in that community – is in itself a rare miracle of love and acceptance.
Even at that, it can't have been easy. There must always have been whispers, snickers, shadows of doubt. But the inference is that their families, at least, stood with them. And, even more importantly, that Joseph and Mary stood with each other.
Because, even allowing for the extraordinarily special circumstances of her pregnancy, it tells us a great deal about Mary and Joseph that she agreed to accompany him on his foray to Bethlehem (or, perhaps, insisted on coming along). No journey is easy for a woman so far along in her pregnancy, and walking or riding on a donkey or even in a cart for most of a hundred miles would have been a formidable undertaking for a woman expecting her first child. Multiply that by the time involved (a week to 10 days), and the very difficult (and in some areas, dangerous) terrain, and you have the makings of a remarkable commitment between husband and wife.
Equally remarkable is the story of the magi, "kings" of the East who followed a star across most of the known world, in search of a baby king. That is another incredible journey, given the geography and politics of the time – one clearly marked by unusual persistence and determination.
So near the finish, they made the mistake of asking for directions from yet another king, with a very different agenda. That Herod was playing the magi by asking them to nail down a specific location for this Chosen One and get back to him is perfectly in line with his legendary paranoia; what's miraculous is that the old tyrant didn't march on Bethlehem at once with every soldier in his service.
God gave the young family time to escape, and gave their humble aspect more favor in the eyes of three foreign dignitaries than that of the powerful, influential Herod. To anyone who's mingled with movers and shakers, that unusual shift of allegiance, too, is a miracle.
Of course, there was hell to pay for the other young parents of Bethlehem. Herod's butchering of their children to try and head off the chosen Messiah is a brutal glimpse of the collateral damage of religious persecution. And Joseph and Mary's long detour through Egypt before their eventual, quiet return to Nazareth is a picture of the lengths – literal, physical, and emotional – that people all over the world must go to in coping with the blind and hateful opposition some feel toward faith and the faithful.
In Herod (and his descendants), Scripture personifies religious persecution and contempt for the sanctity of life – and shows how inevitably closely the two are always linked. In contrasting that evil with the decisions of those around Mary to spare her life and honor her unique calling, the Bible makes clear God's provision for those who celebrate life and take the faith of others seriously.
And in its subtle depictions of Mary and Joseph's mutual devotion and sacrifices for each other and the Child entrusted to them, the Scriptures celebrate what marriage and family were meant to be, and God's rich blessing on those who submit their desires and circumstances to Him.
Theirs is a beautiful portrait of a rare commitment to the Lord's own priorities – a miracle of faith played out in myriad ordinary lives, under stresses and duress we can only imagine. Our most beloved carols hardly do justice to what they suffered, or to the profound and eternal impact of their quiet obedience.
May their example be a light and inspiration to all of us who defend life, marriage, family, and religious freedom. And may some sweet portion of their tender fellowship with the God Who brought them so wonderfully into His plans be yours, and your family's, this Christmas.