God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. (Luke 1:26-27)

The angel Gabriel is sent with an extraordinary message to Nazareth, to an unmarried girl called Mary: she will miraculously bear a child who will be the Son of the Most High, the promised Messiah who will sit on the throne of David and will rule over Israel for ever in a kingdom that will never end.

Familiarity with the Christmas story makes us overlook the details.

First, in this culture, as in the rural Middle East today – a woman had to belong to someone, and her sexual purity was enormously valued. So at a relatively young age – anything from 12 to 14 – a marriage would be arranged with someone suitable.

There would then follow a legally binding engagement (the ‘pledged to be married’ part) in which the girl stayed with her parents under their supervision. Only after this did the formal wedding occur; after which, she moved to her husband’s house. These traditions are important in understanding what happens with Mary, who is in the ‘in-between stage’ of the marriage process: still with her parents but legally bound to Joseph.

What happens is remarkable . . .

Consider the time. At least 400 years have passed since the last book of the Old Testament was written. Silence has fallen on God’s people.

Consider the place. Nazareth was as far as you could get from the Temple in Jerusalem and there were longstanding suspicions that here, the Jewish faith – and the Jewish people – had become polluted by the non-Jews. ‘Galilee of the Gentiles’ is the term used in Isaiah 9. It is not a promising place.

Consider the person. Given Mary’s youth, the status of women and that nothing is said about her parents, we may presume that she was, in effect, of no significance. That is reinforced after Jesus is born and she and Joseph give offerings for the infant Jesus: they give the sacrifices expected of poor people.

A nobody girl in a nowhere town, at a time when Jewish history appears to be going nowhere. There is an encouragement here. You may think that you are a nobody, living in a place that might as well be called ‘Nowhere’ and at a time when nothing much is happening. Well, you know, you may just be in for a heavenly surprise.

Revd Canon