These past two weeks, I have been researching for an address I gave to our Mormon congregation today. (I think I have mentioned that in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we take turns giving sermons on Sundays. We have no paid ministers.) So, today, I was a minister and my topic was “the events leading up to the birth of Jesus Christ”. I really enjoyed my in-depth study of the bible and reference materials on this subject. It has made this Christmas season more poignant and more personal. I’ll share with you some of what I’ve learned:
I suspect that the bishopric asked me to speak because I am currently a vivid visual of “Being great with Child” as was Mary in her anticipation of the Savior’s birth. 🙂
But, really, if we are to discuss the events before and leading up to the Nativity, we need to begin long before the stable in Bethlehem—Because the life and mission of Jesus Christ have been the central focus and hope of mankind from the beginning.
All things led up to the Savior’s birth, the single most anticipated event in history. Everything points to the Savior, and from Him, as evidenced in even our reckoning of time counting down to the Advent of the Lord, and counting up through the ages since his birth.
From the time of the world’s first inhabitants, Adam and Eve, we have been taught the plan of redemption through the Savior, Jesus Christ, who would come. Christ is the name which has been whispered, as it were, through the sands of time, in every era.
Continuing from Adam, we have the testimonies of prophets through the ages: Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were each given assurances and special promises of the advent of their Savior, who would right the wrongs of life and bless all nations of the Earth.
Moses testified of the Savior abundantly. Job honored Him. The beautiful prophesies of Isaiah, 700 years before the birth of Christ, sing out in energetic triumph:
For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
Also in the bible, we have the witnesses of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, Zechariah, and in the New Testament, John the Baptist who testified that the Savior would come.
All these prophets were prepared carefully by the Lord to testify in their day of the coming of the Messiah in the meridian of time. The eloquent words of James E. Talmage* remind us:
Not a word of inspired prophecy relating to the great event has been found void. The literal fulfilment of the predictions is ample attestation of their origin in divine revelation, and proof conclusive of the divinity of Him whose coming was so abundantly foretold.
How do we react to the many witnesses of Him given in the scriptures by the prophets from the beginning of time? Do we accept the many signs and wonders in heaven and Earth, which are divine manifestations of a loving God and a powerful Creator?
Building on the great anticipation of mankind through the ages, there is also abundant symbolism and wonder in the events immediately leading up to the birth of the Lord.
Biblical accounts (given in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) begin the nativity story with the Annunciation to Zacharias. Zacharias was visited by an Angel in the temple and told that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive in her old age. She would bear a son, John the Baptist, who would serve as the forerunner to the Lord. As I researched for this assignment, it struck me that Zacharias and Elizabeth (who were well past child-bearing years) were most-likely reconciled to the fact that Elizabeth was barren and for them, the blessing of parenthood was not meant to be. They had probably given up praying for a child by the time that the angel appeared to Zacharias saying, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.” So, perhaps this can explain Zacharias’s reluctance to accept the words of Gabriel.
Zacharias doubted and was given a strict rebuke. Gabriel, the angel, stated, “I am Gabriel, that stand in the presence of God; and am sent to speak unto thee, and to shew thee these glad tidings. And, behold, thou shalt be dumb, and not able to speak, until the day that these things shall be performed, because thou believest not my words, which shall be fulfilled in their season.”
So we see that Zacharias was the first to receive an angelic visitation and also a sign of the verity of his words.
The next annunciation came to Mary that she, a virgin, would conceive and bring forth a son, and call his name JESUS. Mary too questions Gabriel, but her question is not motivated by doubt, she asks for greater understanding wondering (and affirming her virginal state) by saying, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”
Here Gabriel explains that Christ’s birth will be a miracle from God. He also gives Mary a sign. He offers proof that God has the power to create life under miraculous circumstances saying, “And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible.”
Mary responded with faith and willingness.
I think it’s important to note, that Mary, being a devout Jew, would have known well the prophecies of the Savior’s advent*. So, this annunciation would have been less out-of-the-blue and more a mind-boggling realization that she would be the virgin mother of which the prophecies foretold. She would be a central figure in the fulfillment of these stories she had been taught since her youth.
I think it’s significant that the Lord gave Mary support and a confidant in her cousin, Elizabeth. Elizabeth would be a friend who could understand the miracle that was happening in Mary’s life, as she herself had conceived miraculously and received angelic communication about the name mission of her son. It is no wonder that Mary went to Elizabeth to be with her at this time.
After her visit to Elizabeth, Mary returned home three months pregnant*. I can imagine the embarrassment of her position. Because she knew of the Immaculate Conception, but what would everyone else assume?
The Bible states that Mary was espoused to Joseph at this time. Meaning, they had a formal agreement to marry. In those times, an espousal was almost as binding as the marriage itself*. How would it have felt to Mary to face her fiancee?
Joseph, her betrothed, was a just man. Well, barely a man, really. From Elder Gerald Lund we learn that:
No hint of the age of either Mary or Joseph is given in the scriptural text, but from existing sources we can make some educated guesses. … Marriage at earlier ages than to which we are accustomed was the general rule. … For a girl, probably the most common age of marriage was fifteen or sixteen. Sometimes it was later, sometimes earlier, but it is likely that Mary was around sixteen and Joseph, her espoused husband, only two or three years older than that (Gerald N. Lund, in Celebration of Christmas,31).
Joseph knew his duty, and he also being a devout Jew*, would have followed the law strictly. He was greatly distressed over Mary’s prospective maternity. And, he planned to release Mary from their betrothal privately (as opposed to public trial and judgment.)
However, the third angelic Annunciation was for Joseph’s benefit. The angel said, “Joseph, thou son ofDavid, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” Joseph responded with faith and action. He accepted the divine counsel and immediately took Mary to wife. Joseph also accepted Mary’s mission and his own position as legal father to Jesus Christ. He didn’t hesitate (the bible says that he, being raised from sleep by the angel, did as he was bidden). As a sign from the angel, Joseph is reminded that he, Joseph, a Son of David, was of royal Jewish lineage.
Why is Joseph’s lineage significant? (Well, first of all, Joseph and Mary were likely first cousins, so it was Mary’s lineage too*) but also, James E. Talmage explains:
It was beyond question that the Messiah was to be born within the tribe of Judah and through the line of descent from David, and, being of David He must of necessity be of the lineage of Abraham, through whose posterity, according to the covenant, all nations of the earth were to be blessed. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; compare Acts 3:25; Gal. 3:8.
Had the Romans not been in power, this carpenter, Joseph, would have been king. Therefore, Joseph and Mary’s son was born in the royal line of David and Solomon, again fulfilling prophecy that Jesus would be born the true King of the Jews.
So, three Angelic Annunciations were made, and three signs were given. We see three different reactions in Zacharias, Mary and Joseph. How do we ourselves react to the signs of the Savior’s divinity in our lives?
Something else that stuck out to me as I researched for this address was that the birth of the Lord would have been very anonymous. The idealized nativity figurines we often see, with wise men adoring the Christ child, bringing Him gifts as He lay in His manger-bed, surrounded by angels and gilded detail—that never happened.
In actuality, the wise men were not there on the night of Christ’s birth. In fact, we don’t even know if an angel was present, the scriptures state that the angelic visitations were sent to the shepherds, but there is no indication that Mary or Joseph were so visited that night. The only visitors or assistants we know Mary had were the humble shepherds, who came quietly out of the night and left again, not even speaking of their discovery until a later time.
Mary must have felt so small, in a country not her own, giving birth—which is such a vulnerable position already, and housed in a mucky stable of all places.
From James E Talmage we learn that Mary and Joseph’s situation in Bethlehem, staying in a temporary camp in a stable, was not uncommon during this influx of visitors to the small city. There would have been many others camped in temporary housing for the registration.
It must have been so humbling to go through what Mary went through. I would have felt completely alone. Wouldn’t Mary have marveled if she could have seen and felt the hopes of all the world, resting on her son? Not just in that very moment of His birth, but through all the ages before, and all the ages since?
Just how many souls were marveling at that new star that marked His birth? The star that hung over Mary and Joseph in their anonymous stable? It is so beautiful to me that one of the signs of Christ’s birth was the star. A new celestial light, a guiding mark to help men find their way and chart a true course on Earth.
I believe that Jesus is the Christ and that the announcement and anticipation of His birth are truly the most joyous tidings the world has ever known. I believe that He was who He, the angels, and prophets of old said He was: The Savior, our champion, guardian and guide—Our advocate with the Father, the Hope and Light of the world, the Prince of Peace.