Reliving the Biblical Christmas Story
Rather than just appear on earth one day, or “beam down” (to use Trek-talk), Jesus is said to have entered this world in the most orthodox of ways: childbirth. Jesus’ appearance on earth is known as the Incarnation, or what the Gospel of John calls Jesus’ “becoming flesh.” Interestingly, though, John doesn’t describe the events surrounding Jesus’ Incarnation.
Receiving Jesus’ birth announcement
According to the gospels, Jesus’ mother is a young woman named Mary. Although being of humble means, Mary and her fiancé, Joseph, are of noble birth, as they are descendants of the great Israelite king, David. This connection to David is important for the New Testament writers, because many Jews during Jesus’ time were expecting a Davidic Messiah or king who would deliver them from their enemies (the Romans, during Jesus’ day).
Messiah comes from a Hebrew word that means, “anointed one.” In Greek, this word is Christos — hence, the name Jesus Christ.
But there is something else about Mary that is exceptional — something that she’s not even aware of at first. She is to become pregnant with Jesus while she is still a virgin. Mary finds out about her unusual pregnancy when she is visited by the angel Gabriel, who declares:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the Holy One who is conceived in you will be called the Son of God.
Gabriel’s declaration to Mary is known as the Annunciation, which is a fancy word meaning “the birth announcement” (only it is the birth announcement). Today you can visit The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where this event is traditionally thought to have taken place.
Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is recorded only in Luke’s gospel. According to Matthew, an unnamed angel also appears to Joseph, who is contemplating breaking off his engagement with Mary after finding out she is pregnant. The angel informs Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy has been divinely orchestrated, and that he is not only to marry Mary, he is to name their son Jesus, which means “the LORD saves” — a fitting name, since, as the angel tells Joseph, “[Jesus] will save his people from their sins.”.
Revisiting the manger scene: Jesus’ birth
As Mary approaches her due date, a most “unfortunate” thing happens. According to Luke, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, decrees that a census should be taken of everyone in his empire. In order to accomplish this, people have to go to their ancestral hometown in order to register their names.
O little town of Bethlehem
Because Joseph and Mary trace their lineage to King David, Augustus’ decree requires that they make the approximately 80-mile trek from their home in Nazareth to David’s hometown of Bethlehem. Yet, this inconvenience is important, because it further connects Jesus’ life with the expectations of a coming Davidic Messiah. As the angel Gabriel says to Mary:
The Lord God will give [Jesus] the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will never end.
Away in a manger
Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph cannot find lodging at the inn. Therefore, they are compelled to stay in an animal stable. Here Mary gives birth to Jesus, and places him in a manger (a feeding trough). At least this is how the story has traditionally been understood — but this may be wrong.
The Greek word kataluma, translated “inn” elsewhere, means the guest room of a house. Therefore, many scholars believe that the overcrowded conditions are in a guest room of the home of one of Joseph’s or Mary’s relatives. Because Mary wants some privacy after giving birth to Jesus, she goes to the bottom floor of the home (many homes were multi-leveled in first-century Judea), where animals also lived (yes, animals lived in their owners’ homes — so let the dog in for heaven’s sake!).
Angels we have heard on high
In keeping with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus as the Savior of the whole world, including the poor and seemingly unimportant, he recounts that, upon Jesus’ birth, an angel appears to some lowly shepherds in a nearby field, and says,
Behold! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord.
In this brief announcement, the angel says a lot. Not only does he mention the “good news” or gospel that will be for “all people,” he also refers to the messianic expectation surrounding a descendant of David. The angel then tells the shepherds that they will find this Messiah “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Suddenly, numerous angels appear in the sky, and begin declaring (not “sweetly singing”) praise to God.
The adoration of the shepherds
Quickly, the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem, where they find the infant child and worship him. Mary, who is amazed at hearing the report of the angel’s announcement, “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The shepherds then go back to their flocks, but not without telling everyone they encounter about the amazing things they had seen and heard.
Jesus’ circumcision and dedication
Eight days after his birth, Jesus is circumcised (ouch). This fulfills God’s command as expressed to Abraham and Moses in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus is also given his name at this time, a tradition that similarly derives from Abraham, who circumcised and named his son, Isaac, at 8 days old.
Even today, many Jewish parents circumcise and name their children on the eighth day, in a ceremony called a bris, from a word meaning “covenant.” All of this underscores that Jesus is Jewish — a fact that is too often forgotten or overlooked in present-day discussions of Jewish-Christian relations.
Further underscoring Jesus’ “Jewishness” is that, at 40 days old, he is brought to the Temple to be dedicated to God. This rite finds its origins in the Hebrew Bible, where, according to the Law of Moses, all firstborn sons are to be dedicated to God by sacrificing a lamb and a turtledove or pigeon. If you could not afford a lamb, you could sacrifice an additional bird.
That Luke only mentions the birds when quoting the Mosaic Law concerning offerings for newborns suggests that Jesus’ parents don’t have the means to offer a lamb. Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ humble beginnings highlights his theme that Jesus’ life and teachings are for everyone, including the poor.
Following these events, the gospel of Luke says that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.
Adoration of the magi
No manger scene would be complete without the presence of the wise men (or magi, as they are sometimes called) bearing gifts of gold, frankincense (or incense), and myrrh for the newborn Jesus. There’s only one problem: The wise men most likely weren’t there.
The mysterious absence of the magi at Jesus’ birth
To demonstrate that Jesus is the Savior of everyone, whether Jew or gentile, male or female, rich or poor, Luke tells us about the lowly shepherds who come and worship Jesus, but says nothing about the wise men.
Matthew, though not disagreeing with Luke’s emphasis, wants to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Because the Messiah was to be a descendant of David, the great king of Israel, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ royal origins by recounting the story of the wise men, who are royal astrologers who have followed a star that heralds the birth of a king in order to present him with royal gifts. It’s hard to miss the point.
Yet, Matthew does not seem to present these wise men as arriving at Jesus’ birth, but perhaps as much as two years later. That is, even if we combine the accounts of Matthew and Luke, it probably would be inaccurate to place the shepherds and magi side by side.
While on the subject of the manger scene . . . the little drummer boy is absent from the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
The magi eventually make their way to Jerusalem to ask King Herod, the Roman appointed ruler of the Jews, where the king of the Jews has been born. Herod, as you might imagine, is not too happy to hear about this rival claimant to the throne, even if that rival may still be in diapers. When Herod’s officials inform him that the Messiah is suppose to be born in Bethlehem, Herod passes this information on to the wise men, and he asks them to return with news of the child’s exact whereabouts so he can also worship (read: kill) him.
The Slaughter of the Innocents
The wise men continue on their way to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus. However, after they present their gifts to Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod because he only intends to kill this newborn king. When Herod finds out that the wise men have left his territory without reporting back to him, he becomes furious and dispatches his soldiers to kill all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem who are 2 years old and younger — a choice informed by the time told him by the wise men, which suggests that Jesus is approaching 2 years old when the wise men appear. Although Jesus escapes Herod’s henchman unharmed (Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt) many youngsters do not. Herod’s murderous act is often referred to as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”
Out of Egypt
Matthew reports that Jesus and his parents remain in Egypt until Herod’s death in 4 B.C.E., after which they set out for their home. Yet, while on their way, Joseph receives word that Herod’s son, Archelaus, is now ruler in Judea. Fearing that Archelaus may be seeking Jesus’ life, Joseph decides to take his family to Nazareth. According to Matthew, Jesus’ journey to Egypt and his subsequent relocation to Nazareth fulfills two prophecies relating to the Messiah:
- God would call His son “out of Egypt”— a notice that originally referred to Israel’s exodus from Egypt.
- The Messiah “would be called a Nazarene.” It’s unclear where this prophecy comes from. Most scholars think it refers to Isaiah 11:1, which predicts the coming of “a sprout (Hebrew: nezer) from the stump of Jesse.” Because Jesse is David’s father, this passage predicts the coming of a Davidic Messiah who would establish a kingdom of everlasting righteousness and peace. Jesus, then, is the promised “little sprout.”
Thus, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus settle in Nazareth.