Friday, December 19, 2014

Emmanuel: A Closer Look at the Birth of Christ

Studying the Christmas story is something I've never had much occasion to do in my life. Growing up, Christmas was more about time with family than any sort of real religious sentiment. Now that my husband and I live far away from both of our families, deciding how to celebrate Christmas is part of creating our new family identity.

In my effort to find a deeper meaning and purpose in Christmas, I began with a closer look at the birth of Christ. Although I've read the story a few times, I've never given it the close analysis that leads to revelation before. And even if I had, it's only now that I've been a newlywed for some time that certain details catch my attention.




The familiar story as told in the Gospels is one of a young woman named Mary. She is visited by an angel and told "thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus." (Luke 1: 31) She responds in faith, submitting to the will of God, saying,"Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." (Verse 38)

At this point in time, she was betrothed to a man named Joseph. He was a carpenter who, like Mary, was born in Bethlehem but was now living in Nazareth. Susan Easton Black goes into a great deal of detail of what their betrothal would have been like in her talk from BYU Education Week 2009. It's called The Road to Bethlehem, and if you can *find it somewhere, it sheds a lot of light onto what that phase of Mary and Joseph's life would have been like.

She describes how their betrothal would have begun with a formal engagement ceremony, after which Mary and Joseph would have been considered husband and wife. They would not have lived together, and it was during this time that Joseph would have built a house for them. Once that was finished, their engagement period would end and they would be formally married in front of the entire community. 

Until then, it was Mary's family's responsibility to protect her reputation. She would be veiled and escorted in public, and as far as every other young man around her was concerned she was already married.




Mary takes a trip to visit her elderly cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant by a miracle with John the Baptist. They stay together for several months, and by the time Mary returns she is undeniably with child.

Joseph has a choice. He can "put Mary away," which means to end their engagement. (Matthew 1: 19) He has already decided this is what he will do. For him, it's only a question of whether to do it publicly or privately.

If he does it privately, it becomes nobody else's business but their own. He need not give an explanation to anyone, they simply break off their engagement. But if he puts her away publicly, he would essentially go to the elders in Nazareth and accuse her of being unfaithful. She would be accused, her family would be shamed. Because she would no doubt be convicted, they likely would have convicted her of adultery and would have grounds to execute her by stoning.

Putting away a woman publicly existed entirely for a man to save face. He could present himself to the community as one who cared about the law, and he would not have been questioned by anyone. But to condemn a woman to death requires a vindictive spirit which clearly Joseph does not have. He decides to put her away privately, no doubt sparing her life.

Joseph is a man of great faith, and has the spiritual gift of dreams and visions. He dreams he sees an angel, who delivers him a message: 

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.
Matthew 1: 20-21

Joseph decides to continue with their engagement, The story does not pick up again until Joseph is returning to Bethlehem to be taxed, and he brings Mary with him, "his espoused wife, being great with child." (Luke 2: 5)

Notice then that they still aren't married at the time Mary gives birth. She is also "great" with child, which has always troubled me. Why on earth did anyone think it was a good idea to make a woman that pregnant walk from Nazareth to Bethlehem? According to Google Maps, the walking distance is 136 kilometers (84.5 miles) and would take 36 hours of straight walking. At 4 miles a day, you'd make it there in 21 days.

When they arrive, they can't find anywhere to stay. Because it's tax season, there are likely many people who are visiting in the city. Depending on when they arrived, there may not have been any room for them in the homes and inns. But there's an element to this story that seems to have escaped people's attention today but certainly wouldn't have back then.

Mary and Joseph aren't married, yet Mary is pregnant. I don't know how "cohabitation" was looked upon in ancient Israel, but I doubt it would have been favorable. Did people turn them away because they didn't want a "fallen" woman giving birth in their house? Perhaps that's why Luke states specifically that "there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2: 7, emphasis added)





Because Christ was born at the Passover season in April, the shepherds would have been out in the fields with the sheep. The stables built for them in the sides of caves would have been empty. This is where the Good Shepherd was born, in a place meant to protect the flocks. No doubt it gave Mary and Joseph the privacy they would have desired for such a sacred event.

After Jesus is born, Mary had to go through a period of purification for seven days because she gave birth to a son. On the eighth day, her son would be circumcised. She would be ritually "unclean" for another 33 days. Then she would have to offer up a young lamb as a burnt offering and a dove as a sin offering. But in the case of one who was too poor to offer a lamb, another dove could be offered instead. (See Leviticus 12)

21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.
Luke 2: 21-24
Turtledoves are the offering of someone who is destitute. Because we know Joseph had a trade, and was well-respected enough in the community that he was permitted to marry, we know he must have been a person of a certain degree of means. I don't suggest he was wealthy, because we don't know that to be true. But beggars didn't marry, and no self-respecting family would give a daughter to someone who could not provide for her.




But Joseph and Mary, if they weren't beggars before, are certainly beggars now. The reality of their circumstances, although existing only between the lines, seem rather clear to me for the first time.

Both of their families appear to have disowned them, for at least some duration of time surrounding the birth of Jesus. They have not been permitted to marry, likely because of the suspicion in the community around Mary's pregnancy. The thought that someone would take it upon themselves to see justice was done against Mary would be consistent with the treatment we see Christ receiving in every other season of his life. I find it likely that Joseph weighed what danger was posed to Mary against what risks she faced in a long journey, and still thought it better to remove her from Nazareth.

Mary has no dowry to offer, because they have not yet been married. That she has nothing to offer to this trip makes me wonder, for the first time, if her parents knew who she really was. Did they disown her? Did she tell them she would give birth to the Son of God? Did they believe her? Or did they condemn her with everyone else in their village?




Luke 2 says that "when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth." We could interpret that to mean that they left within 2 months of arriving in Bethlehem. But we know this not to be the case because of the timing of the Wise Men coming to worship him, and the details added by the account in Matthew.

Matthew 2 begins by stating that "when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Jud├Ža in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem." (Verse 1)

Bethlehem was where they headed, and Bethlehem was where they found Joseph, Mary, and Jesus. The star leading them there appeared on the night of his birth. Depending from whence in the east the Wise Men have come, the journey could cover several hundred miles and take several months. By the time they arrive, verse 11 informs us that Jesus is a "young child," and the family is now living in a "house."

They did not return to Nazareth right away. They left behind everything, at least for a season--all of their possessions, their families, their associations, everything that Joseph had been building for them. We might think that the first one to seek the life of Jesus was King Herod. But there is reason to believe that an untold number of people had already tried--and failed--to prevent the Son of God from coming into this world.

Matthew does not reveal whether Joseph and Mary returned with Jesus to Nazareth before going to Egypt. Because Luke tells us they did, we may think it might have been for a short time--possibly a visit. Matthew's timeline suggests that they left from Bethlehem to Egypt, and only returned to live in Nazareth after Herod's death.

What does all of this change about Christmas for me?

What I have disliked most about Christmas is how I see people use it as a reason to do once a year what they really should be doing all the time. People try to polish things up at this time of year to make them look nice for pictures, and let them go again immediately after it's over. It's a stressful build-up, a prolonged period of pretending, and an even more depressing let down. From start to finish, I have simply wanted no part of it.

Realizing that the Christmas story, when you really look at it, is a messy story about a family trying to find peace when they are up to their eyeballs in problems is very reassuring to me. Not because I like to see people with problems, but because I know it's honest and real when the struggle is present. And when you see the story for what it really is, it makes the way we celebrate Christmas seem ridiculous by comparison.

The Christmas story, when you really dig into it, is not a happy story. It is a story of two people who are trying to cope with a responsibility that is completely beyond them, while everything around them in life is falling apart. And exactly because of that incredible responsibility, that Life which has been entrusted to their care, they somehow manage to have hope in spite of all fear.

And it's not because of anything they are doing. They seem to be making things up as they go along. Their hope comes from Christ's very presence in their lives, even though he's a helpless baby. Knowing who he is, that God has kept his word to send the Messiah--this is the source of their peace.

Some people want Christmas without Christ. But they also want Christmas to be a time of peace. They want what never was, and never can be.

They see the disconnect between his perfection and their imperfection, and assume he can't know anything about their lives. If only they could see how wrong they are. Jesus Christ comprehends the needs of every person, exactly because his circumstances were awful.

He comprehends exactly how bad life can be, and how much we need someone on our side to make things right. Because he comprehends the cruelty in people, the unfairness in life, he doesn't want us to go through it alone. He wants to love us when we feel unloved, or even unlovable. He remembers us when we feel forgotten. He sees us when others pass us by. He hears our cries for help when no one else is listening.

There may have been no room for him and his family in the inns of Bethlehem. But at Christmas-time, may we always make room for him in our hearts. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.





* Good luck finding that talk by Susan Easton Black. I downloaded it from the BYUtv site back when they still had the Find a Talk database, which no longer exists.