Christmas Series: The Parable of the Nativity
Guest post by Sarah
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! And this is the gospel, the glad tidings, which the voice out of the heavens bore record unto us – That he came into the world, even Jesus, to be crucified for the world, and to bear the sins of the world, and to sanctify the world, and to cleanse it from all unrighteousness; that through him all might be saved.” (D&C Section 76)
My son was born on Christmas Eve. His birth came the year after our family’s most disastrous Christmas ever – a fairly remarkable statement, considering my extended family includes evangelical Christians, fundamental Muslims, and militant Atheists. My heart was still heavy with the events of 12 months prior when I cradled him in my arms and thanked a loving Heavenly Father for giving me this child, at exactly this moment, to soothe my troubled soul and let me find, once more, the beauty of Christmas. I looked into those slate-blue eyes and saw he already had all of the wisdom of the world, and he was anxious to share it with me. I kissed that soft spot on his head and cooed, “It’s alright, little one; we don’t have to worry about that just yet.”
Of course I couldn’t help but think of another mother, who had also cradled her newborn son one Christmas long ago. I marvelled at her courage and wondered if she did not rail at the injustice of it, that her child – so perfect – would have to carry such a heavy burden for us all.
“At the time Joseph Smith received revelations and organized the Church, the vast majority of churches taught that the Saviour’s Atonement would not bring about the salvation of most of mankind. The common precept was that a few would be saved and the overwhelming majority would be doomed to endless tortures of the most awful and unspeakable intensity.The marvellous doctrine revealed to the Prophet Joseph unveiled to us a plan of salvation that is applicable to all mankind.” (“Our Father’s Plan: Big Enough for All His Children,” Quentin L. Cook)
We are taught that Christ spoke in parables, in part so that those who were receptive to the message could find it. Christ’s birth, too, is a parable of the universality of the Atonement of Christ. Consider the principal players:
Mary and Joseph were Jewish at a time when to be Jewish meant to have a very closed social circle, composed only of other Jews. Even Jews who were not “Jewish enough,” like the Samaritans, were outcast. Mary was a young woman, most likely a teenager; Joseph is traditionally portrayed as an older man, possibly a widower. In the eyes of her community, Mary’s pregnancy made her a pariah, unclean and unworthy. Even Joseph’s family might have wanted him to cast her aside. To stand up to their community, to embrace each other even in the midst of this terrible scandal, took a fortitude of spirit and an abundance of love. Surely we should model our own families after their example.
Mary was a biological mother to Jesus Christ; Joseph, a step-father, or perhaps more accurately, an adoptive father. But both rejoiced in this child. We know little of Joseph; but there is nothing to condemn him. He protected his infant son by leading his family into Egypt. When Christ, as a child, stayed behind in Jerusalem, Joseph was worried and sought after him. Mary recognised Joseph’s role in Jesus’s life; she referred to Joseph as Jesus’s “father” (Luke 2:48). It is evident he loved Jesus, that he acted as a father to the child, and that claimed him as his own. In this, we have a beautiful example of the nature of family: Genetic material is irrelevant to the love parents feel for their children.
When the Christ child was born, Mary and Joseph were strangers in a strange city. It may have been Joseph’s ancestral home; but it seems likely they had no friends or family there, nobody they could turn to for shelter or help as Mary’s time drew near.
Or there is this: Perhaps Joseph had family in Bethlehem; but they refused to give aid to the couple. Under Jewish law, Mary’s pregnancy was proof of adultery. “Joseph . . . was minded to put her away privily.” (Matthew 1:19) This in itself shows charity, as the punishment for adultery was death. (Deuteronomy 22:22-24) Joseph received a personal revelation that Mary’s child was divine; but perhaps his family was not ready to believe it.
They were shown compassion by an innkeeper, who, although he could not find them a room, nonetheless did what he could to provide them with some shelter. The stable was most likely his own personal space – not his home; but still a part of his private sphere. He welcomed these strangers and, while his hospitality was perhaps lacking, it was at least something. Can we condemn him, when our own governments seek to turn away those in need?
Mary and Joseph were occupied people, in an occupied land. They were poor; although, as Joseph was a skilled tradesman, perhaps they were not as poor as others. Their position was perilous; they had no civil rights. Politically, they were voiceless. These were the circumstances of Christ’s birth – a lowly, unimportant child with parents who were already in disgrace. Still, the angels glorified in His coming. Heavenly hosts rejoiced in His birth, and shared the glad tidings with others.
Amongst them, the shepherds: These shepherds, men and women, were almost certainly Bedouin. Bethlehem has always been an Arab town; and Bedouins have always been shepherds. Poor and nomadic, Bedouins are often despised, or at least merely tolerated. They came, these poor Arab shepherds, to worship a Jewish child. Imagine their trepidation – Would they be welcomed there? Or would they be turned away? They came because they had been commanded to; they came because they had faith. They were blessed because of their obedience and their faith. Were there others who also heard the call, and dismissed it?
Consider, finally, the wise men. We know little about them. We know that Oman was the centre of trade for frankincense at the time, and that myrrh is native to Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, and Yemen. They were men of science, as evidenced by their knowledge of astronomy, and so perhaps they could have come from Egypt or Persia, both centres of knowledge at the time. Then, too, there is a tradition that they were Chinese. They were probably not Jewish – certainly, they would not have been accepted as such by the people in the Holy Land. They may or may not have been kings; but they were wealthy, and felt at ease in the company of kings, and were probably leaders in their communities. These men, possibly with wives and servants at their sides, were educated, wealthy elites. They knelt at the side of a powerless child. Along with the impoverished and scorned shepherds, and the glorified heavenly hosts, they testified of His mission and His divinity.
Men and women; wealthy and poor; educated and uneducated; Jewish, Arab, Chinese, and African; the powerful and the powerless; families comprised of every kind of love and commitment; the sinner and the sanctified – all who hearkened the signs rejoiced in the birth of the Christ child. Has any story ever been more inclusive?
“And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout . . . And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus . . . then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said . . . Mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou has prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of the people Israel. And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him. And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many Israel . . . Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also.” (Luke 2:25-35)
Simeon knew: The Atonement is for all of us. That mysterious and pivotal moment happened, not just for a narrow and select few, but for the world entire. This is the true meaning of the Nativity vignette. Christ came for us all – men and women, wealthy and poor, educated and uneducated, Jewish, Arab, Chinese, African, the powerful and the powerless. There is not one “right” kind of person – His redemptive grace is a gift, freely offered to each of us.
It came, no doubt, at great cost to his earthly parents. Mary and Joseph both would have felt the sting of that sword as it pierced their very souls. The courage it would take to raise a child from infancy, knowing in some small measure the sorrow and heartache that lay ahead! I thought of that, too, as I cradled my newborn son on his very first Christmas day, and thanked a loving Heavenly Father for the gift of ignorance.
On Christmas Eve, after my son has opened his presents and blown out his birthday candles, after we have left a slice of cake out for Santa, we will cuddle together to read the Nativity story. My daughter will get distracted, and remember the Christmas morning she heard Santa’s reindeer on the roof. My son will wonder if Santa might surprise him with a dog. After they are nestled all snug in their beds, I will come downstairs, and turn towards the nativity set, and ponder again that glorious night in Bethlehem:
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appear’d and the soul felt its worth.” (“O Holy Night”)
For what worth has a soul, without the divine night, two millennia ago, when a babe was born in a stable in Bethlehem? What worth has a soul, without Gethsemane? What worth has a soul, without Golgotha?
What worth has a soul, without that glorious morning when the stone was rolled away from the tomb?
“Remember the worth of souls is great in the sight of God.” (D&C 18:10)
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) But Christ did not just lay down His life for his friends – He laid down His life for those who mock Him, for those who despise Him, for those who use Him. Because this is the worth of a soul – This is the worth of your soul, my soul, every soul: “He suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto Him.” (D&C 18:11)
On that night in Bethlehem, there were some who gathered to wonder at this tiny child who came to save us all, but there were many more who did not. Too tired from a day’s labour; too stubborn to listen to the angels; too caught up in earthly troubles to search for a star in the heaven – they missed the joy of sharing in the Saviour’s birth. He came for those, too – those who doubted; those who could not believe; those who had Martha’s hands, too busy to rest from their toil. He was born, this lowly, unimportant child. He lived, and He died, and He rose again.
“God be thanked for the matchless gift of His divine Son.” (“The Living Christ, The Testimony of the Apostles.”