Call me curious. I’m a sucker for the story behind things, and if you are anything like me you have heard all sorts of stuff about the first Christmas, the day our Savior was born. Some of what you know is probably true, just as much is likely false. I’ll be sharing with you everything we do know about the Christmas Story, nothing more or less. My source will be W. Cleon Skousen, a renowned Bible scholar who wrote a brief article on it which often gets published around Christmas time every year. I think you’ll find this story a good one, all the more so for being true, and separating fact from false traditions that have developed over the past couple of thousand years.
irst, let’s remember that Jesus was born in a conquered country. Over 60 years before he was born Roman chariots had thundered through the streets of Jerusalem and Pompei had taken over. Other Roman rulers followed but Augustus Caesar put in power a cruel and cunning Arab to rule the Jewish people, Herod–Herod the Great. He pretended to be a Jewish convert, beginning the construction of a temple and even marrying a Jewish princess named Mariamne. She gave birth to two of his sons, but they never grew up because Herod ordered his wife and sons assassinated once they became too popular with the people. For this and various other crimes the people openly despised him.
Fast forward about 60 years and Herod is a relatively elderly man, the central portion of the new temple he commissioned is virtually complete. It’s here that the real story of Christmas begins. On a certain day an old Levite priest named Zacharias came to the temple to preside at the altar. While a crowd was waiting outside he entered the room where the altar stood, called the Holy Place. In this room there was a sacred veil behind which lay the Holy of Holies. He’d come with a prayer which had been his burden for years: he wanted a son. This day he was almost blinded as the dim half-light of the Holy Place was shattered by the brilliant appearance of an angel, and for the first time in more than 400 years of Hebrew history a revelation had been granted to a Jewish priest.
“Fear not, Zacharias,” the angel said, “for thy prayer is heard and thy wife, Elisabeth, shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He shall be great in the sight of the Lord… and shall make ready a people prepared by the Lord.” This was when Zacharias began to doubt; it seemed impossible that a woman as old as his wife was could possibly give birth to a child. “Whereby shall I know this?” He said, “I am an old man and my wife is well-stricken in years.” He may have temporarily forgotten about Abraham and Sarah in his shock.
The angel rebuked Zacharias, saying, “I am Gabriel that stands in the presence of God; and I am sent to speak unto thee, and to show thee these glad tidings. Behold, thou shalt be dumb and not able to speak because thou believest not my words!” Then the angel was gone. Almost as though he were stunned, he must still have turned to fulfill the rite of burning of incense. Finally the Levite priest walked out before the people, who must have wondered why he had taken so long. Zacharias might have tried to explain but he was speechless, and with silent gestures he made them understand he had seen a vision.
About 100 miles north of Jerusalem was a shallow valley close to the hills of Galilee. In this valley was the village of Nazareth, where Miryam lived. Today we call her “Mary,” but this is merely the modern translation of her name as it has come down to us through the Greek. Miryam was actually a popular name among the Jews, probably because prophets had long ago predicted that this would be the name of the Messiah’s mother. By right of birth Miryam was a Jewish princess, being a direct descendant of King David. She was betrothed to Joseph, a young man who was also of David’s royal line. However poverty and the mad political scramble of ruthless world conquerors had left the natural heirs to the throne of David forgotten and unnamed.
It was probably in the month of August, and just six months after Gabriel appeared to Zacharias, that he also appeared to Mary in Nazareth. She too was alone when the heavens opened, and she too was deeply frightened. “Hail, thou that are highly favoured. The Lord is with thee! Blessed art thou among women!” She must have instinctively drew back, but the angel continued, “Fear not, Mary, for thou has found favour with God.” Then, in words that must have been designed to inspire confidence he delivered his message: “Behold, thou shalt conceive and bring forth a son. He shall be called Jesus, the Son of the highest, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father, David.”
Mary must have been thunderstruck. “How shall this be?”
“The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee. Therefore that which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” Her response reflected the depth of her spirituality and the beauty of her character: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” she said. “Be it unto me according to thy word.” When he finished delivering the message Gabriel informed Mary that Elisabeth–who was her cousin–had also conceived and that already she was in her sixth month. Then he departed. Mary didn’t tell anyone of her visitation, but gathered up her things and went to visit Elisabeth, perhaps the only other person who might understand what was happening. Sometime prior to her departure, however, the glory of God encompassed her and for Mary the miracle of new life began.
Zacharias and Elisabeth lived in the hill country of Judea not far from Jerusalem. Mary’s journey to Elisabeth of a hundred miles couldn’t have been easy and would certainly represent a major undertaking. When she arrived at her cousin’s home Elisabeth must have reached out her hand to Mary as she exclaimed, “Blessed, art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of the womb.” Then she added, “And whence is this…that the mother of my Lord should come unto me? For lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.” By now Mary realized Elisabeth already knew her great secret, so she replied simply, “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” During the following three months Mary stayed with Elisabeth, waiting for the time when Elisabeth would deliver. When the time came her child was a son just as Gabriel had predicted. For the elderly couple this baby was a triumphant blessing and there must have been friends and relatives from all over who had gathered to witness the naming of their child.
It wasn’t until the ceremony was actually in progress though that the officiating priest determined the baby’s name. He quickly found himself in the middle of a family dispute, as Elisabeth said the name of the infant should be John while indignant male relatives ordered the priest to name him after his father. Elisabeth stood her ground though, and finally an appeal was made to the mute Zacharias. This was done by signs, and Zacharias motioned for a tablet, upon which he stenciled, “His name is John.” All of the relatives marveled, they were so sure he would name the boy after himself.
They were even more astonished though, when Zacharias began to speak. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” he exclaimed. Then looking down on his infant son, he was filled with the spirit of prophecy and declared, “Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest; for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways.” Of the mighty child of God who would be known to the world as John, the Lord Himself would later say, “Among those that are born of women there is not a greater prophet than John the Baptist.”