fter this Mary returned home to Nazareth. How long it was before Joseph learned she was with child we do not know, but when he did become aware of it he was overwhelmed with grief. Under the Jewish law a betrothal was almost as binding as marriage itself and faithlessness was punishable by death. The only alternative was to “put her away” by a bill of public divorcement. Joseph was not bitter against Mary, only sorrowful, and therefore he resolved to “put her away privily.”
During this moment of deep emotional strain, no word of explanation was given by Mary. In fact, she herself was probably without knowledge concerning the will of the Lord on this subject. For all she knew her sacred mission might require her to forfeit her betrothal to Joseph. In the dark hours of the night, while Joseph pondered the sudden shipwreck of his prospective marriage, the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and said, “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. She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins.”
Who would be able to describe the transitional joy which flooded the mind of Joseph as this revelation brought to him a beautiful and sympathetic understanding of Mary’s sacred calling? Who will record the tender scene when he confided to Mary that now he shared her secret? Joseph’s marriage to Mary must have followed immediately, for the angel commanded it, and by the time of the taxing or census ordered by Caesar, Joseph and Mary are specifically referred to as husband and wife.
It was early in April, in the year of the Romans 753 that Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem. Authorities have conceded that December 25 was not celebrated as Christmas until the fourth century A.D. And it was established on that date simply for convenience: December 25th was chosen because at that time it was celebrated as a national holiday honoring the birth of the Roman god Sol. A hint of the season is given in the scriptures themselves, where we learn that the night a new star appeared shepherds were “abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” Except this doesn’t make sense, shepherds were almost never with their flocks at night. Nighttime was when their children would look after the sheep so the shepherds could get some sleep. There was only one time of year when the actual shepherds would be up day and night to watch over the sheep, and that was when the sheep were pregnant and close to delivering, and when did this occur? In the Spring. Latter-day revelation has affixed the date of Christ’s birth as April 6th but even if the reader doesn’t accept this, certainly the date in December must be discarded as tradition rather than fact.
Since Bethlehem was originally the “City of David” it was therefore the ancestral home of both Mary and Joseph. While in other parts of the world Roman government required each person to register for the taxation at his place of residence, in Palestine the Jews were allowed to follow their ancient custom of returning to the region of their forefathers to be registered. For this reason Mary and Joseph had come to Bethlehem.
Being of modest circumstances and because Mary’s delicate condition required slow travel, they didn’t arrive at Bethlehem until long after that city was overflowing with large crowds from much closer regions. Jerusalem itself was only six miles away, and crowds from there must have added to the congestion at Bethlehem. In fact, this was also the season for the feast of the Passover; this alone would bring tens of thousands to Jerusalem and nearby communities like Bethlehem. The City of David however, did not welcome them. Joseph must have felt increasing apprehension. Where would they stay? Everywhere they met with the same rebuff: “No room!”
As time passed the situation became desperate. Knowing Mary’s great mission it must have seemed incomprehensible to Joseph that all doors should close against them. Could not there be some help? Overwhelmed with anxiety, Joseph was finally forced to accept what he normally would have rejected with disgust: a stable. In haste he prepared for her most meager semblance of comfort. No other king was ever born into the world under so humble a circumstance.
Only a mile distant, hovering near the outskirts of the city, certain angels prepared to make their presence known. Shepherds, abiding in the fields and watching their flocks by night were chosen to be the recipients of a magnificent vision. It commenced the very moment Mary’s precious infant was born. Immediately the shepherds saw the veil of mortality sheared back, and an angel stood before them with a glory which enveloped the scene in a radiant light. The shepherds must have shrank back, but the angel said, “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” At such a moment the hosts of heaven could be held back no longer. The majestic choir burst into song. The shepherds heard them sing: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
When the vision closed, the shepherds left immediately to go into the town and seek out the location of the “child lying in a manger.” How they were guided to the stable we do not know, but when they had gathered round they found the babe truly wrapped in swaddling clothes and cradled in a manger. With the glory of the angels still fresh in their minds, the shepherds looked upon the sleeping child with devotion and awe. Jehovah had entered mortality!
When the shepherds finally left the stable they ran swiftly to awaken their friends and neighbors. To all who would listen they related the wonderful night vision and the things they had been told concerning this newborn child. But the people were not impressed. The scripture says they merely “wondered.” Nevertheless, this did not dampen the ardor of the shepherds. They returned to their flocks “glorifying and praising God for all the things they heard and seen.” And so the early morning hours of the first Christmas passed without further incident. While the baby slept, Mary treasured in her heart the thrilling triumph of this hour.
When the baby was eight days old he was taken to the priest for naming. The name which they gave him was “Joshua.” This was a common name among the Jews, but it was the name the angel had designated. In later life the people called him “Joshua of Nazareth” to distinguish him from all other men bearing the same name. Today we call him “Jesus,” but this is simply the modified Greek equivalent for the name of Joshua. This name symbolizes the mission of the Savior, for it means “Jehovah is our Salvation.”
And where were the Wise Men? Although Christmas pageants have it otherwise there were no wise men present on the night of nativity. In fact, their homeland was far away to “the East.” During the early hours of this first Christmas morning they were in their own county rejoicing at the sudden appearance of a great new star in the heavens. The prophets had said this star was the sign by which they would know that the Savior had been born. Therefore, the wise men promptly prepared to depart for the land of Palestine. It was a long journey of weeks, perhaps months before they arrived.
Being without guile and innocent of the state of affairs in this part of the world they went naively to Herod, thinking he would be informed of the identity and whereabouts of the new king. But Herod was greatly disturbed by their words. Hurriedly, Herod conferred with the priests and learned scribes. They confirmed that their king would be born in “Bethlehem, the city of David.” Frantically he conjured up a scheme. When he had extracted from the wise men the date the star had appeared, he made them promise to try to find the child and then inform him so that he might come and worship the new king also. The wise men consented and departed.
Speedily and at night they made their way to Bethlehem. En route they rejoiced to behold once again the same brilliant star which they had previously seen in their own country; they seemed to be led to the place where he was, but it did not turn out to be a stable. Joseph and Mary had long since found better accommodations. Matthew says the Wise Men went into “the house” and there they knelt before the child and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Later when the time came for the Wise Men to depart, the angel of the Lord appeared to them in a dream and told them not to go back to Herod but to return to “the East” by a separate way. We know nothing more about them, neither their names, their number nor their nationality. All else that has been said about them is fiction.
Herod carried out a horrible massacre in Bethlehem, ordering all children under two years of age to be murdered in an attempt to kill the Christ-child. An angel warned Joseph to take Mary and Jesus into Egypt. It was not long after this that Herod found himself dying of a most loathsome disease, his last few days spent in the greatest of agony. Down along the banks of the tropical Nile, Joseph and Mary waited with the infant Jesus. Joseph was told by an angel that Herod was dead, and immediately returned to Nazareth. In all these circumstances three great prophecies were literally fulfilled: that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, that he would come up out of Egypt, and that he would be called a native of Nazareth.
As the years passed by the scripture says, “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and man.” Gradually he learned his true identity. He was taught by ministering angels. At the age of 33 he was finally prepared to ascend the heights of the mortal mission to which he was born. At the last moment he could have turned back. But he did not. He passed beneath all things that he might save all things.
Here I conclude the known history of Christmas. All else that is added is man’s homemade invention: the pleasant lighted tree comes down to us from the days of heathen Rome, the holly wreaths and mistletoe from the ancient Druids, the exciting visit of St. Nicholas from fourth century Christian tradition and jolly Santa Claus from pure modern imagination. But with it all, the most important thing still survives–the spirit of peace on earth, good will toward men.