The First Christmas . . . and the Last

nativityOftentimes when we reflect on Christmas, we get overwhelmed by the awesomeness of the supernatural events tied to the birth of Jesus: the ancient prophecies concerning the coming Messiah; the visit to Mary by the angel Gabriel who told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and she would give birth to the Savior; the Star of Bethlehem that guided the magi to the place of Jesus' birth; and the angelic host that announced His birth to shepherds "watching over their flock by night."

Nonetheless, the human side of the Jesus story surrounding that extraordinary night of 2000 years ago, is sometimes overlooked. Equally under-appreciated is how firmly rooted in history the story is, in the context of Roman-occupied Judea. The authenticity of the details of the events are in sharp contrast to the bizarre god myths associated with most ancient cultures.

Mary and Elizabeth

At the time the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would be overcome with the Holy Spirit, he also revealed that her relative Elizabeth was with child and in her sixth month. Hastily, Mary made ready to visit Elizabeth, who lived in the Judean hill country east of Jerusalem.

Why would Mary make the arduous trip from Nazareth to the hill country outside Jerusalem? The trek could be as much as 100 miles over difficult terrain and take a week or more. Perhaps Elizabeth was a favorite aunt and Mary wanted to help during her pregnancy, considering that Elizabeth was an older woman and thought to be beyond child-bearing age. Mary may also have wanted to confide in Elizabeth about the miraculous blessing given to her by the Holy Spirit.

Whatever the reason, Mary made the journey to the house of Elizabeth, where she was excitedly welcomed. Scripture says she stayed about three months, which would suggest she remained long enough to help Elizabeth until the baby--the infant John the Baptist--was delivered. It is assumed Mary was likely three months pregnant when she started the long trip back to Nazareth.

Mary and Joseph

In Jewish wedding tradition of the day, the bride and groom are ceremonially betrothed, but the union is not consummated. Typically, the groom goes away to prepare a place for his bride--often in an addition to his father's house. Upon his return, he claims his bride and they go off to their new home. Scripture is silent about where Joseph was when Mary made her trip to Judea, but he must have been surprised when he learned she was with child. Joseph considered quietly divorcing Mary to minimize the scandal, but he too had an angelic visitor who convincingly explained everything to him, and he settled into being a husband and a carpenter.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus

But their lives would soon be interrupted by an order from Rome necessitating that they make a long journey to Bethlehem. As Luke explains:

"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.). And everyone went to their own town to register."

This was not some fanciful fabrication of words joined together by Luke to fit some preconceived course of events. Caesar Augustus was the Emperor of Rome at the time, having secured the throne after the assassination of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, in 44 BC. He remained in power until his death in A.D. 14. (Jesus, as we reckon the calendar today, was likely born between 6 BC and 4 B.C. The exact date is a matter of debate among scholars.)

Quirinius was in fact governor of Syria during the time associated with Jesus' birth, and it is a matter of historical record that Rome ordered regular censuses for purposes of taxation. Since genealogical records were generally kept in ancestral homes, Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem because "he was of the house and lineage of David."

Not surprisingly, Bethlehem was crowded with other travelers coming to register, and since there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the inn, Jesus was born in the only shelter available: a stable.

King Herod and the Magi

The magi, scholars from the East, observed an unusually bright star in the heavens, and being familiar with Hebrew prophecy, knew that the star meant someone of noble lineage had been born. They followed the star to Jerusalem and inquired of King Herod, "Where is he who is born King of the Jews?" Herod told the magi to continue their search and bring back word when they found him, for he would worship him also. Actually, Herod feared he might be a rival for the throne and secretly plotted to kill Jesus.

The magi found Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus living in a house, for perhaps as much as two years had gone by since His birth. They honored Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and, having been warned about Herod's intentions, did not report back to the king but returned to their land by another route.

Joseph was also supernaturally warned of Herod's plot and was told to flee to Egypt until those that wished to kill Jesus were dead. (Herod is thought to have died in 4 B.C.)

Meanwhile, Herod was furious at having been tricked by the magi. He had learned from his chief priests and scribes that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, so he gave orders to kill all of the village's male children two years old and under. The order was carried out.

Herod, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra

Some may question how any king, no matter how depraved, could actually order the murder of all those children. Factually, Herod was that type of person. Although he was known for his massive building projects including expansion of the Jewish Temple, he also had a much darker side.

In the battle for succession in Rome after Julius Caesar's assassination, Herod had first aligned himself with Marc Antony and Cleopatra. He despised the latter, and plotted to have her assassinated, but was persuaded not to risk his friendship with Antony. However, when the forces of Antony and Cleopatra were facing defeat by Octavian (later declared Caesar Augustus), he abandoned Antony and gave his allegiance to the new emperor, who rewarded Herod by affirming him as King of Judea.

Herod ruled from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C., and would stop at nothing to consolidate his power. During his reign, he banished his wife Doris in order to marry Miriam, a Hasmonean princess who could legitimize his claim to the throne. Herod subsequently had Miriam's brother, Aristobulus, drowned, fearing his popularity with the people.

For similar reasons, he murdered two of his own sons and also, in a fit of jealousy, murdered Miriam. As well, he executed his father-in-law, Hyrcanus, who had a distant claim to the throne. Herod's bloodlust was so out of control that even Caesar Augustus reportedly commented, "It would be better to be Herod's pig than Herod's son."

There is no question that it was well within Herod's capacity for evil to order the murder of all boys two and under in Bethlehem if necessary to secure his crown.

That First Christmas

Although some can debate the exact details, what is incontrovertible is that Jesus' birth was not surrounded in mysticism, but occurred within the context of historical persons, actual events, and real locations.

Yet overshadowing all the circumstances of that first Christmas is the person of Jesus Christ, whose birth, servant ministry, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension were prophetically woven into the fabric of the times. Most important, His message of reconciliation is so compelling that it changed forever how man relates to God, and His birth serves as a stake in the ground for how we reckon time.

The Last Christmas

More than 2000 years have passed since that first Christmas when Jesus entered the world on a quiet, starry night in Bethlehem. His birth was announced only to nearby shepherds who were watching over their flock during the night. Just as that birth was foretold in numerous prophesies made hundreds of years earlier, many of the same prophets also foretold the circumstances of His return. However, Jesus said, ". . . About that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

We do know He will come again, not as a servant, but as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And from His words, we also know this:

. . . [The] gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. . . . Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other." (Matthew 24:14, 30,31).

Now, that will be a Christmas to remember.

Image copyright Jay's Blog.

Al Dobras is a freelance writer on religious and cultural issues and an electronics engineer. He lives in Springfield, Va.

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