Special Christmas Sunday LessonThis coming Sunday is the Sunday before Christmas, so we are posting a special article about Mary, Joseph, and the Baby Jesus. We wish all of you a very Merry and Sacred Christmas Day.
Nephi's Vision of the Virgin Mary and her baby JesusThe prophet Nephi learned that the Savior’s birth was a demonstration of the “condescension” of God (1 Nephi 11:14–18, 20–21). Nephi had asked what the tree of life stood for, and in response, “an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?” (v. 14). He was seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary. He answered, “A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (v. 15). And the angel then asked, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (v. 16). The angel’s question is a good one: Do we understand the “condescension” of Christ’s birth? To condescend means to lower oneself to the level of another person. The God Jehovah was condescending Himself when He became a mortal in order to save us. Nephi needed to understand this in order to understand the birth of Christ. Nephi said to the angel, “I know that he [God] loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things” (v. 17). And the angel continued his explanation by saying, “the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (v. 18). “And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (vv. 20–21). The tree of life represents what Nephi was then gazing upon: the mortal advent of the Son of God. This supernal act of love on His part makes our salvation and exaltation possible. Thus, the tree represents the love of God—His willingness to condescend from His throne on high in order to save us. The greatest of all the children of God—His eldest Son—the Creator of all things throughout the universe—was born in a filthy stable—wrapped in rags—virtually unnoticed by the world He came to save.
Joseph Was “A Just Man”
- Matthew 1:18 The shocking news comes to Joseph. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.”
- Require that Mary submit to a public trial and judgment, resulting in her death; or
- Privately sever the espousal contract before witnesses.
- Matthew 1:19 Joseph’s love and mercy for Mary. “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.” Despite his agony, Joseph chose the most merciful of the two alternatives, which reveals much about his character. Elder James E. Talmage said, “Joseph was a just man, a strict observer of the law, yet no harsh extremist; moreover he loved Mary and would save her all unnecessary humiliation, whatever might be his own sorrow and suffering. For Mary’s sake he dreaded the thought of publicity; and therefore determined to have the espousal annulled with such privacy as the law allowed.”
- Matthew 1:20–21 The Angel Gabriel appears to Joseph to explain things. “While he [Joseph] thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, 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” (vv. 20–21).
- Matthew 1:24–25 Joseph obeys immediately. “Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife” (v. 24). The consummation of their marriage would have to wait. Joseph “knew her not” until after she had given birth to the baby Jesus (v. 25). But he became her husband and protector immediately.
The Importance of Joseph’s RoleThough he is sometimes the “forgotten person” of Jesus’ nativity, Joseph was, without a doubt, an essential part of Jesus’ birth and upbringing. His love for Mary is evident in his mercy upon learning of her pregnancy, and in his loving care thereafter as he sought in vain to find her some comfort when the day of the baby’s birth arrived. As a man, he courageously provided for and protected the Savior’s life, taking Him into Egypt for a time to avoid the murderous plots of Herod. He was the earthly guardian of Christ, treating Him as his own son in every respect, teaching Him from the scriptures, and teaching Him the craft of carpentry to sustain Him in his early manhood. Thus, Joseph was the role model for Christ in both temporal and spiritual things. Joseph was also the father of a later Apostle—James, the brother of the Lord, who wrote the book of James in our Bible. And he was the father of Jude—not an apostle but an inspired leader and writer who wrote the book of Jude n our Bible. All of these important sons were raised and trained by Joseph the carpenter. Legend suggests that Joseph did not survive to the time of Jesus’ ministry. We do not hear of him in the scriptures after the time of the Savior’s youth. He may have been older than Mary. But they clearly loved each other and are eternal companions now. Joseph remains, for me and for others, a hero—a man who did not react with macho anger or abuse but rather gentle forgiveness when he learned of Mary’s plight. His faith, his loyalty, his willingness to play the role of earthly father to the Son of God, all of these bear witness that he was a chosen man in God’s plan for the birth and childhood of His Son.
A Special Daughter of GodMary’s role was truly prophetic. Isaiah spoke of her 700 years earlier (Isaiah 7:14). Nephi called her “a virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins” (1 Nephi 11:15). King Benjamin knew that the mother of God would be named Mary (Mosiah 3:8), and Alma called her “a precious and chosen vessel” (Alma 7:10). Elder Bruce R. McConkie said, “Can we speak too highly of her whom the Lord has blessed above all women? There was only one Christ, and there is only one Mary. . . . We cannot but think that the Father would choose the greatest female spirit to be the mother of His Son . . .”1 Elder McConkie also said, “As the Father chose the most noble and righteous of all His spirit sons to come into mortality as His Only Begotten in the flesh, so we may confidently conclude that He selected the most worthy and spiritually talented of all His spirit daughters to be the mortal mother of His Eternal Son.”2
Mary Learns of Her Sacred Mission
- Luke 1:26–30 Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. It was during “the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that] the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (vv. 26–27). This is how we know that John the Baptist was six months older than the Savior.
- Luke 1:31–35 Mary learns that she will be the mother of the Son of God. Gabriel told her that “thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus” (v. 31). “He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (v. 32). This was very surprising news to a young virgin who was not yet married—only espoused. “How shall this be,” she asked, “seeing I know not [have never had intercourse with] a man?” (v. 34). “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (v. 35). Thus, the baby’s father would be God the Father Himself and Mary would be His earthly mother. Moreover, “the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (vv. 32–33). She would be the mother of the King of Kings.
- Would Joseph believe her? She could not explain things to him face to face.
- Would her family believe her? Or would they simply cast her out?
- Would anybody else believe her? Some did not. They said that Christ was “born of fornication” (John 8:41).
- Even today, many Christians, including pastors, do not believe in the virgin birth. We are left to wonder: “Just whose child do they think Jesus was? A child of fornication?”
- Luke 1:38 Mary humbly accepted her assignment with faith. Despite these concerns, Mary said simply to the angel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.”
The Decree of Caesar Augustus
- Luke 2:1–3 Caesar Augustus ordered a general taxing (census) of the Roman Empire in 1 BC. We can set the date by virtue of the fact that it began when “Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (v. 2). And in the land of Israel, the people traveled to their city of origin to do this census (v. 3).
The Difficulties at Bethlehem
- Luke 2:4–5 Joseph takes his pregnant wife Mary to Bethlehem. They resided at the time in Nazareth, a city of Galilee, but “because he was of the house and lineage of David” they were required to travel “into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” in order to be “taxed” [counted in the census] (vv. 4–5). Mary was “great with child” (v. 5)—in her ninth month of pregnancy—when they left their home in Nazareth and traveled (probably riding donkeys) a distance of from 80 to 90 miles to Bethlehem.
- Luke 2:6 Mary is already in labor when they arrive at Bethlehem, so Joseph sought earnestly for a comfortable setting for the birth of their baby. He hoped to find room in one of the inns surrounding Bethlehem square.
- Luke 2:7 Nobody made room for Mary in the inns. Because Mary’s condition probably required slow travel, when they arrived all of the inns were already full. And because of the crowded conditions and the insensitivity that often exists in crowded masses of people, “there was none to give room for them in the inns” (JST Luke 2:7). Note that there was no innkeeper. This is a quaint notion that arises out of the English translation of an “inn” as a sort of hotel with beds.
The Savior’s Humble Birth
- Luke 2:7 The Christ child is born in a filthy stable. Joseph and Mary had to settle for whatever shelter they could find in the stables. Livestock stalls were attached to the outside or back of the inns, and the inner-most part of these stalls (or nearby caves) were used as stables. It was the only place offering a roof overhead and reasonable privacy for the imminent birth of their baby. As we imagine those circumstances, we can smell the smells and hear the flies that cattle stalls attract. We can imagine Joseph gathering hay and spreading it upon the filthy floor to make Mary more comfortable and the birth more sanitary.
And then there, alone and inexperienced, exhausted, in pain from labor, hurt by the rejection of others, and probably frightened, Mary lay down in filthy cattle stall and, with Joseph's help, delivered her precious little baby boy. Do we fully appreciate “the condescension of God” in lowering Himself into such a humble birth? Cattle stalls are filthy, smelly, insect-harboring and crowded places. Yet, in such a filthy stall, the Savior of mankind and Creator of the visible universe was born.
- Luke 2:7 Wrapped in swaddling clothes. Swaddling clothes consisted of “a cloth tied together by bandage-like strips. After an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and also ensured that the child's limbs would grow straight.”7 Anciently, it was believed that wrapping infants snugly in swaddling cloths or blankets, so that movement of the limbs is tightly restricted, was essential to helping infants develop proper posture. Even today, medical studies say that it helps babies to sleep and remain asleep and lowers the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
- Luke 2:7 Laid in a manger. There was no bed or bassinet in which to lay Him. The floor would be too cold and hard. So Mary chose a straw-filled manger, usually used for feeding the cattle, as the resting place for her newborn baby. We have no idea how long the family stayed in the manger, but it was probably until the census was over and the crowds dispersed. It was there in the stable that the shepherds adored Him. So the manger was His bed for more than one night and possibly for quite a while.