Friday, December 21, 2012

Seven Things You May Not Know About the Nativity

1. Roman Rule. Before the Jews were ruled by Rome, they were ruled by the Greeks who heavily taxed the Jews, erected an altar to Zeus in the temple and tried to end Judaism. Mattathias ben Jonathon, from the tribe of Judah, along with son, Judas, and four other sons, led a powerful revolt. They became known as the “Maccabbees” which means hammer; and they hammered the Greeks for two decades, eventually reclaiming their freedom.

This freedom lasted for almost 80 years until the Maccabbees decided to take control of the high priesthood and that caused internal uproar among the Jews, for the high priesthood had always been reserved for only those from the tribe of Levi. This internal conflict allowed Rome to come in and conquer them in 63 BC.

Christ, from the tribe of Judah, was sent—in part—to restore the freedom and peace lost for all of Israel by the tribe of Judah.

2. Taxes. Rome was the only conquering nation at that time which allowed those under their rule to continue with their own religion. After their successful revolt against the Greeks who tried to control their worship, and with the Jews outnumbering the Romans 4 to 1, it was probably a good idea.

Ancient Jewish records tell us that this decreed tax from Caesar Augustus was periodic and was a religious tax. Those who paid the tax were exempt from the Roman religion of state and could worship how they wanted. It was not a head count tax, or an underhanded way to find the prophesied Christ child. It was a religious tax Rome imposed on all the people under their subjugation—hence the claim that “all the world should be taxed.”

Foreseeing that time when the Jews would have to pay for their right to worship, Isaiah recorded “Everyone that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy and eat: yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isa. 55:1) Christ is the living water, the bread of life, the new wine. He offers salvation freely.

3. Christ’s genealogy. When the angel Gabriel spoke to Mary and told her she was the one chosen to give birth to the son of God, he told Mary, “…and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David.” (Luke 1:32). Despite Roman rule and Mary’s poverty, she was a direct descendent of King David and Christ had a family right to the throne.

Furthermore, Luke brings forth a genealogy in Luke 3 that traces Christ back to David through “the son of Heli” (Luke 3:23). The Jewish Talmud records that Mary was the daughter of Heli. (Hagigah 2:4) Joseph was also a son of Heli through his marriage to Mary.

Additionally, Christ had a legal right to the throne through his adoptive father, Joseph who’s genealogy is set forth in Matthew 1 and reaffirmed in Luke 2:4. Joseph was also a direct descendent of King David and stood next in line to the throne through his marriage to Mary. Additionally, the Jewish Hammurabi code, section 188, guarantees that Christ, the oldest son, would have ascended to the throne after Joseph’s death—even though Joseph was not his birth father. The law of adoption was as binding as the law of natural birth in the Jewish world, making Christ first in line over any brothers who came along later.

Cannon Girdlestone stated, “If the crown of David had been assigned to his successor in the days of Herod it would have been placed on the head of Joseph (the carpenter.” (Jesus the Christ, James E. Talmage, pg. 90)

And Mary, his wife, would have been queen; and Christ the legal successor.

“Jesus of Nazareth would have been the King of the Jews, and the title of the cross spoke the truth.”

4. The inn and the innkeeper. “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

Ancient manuscripts show the translation is correct…inn…singular. Ancient texts also confirm that there was only one inn at that time in Bethlehem, a kahn of considerable size built by King David, which housed flocks in the center and the travelers in open-aired stalls around the outside. Not the most private or quiet place to deliver a child.
This kahn, however, was more than enough in the tiny town of 500 people, or about 100 families.

Throughout the centuries, stories have vilified the unknown innkeeper as a hard-heart fool who turned away a woman in her plight but we must understand that he may not have been hard-hearted at all. Hospitality is one the greatest Jewish mitzvahs or commandments. In fact, it is absolutely forbidden to inflict or ignore suffering in another person and imperative that Jews do all in their power to save the life of another. In the Jewish culture and religion, a woman’s life is considered in mortal danger prior to and for three days after giving birth. If the innkeeper was a Jew he would have been required to ask his lodgers to give up their accommodations for the young mother-to-be and they, if they were Jewish, would have been required to do so.

A more plausible answer for the lack of room and the lack of hospitality may have been found with the ancient Romans. They took precedence in the land and had no understanding of, or empathy for, Jewish mitzvahs or another pregnant Jew. The inn, most likely, was being used to house the animals used by the Roman soldiers with Roman stock boys guarding them. Masses of Roman soldiers and officials had been sent to Bethlehem and surrounding areas to quell any uprisings.

It is far more probable that a kind Jew helped them find the privacy of the quiet stable…the last available private space in town since most Jewish home owners in the small town of only 100 families would have been forced to give up their own sleeping quarters to Roman officials, military leaders and soldiers.

5. Delivery.The use of midwives was a standard practice in childbirth. It is interesting to note that the Apocrypha says that Joseph, knowing the birth was eminent, when searching for a midwife to assist Mary. Yet, by the time they returned, the child had already been born and contentedly nursing. (Protevangelion 14)

This coming baby was the living Savior and no earthly hand would or could deliver Him. He also came swiftly the first time, just as He will the second time.

6. Shepherds. “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 3:8) Again, the translation is correct. These were shepherds in one specific field, keeping watch over their one flock by night.

Some speculate these shepherds were chosen and set apart to guard the sheep selected for sacrifice in the temple and that the angels came to announce to them that the true Lamb of the world had just been born.

Scriptures bear up that belief.

Micah 4:8 prophesies of the coming Savior and then announces, “And thou, O tower of the flock, the strong hold of the daughter of Zion, unto thee shall it come, even the first dominion; the kingdom shall come to the daughter of Jerusalem.”

Bethlehem, only five miles away from Jerusalem, was referred to as a daughter of Jerusalem…similar to our use of the term suburb today.

Furthermore, in Bethlehem was a field that held the temple flocks and this field is the only field with a tower erected to help guard the flocks. This tower and field, known as Migdal Eder, have been affirmed in the Talmud as the sacred location of the temple flocks.

Micah, 700 years earlier, prophesied that, to this sacred temple field watched over by a tower—in the suburb of Bethlehem—would the great birth be announced…the arrival of the Savior’s first dominion.

And, much like His first coming, the Savior’s Second Coming will also involve the sacred temple.

7. Swaddling cloths. Everyone likes to think that swaddling clothes were burial clothes and that Mary brought them because the journey was perilous and it because it also symbolized that she would live to bury her son.

They would be wrong.

Yes, the journey was perilous. Yes, Mary did live to bury her son but whenever swaddling clothes are mentioned in the scriptures they are mentioned in conjunction with newborn babies and not with death and burial.

So why would baby swaddling clothes be a sign to the shepherds, especially if every baby wore them? Because they knew, through prophecy, that the Savior would be born to the House of David.

They also knew, because of their culture, that the swaddling clothes would tell them the baby’s lineage. Much like Scottish kilts, the Jews assigned different colors to the different tribes. The tribe of Judah was assigned the color blue and those from the royal House of David embroidered dark “royal blue” on the edge of their special clothing, including the swaddling clothes they used to enwrap their babies.

When the shepherds saw those swaddling clothes, on a newborn babe lying in a manager, they knew what the angels were saying was true. The King of Kings had come. “The Savior, which is Christ the Lord” had finally been born.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Christmas Elephant

An elephant showed up, unexpectedly, at our house for Christmas 2004. I wasn’t planning on having an elephant join us then—or at any time—but once he arrived he quickly became a cherished part of Christmas.

He was living his life quite contentedly on the bottom display shelf at White Drug. I had taken my two girls there so they could purchase, ironically, small ‘White Elephant’ gifts for their class gift exchanges.

As usual with six children, money was tight. Even though we had been careful in our purchases, I only had twenty dollars left. That was it. There wasn’t a penny more and it was still over a week until Christmas.

At the store I needed to purchase the gifts for my girls as well as a few other last minute items requested by their teachers or needed for the holidays at home. If I was careful, I hoped to be able to purchase everything for fifteen dollars and still have five dollars left to buy gas for the van. Hopefully it would be enough fuel that I could continue to deliver papers each morning without using tithing money that had been set aside.

The girls didn’t know the financial situation. They were excited to go shopping. After looking at some plastic trinket, my four-year-old daughter—who was close to the same height as the bottom display shelf—turned around. The open, white winter coat she was wearing knocked the elephant over and he tumbled off the shelf and to the ground.

The sound of breakage caused me to turn and look. I saw the elephant lying in one place while his ear and tusk now rested in their own separate locations.

Inside I felt a sinking feeling. Through fourteen years and six kids I had never had to pay for something broken by my children in a store. They had been so careful, so responsible. Why now, when money was so tight?

Yet, at the same time I felt a quiet calm…as if the Lord was telling me the elephant was no ‘big’ deal.

I looked at my daughter and asked if she had been holding the elephant..

“No. I didn’t even touch it,” she responded and I could hear the truth in her voice and see the candid shock on her face. She was as surprised by the event as I was. Then I noticed she still had her tiny hands in her coat pockets. She hadn’t even had time yet to remove them.

While I picked up the three pieces, my daughter told me she had just turned around and the corner of her coat knocked it off the shelf.

I looked at the price tag. It would take thirteen of my twenty dollars. Inside I felt my heart sink. There was no way I was going to be able get what we needed.

I explained to the girls we would have to pay for the elephant but that meant we couldn’t buy the gifts right now. Not wanting them to feel bad, I told them things would be fine. We would just have to put everything back until I could get some more money. Silently I hoped it would come, though I didn’t know how.

The girls were very understanding as we went through the store returning each item. Then I took the elephant to the counter along with one item requested by a teacher. We paid for the purchases and the twenty dollars was gone.

As we drove home the girls asked what we were going to do with the broken elephant. I didn’t know. I knew it didn’t match the d├ęcor of our house and, because it was broken, it wouldn’t work as a Christmas present. But, with a cheerful voice I told the girls that we would fix it anyway then decide what to do with it.

Once at home we looked at the elephant. Inside I felt a peaceful assurance that, although this surprise trial had taken our remaining money, there were some things ‘bigger’ and more powerful than elephants. With gratitude I reflected on the events and was glad I had not been upset about it or let it ruin my daughters' night. I was also grateful that I had believed my four-year-old and not blamed her for the situation. Quietly, too, I was immensely grateful that the girls had been so understanding and even happy about putting their purchases back.

As I quietly reflected on these ‘bigger’ blessings, I also realized that, despite the setback, we had also been blessed financially that year just as we had every year. As tight as it was, our Christmas was better and ‘bigger’ than other years and I felt immense gratitude for what we had.

It was then I noticed the color of the elephant’s trappings. They were deep Christmas burgundy and gold. Suddenly I knew what we could do. We could repair the elephant, we would record his story, and then we would keep the elephant as a permanent reminder that some things are more important than money and presents at Christmas time: things like the feelings of others and gratitude for the gifts of the Lord.

With a genuine smile, I told the girls my idea and they grew excited, too.

So the elephant was repaired and left to await the recording of his story.

Early the next morning, with no money for gas, I left to deliver papers on a ten-mile route. Five houses into the route I found a card taped to the front door with my name on it. Inside was a twenty dollar bill—a tip for delivering the paper each morning.

Later in the route someone left me a box of cherry chocolates as their tip. It had been one of the requested last-minute Christmas items I had returned to the shelf just the night before.

Suddenly I was further ahead than I had been before the elephant blessed our lives. With tremendous gratitude in my heart I drove home knowing that some things, indeed, are bigger than elephants…like the Lord and those people on earth who listen to, then follow, His promptings to serve others.

I will always be grateful the day we brought an elephant home for Christmas.