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Friday, January 08, 2010

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 3)

Hey, guess what? Its still CHRISTMAS!!!! So I get to finish my series on Christmas!!!!

Part 3 – Israel and Christ's Advent

Immediately after the Fall of Man, God gave the first couple a promise of a savior. Genesis 3:15 records this prophecy, where the offspring of the woman will crush the head of the serpent. The salvation of the world therefore did not start with Christ, but rather reached its climax with Him. The path for this ultimate act of redemption was foretold throughout Israel’s history. Prophets throughout the centuries offered hope to a nation that constantly found itself under the rule of foreign rulers and sinful kings. Most of the Hebrew prophets offer predictions of the coming Messiah. Isaiah foretold the nature of his birth and his death. Jeremiah offered songs appropriate to the Messiah’s suffering. Even minor prophets, like Micah had prophecies about the Messiah (Micah mentioned that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem). This history of prophecy provided not merely a hope of a Messiah, but an assurance that the Messiah would come.

When Alexander the Great’s empire broke apart, the ruler of Palestine imposed the pagan beliefs on the Hebrews. The Maccabees would not stand for such scandal, and they stood up in revolt of their oppressors. This revolt was so successful that many Jews thought the Messiah would come from the Maccabee family, not from that of David, as held in the prophets mentioned above.

By the time the Romans possessed Palestine, the prophecies of the Messiah swelled to a peak. Several false messiahs abounded in Palestine (hence why Christ’s ministry was so striking: Here was a man who claimed to be the Messiah and who actually acted like one), each one claiming the title of savior. Political and spiritual organizations formed in connection with beliefs concerning the coming Messiah. Hebraic zealots set up small political revolutions against the occupying Romans. One of Christ’s Apostles (Simon the Zealot) was a member of this political revolution, before abandoning it to follow Christ. Barabbas, the revolution freed by Pilate instead of Jesus, may have been a zealot as well. On the spiritual side, a community of scholars met in the caves around the Dead Sea, recording the Hebrew Scriptures on animal parchment and papyrus. John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin and herald in the desert, may have studied with these scholars. Also around this time, the Targums, which were spiritual interpretations of the Hebrew Scriptures by rabbis in Judea, were published. How, these rabbis wondered above all else, would the Messiah be called Yahweh, as he clearly is in the Hebrew Scriptures? Would he be God, God’s servant, or somehow both?

These political and spiritual circumstances swirled through the minds of Mary and Joseph as they gave birth to the Savior of the World.

The immediate personal circumstances around Christ’s birth reflect the history of the times. Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived in Nazareth, and was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter who was a descendent of King David. An angel appeared to Mary while she was working in her house in Nazareth. The conversation between angelic messenger and the human listener is a fascinating insight into the nature of Christ’s birth, and we deviate here from our broad historical survey to examine this passage in Scripture. We turn to the Gospel of Luke, which reads like a historical document. The passage (Luke 1:26-38) describing the conversation between Mary and the angel, called the Annunciation, reads as follows:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How shall this be, since I have no husband?" And the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God. And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her.

The passage is rich in theology, and has been examined throughout the Church’s history. The angel greets Mary as “O favored one,” or “Full of Grace,” as some translations read. Mary, being immaculately conceived, that is, conceived without original sin, bears as her name that which best reflects her nature. She is the “favored one” of God. The angel’s message is even more amazing as he reveals that Mary will conceive and give birth to the Son of God. The angel speaks to Mary in the future tense, of things which will happen. Mary’s reply, interestingly enough, is in the present tense. The angel says Mary “will conceive.” Mary asks “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” She is betrothed, as mentioned in the second verse of the passage, to Joseph. She could very well have relations with Joseph after they are married, and thus conceive the Son spoken of in the angel’s prophecy. But Mary is puzzled how it is to happen.

The answer lies in a spiritual practice in Israel at the time. Young girls were dedicated to God, and as a sign of their dedication vowed not only to be perpetually chaste, but to remain virgins. The practice has a pagan counterpart in the Vestal Virgins of Rome. In both cases, the virgins were to remain free from sexual relations. If it was found that these virgins had broken their vows, they were treated like adulterers and were stoned. Vows bore great weight. Mary’s present tense reply, that she does not have a husband, seems to imply that she has not had sexual relations, nor does she intend on having them (this explanation is emphasized in other translations, where Mary says “How can this be, since I do not know man”). The angel’s explanation, that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, overshadow her, and through that act of the Spirit, the Son will become incarnate in her womb. It would have been beyond Mary’s understanding, but she assented, and at the moment of her “let it be,” the Incarnation occurred.

Et Incarnatus est. . .

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