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Friday, January 08, 2010

The Historical Milieu of Christ's Birth (part 4)

Last part. To read the earlier parts, please see above.

Part 4 - Christmas

For nine months Mary bore God in her womb. Only three (maybe four) people understood the importance of Mary’s pregnancy (Mary, Joseph, Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s husband Zachariah).

Around that time, Caesar Augustus called a census to determine just how many people he had in the empire. He did this several times throughout his reign, one in 28 BC, which recorded all the Roman citizens and the inhabitants of Gaul, one in 8 BC which had been for Roman citizens, and another that started between 6 and 5 BC, encompassing Palestine and Egypt. All families had to return to their hometowns to be counted. Joseph, with his pregnant wife, had to travel to Bethlehem, the town of David, to be counted. There he and his wife had to stay with the animals, a sort of makeshift room because all the proper rooms in the inns had been filled by other people who had come for the census. There Mary gave birth to Jesus. Angels appeared to some shepherds who were watching their flocks that night, and they came to the manger and worshipped the child. Mary and Joseph were probably surprised and at the same time understanding of the strange events occurring in front of them.

The Holy Family remained in Bethlehem for some time, no more than a couple years. Joseph probably worked with some family members, to provide for his growing family. Jesus grew as all babies do.

Then, one day, some strange visitors arrived to see Jesus. In the Far East, as mentioned in an earlier post in this series, Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion distantly related to the faith of the Hebrews, had developed over the centuries. Around the time of Christ’s birth, some sort of astronomical sight appeared in the sky. Some priestly scholars of Zoroastrianism, the Magi, traveled from Persia to Israel, following the pattern of the astronomical sign in hopes of finding a king. What exactly the Magi followed has been debated throughout the centuries. Was it Haley’s Comet? Was it Jupiter or Saturn in a specific constellation? Did the Magi see the visual echoes of a supernova so many years in the past? We do not know for sure, but what is known is that magi came and visited the Holy Family in Bethlehem. The Magi stopped at Herod’s palace on the way there. Herod was the king of Israel, but not in the same sense that Saul, David, and Solomon had been kings so many centuries before. Herod was more a puppet king of the Romans. It was still a position of power, however, and Herod was vicious in his attempts to keep control of his “kingdom,” even to the point of killing members of his family in fits of paranoia. He did not take well the Magi’s request for the location of the King of the Jews. He told the foreigners to return to him and tell him where the King was, so that he could honor the newborn. His intention was not to honor the king but to kill him. The Magi were warned of this by an angel in a dream, and they returned to Persia through another route.

Herod, in his rage, ordered the death of all male babies under the age of two. The Holy Family had escaped, however, to Egypt, where they lived until Herod’s death in 4 BC; afterwards, the Holy Family returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew to manhood.

We know very little of his life after his birth before his public ministry, save the episode when Jesus was about 12, where he was lost in the Temple in Jerusalem. We see him again, probably in his early 30s, meeting his cousin John in the desert near the Jordan River. It is John the Baptist, Christ’s cousin, who declares to the disciples and to us the command that all should take to heart: “Behold the Lamb of God.”

And with that command, the Church closes the Christmas season.

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