THE RUN-UP TO THE NATIVITY AS REVEALED IN THE BIBLE
“After Elizabeth gave birth to her child [John the Baptist] she desired to call him John, but her friends and neighbours objected, saying that he should be called Zachary after his father. Zachary was still unable to speak. The kinsfolk and neighbours made signs to him, asking him what name should be given to the child. On a tablet he wrote that the child should be called John, that is, ‘Jahweh hath shown favour.’ Immediately the gift of speech was restored to him and he spoke, blessing God.
While the people assembled there were in wonder at this marvellous happening, Zachary himself, inspired by God, uttered a song destined to become famous forever:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people. And hath raised up a horn of salvation to us, in the house of David his servant. As he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets, who are from the beginning. Salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all that hate us. To perform mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy testament. The oath, which he swore to Abraham our father, that he would grant to us. That being delivered from the hand of our enemies, we may serve him without fear: In holiness and justice before him, all our days. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare His ways: To give knowledge of salvation to his people, unto the remission of their sins. Through the bowels of the mercy of our God, in which the Orient from on high hath visited us: To enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1:68-79).
FULFILMENT OF THE ANCIENT PROPHECIES
In the mind of Zachary, as in the mind of Mary, it seems clear that God is about to bring to pass the promise which He made to Abraham, the promise to bless Abraham and, through him, the nations of the world. In an ecstasy induced by the Holy Spirit he seems to allude to the prophecy of Zacharias [Zechariah]: ‘I will bring my servant the Orient’ (Zacharias 3:8). For he cries out: ‘The Orient from on high hath visited us: to enlighten them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death: to direct our feet into the way of peace.’
THE ROLE OF JOHN THE BAPTIST
Moreover, in the same Spirit of God Zachary realised that his own son John will play a secondary role in the great divine plan. John will be the prophet of the Highest, not the Highest Himself. John will go before the face of the Lord to prepare the people for His coming. Surely the words of Zachary, coming after the words of Elizabeth to Mary, emphasise the significance of the role of Mary’s Son.
AN ASCETIC LIFE OF PREPARATION IN THE DESERT
St Luke, who tells us this story of the birth of John, says nothing more of the early years of John except that the boy went at some undetermined date into the desert to live as an ascetic until the day when he began his work of preparing the way for the Lord.
A REAL GENTLEMAN
Meanwhile Mary had returned to Nazareth. She was betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter of Nazareth. On discovering that Mary, his betrothed, was already with child, Joseph was perplexed. His knowledge of her purity and her innocence, his great love for her, did not allow him to suspect her of some shameful sin. Yet he knew that he was not himself the father of the child, and so he was minded to restore to her her freedom, but in such wise that no stigma should attach to her name.
AN UNKNOWN VISITOR APPEARS DURING THE NIGHT
While he was in this frame of mind God sent him an angel in a dream who said to him: ‘Joseph, 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’ (Matthew 1:20-21). In these words, by addressing Joseph as the son of David, the angel suggests to Joseph that the child is the expected Messias, the Anointed One of the House of David. Moreover, by repeating what Gabriel had already said, that the child is to be named Jesus, that is, Jahweh is a saviour, he intimates the same thing. He also says clearly that Jesus is so-called because He will fulfil His role by saving the people from their sins.
‘THE ROOT OF JESSE’; A DESCENDANT OF KING DAVID
Thus enlightened by the angel of God Joseph takes Mary to himself as his wife. In this way Jesus, the son of Mary, became legally the son of Joseph, and hence also the son of David. St Luke seems to intimate (Luke 1:32, 69). That Mary was also of the House of David, and hence Jesus would have received the very blood of David from His mother.
But in the eyes of the Jews if His legal human father were not of the House of David, He would not have been considered of the family of David. On the other hand, the fact that Joseph was His legal father made Him in their eyes a true descendant of the House of David. On the side then of both His true mother and His legal foster father Jesus was truly of the House of David, and so could be the Child promised by God Who would inherit the throne of David forever.
OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT ORDERS
Now the birth of Jesus was as follows: Augustus, the Roman Emperor, ordered an enrolment or census should be made throughout the whole empire. As St Luke tells us, everyone was to be enrolled, each in his own city of origin. Hence Joseph, though living in Nazareth, had to go to Bethlehem, the city of David, from which the family of David took its origin.
It was this circumstance which led to the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem, instead of at Nazareth. In this way was fulfilled the prophecy of Micheas [Micah]: ‘And thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, art a little one among the thousand of Juda: out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel: and his going forth is from the beginning, from the days of eternity’ (Micheas 5:2).
ALL BED & BREAKFASTS WERE BOOKED TO FULL CAPACITY BY CENSUS TOURISTS
In obedience to the order of the emperor, Joseph and Mary, who was with child, went to Bethlehem. They were unable to find shelter at the inn. Hence they were forced to seek shelter in one of the surrounding caves. While there Mary gave birth to her Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger.
AMAZING NEWS IN THE COUNTRYSIDE
It was not fitting that the birth of the expected Saviour of Israel should go entirely unnoticed. God sent an angel to some shepherds who were pasturing their flocks in the same district.
To them the angel said: ‘Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people; for there has been born to you today in the town of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
Scarcely had he finished speaking when a multitude of heavenly angels appeared and sang joyfully: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will’ (Luke 2:10-12, 14).
And thus, in the silent simplicity of a cave and in proximity to peaceful shepherds with their gentle flocks, the Prince of Peace, God’s peace to men of good will, came in the flesh to their earth.
The historians are not in agreement on the exact date of this wonderful event. In the sixth century of our own era a certain Dionysius Exiguus made the year 1 A.D. (anno domini, that is, the year in which the Lord Jesus was born) the year 754 of the city of Rome. He made a mistake. Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive, and Herod died in the year 750 of Rome. Hence Jesus must have been born at least before that time, that is, by our present reckoning, at least in the early months of the year 4 B.C. Historians vary in their estimates of the year between the years 8 and 4 B.C.
A STRANGE AND WONDERFUL EVENT
The birth of Jesus is truly a strange and wonderful, even a portentous event. It is heralded in glowing though mysterious terms by the angel Gabriel. The ‘Son of the Most High,’ he says, is to be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Though Mary is betrothed to Joseph, the child will have no human father. The omnipotent power of God will incarnate Him in the womb of His mother. He will be called Jesus because He will be a saviour. He is the Messias, the Anointed One of Israel because He will inherit the throne of David, His ancestor, and will rule forever.
In Him will be fulfilled God’s ancient promise to Abraham to bring blessings to the whole world. A way will be prepared for Him by John, the son of Zachary; John will go before Jesus in the spirit and power of Elias; John, who will thus fulfil the prophecy of Malachias [Malachi]: ‘Behold I send my angel, and he shall prepare the way before my face. And presently the Lord whom you seek, and the angel of the testament whom you desire shall come to his temple’ (Malachias 3:1).”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959