This is the first in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ. It's…
Life of Christ Part 2: The Nativity and boyhood
This is the second in a 12-part series looking at the life of Christ.
“And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).
With those simple, powerful words in the prologue of his Gospel, St. John introduces us to history’s central event: The Second Person of the Trinity became man in order to redeem us.
But the accounts of Christ’s birth and infancy in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew underline the fact that the circumstances of these events even now challenge our conventional expectations for such momentous happenings.
How is it, for example, that the creator and Lord not only became incarnate but did so in obscurity and poverty — “taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7)? And yet, is this really a surprise? How else, after all, could the Son of God possibly have become Son of Man except in a manner that was suited to the revolutionary reversal of values that lay at the heart of the coming of one who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28)?
God prepares the way for his son
The Gospel story of Christ’s birth as Luke tells it begins with a decree by the Roman emperor Augustus announcing a great census. Even this man — who was no one’s servant — thus became an unwitting agent of God’s plan. For all Jewish men had now to go to their ancestral towns to register, and for Joseph, like Mary a descendant of King David, that meant Bethlehem, the village near Jerusalem from which David had come.
But why didn’t Mary stay in Nazareth and have her baby there instead of making this difficult trip? The Gospels don’t say, but here is a guess.
As a devout Jew, Mary certainly knew that the prophet Micah foretold how the Messiah, the Jewish liberator and savior par excellence, would come from Bethlehem (cf. Micah 5:2). She also knew, or at least strongly suspected, that the child in her womb was he. For a long time she wondered how God would arrange for her to be in Bethlehem when the baby came. Now this Roman emperor and his census supplied the answer. So Mary insisted that she accompany Joseph, and he, knowing that his wife insisted only when there was good reason, agreed.
So they went to Bethlehem. There, in Luke’s words, “The time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:6-7). Consistent with the divine humility marking this entire event, simple shepherds tending sheep in the surrounding hills were the first to hear an angel’s announcement of “good news of great joy … for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord,” while a heavenly choir sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:10-11, 14).The shepherds went to Bethlehem, found the child in the manger and reported what they’d been told.
Obedience to Jewish customs
Eight days later, the infant was circumcised and given the name Jesus — meaning “God saves” in Hebrew (cf. Lk 2:21). Forty days after the birth, his parents took Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for him to be offered to God and for Mary to be purified. There they encountered two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who had waited their whole lives for the Messiah. Simeon greeted the child with an inspired outburst, praising God for fulfilling his promise that he would see the Christ before his death (cf. Lk 2:29-32).
Then, turning to Mary, the old man prophesied of dark events that lay ahead: “Behold this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be contradicted (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-35).
Matthew’s Gospel adds another important episode to the story of Jesus’ infancy.
Wise men from the East — representatives, G.K. Chesterton says, who of all those past and present “sought not tales but the truth of things” — follow a great new star and come to worship the newborn king. The Gospel does not identify them, but traditionally they’ve been given the names Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. With them they brought gifts: gold for Christ’s kingship, frankincense signifying his holiness, and myrrh, the ointment that years later will be used in preparing Jesus’ body for burial.
On their way, the Magi stopped to visit Herod and he, frightened at hearing of a new Jewish king, told them to report back to him what they found out. But, warned in a dream not to trust Herod, the Magi headed home by a different route. Furious, the king, a notoriously violent ruler who often resorted to bloodshed, ordered all boys two years old and younger in and around Bethlehem to be killed. But Joseph receives his own dream-warning, and the Holy Family fled to Egypt, thus escaping the massacre ordered by Herod. The Holy Innocents were the first to testify with their lives to the reality of the world’s enmity to all those linked to Christ.
The Gospels record only one incident from Jesus’ boyhood. Like other pious Jews, Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem yearly to celebrate the Passover. When Jesus was 12, they took him along. But when they set out for home, he — unknown to his parents — stayed behind. Supposing him to be with another family in the caravan, they traveled “a day’s journey” before realizing he was missing. Back to Jerusalem they rushed and there spent three frantic days searching for him. Finally, “they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). All who heard him, Luke adds, “were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2:47).
Mary and Joseph were understandably astonished: “[A]nd his mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?'” (Lk 2:48-49).
Conscientious parents may find a certain comfort in the thought that not even the Holy Family was immune to nerve-racking mixups. On a deeper level, we are reminded that Jesus from his early years was conscious of his unique relationship with the Father and his own unique calling. But he was to devote many patient years to discerning its specifics while working as a carpenter in Nazareth.
For now, then, Jesus simply returned home with Mary and Joseph, and there was “obedient to them.” As so often before, the mother kept all these things in her heart, while “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2:52).
Russell Shaw is a contributing editor for OSV Newsweekly.
Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours are familiar with the words of Simeon as his canticle is prayed by the faithful in Night Prayer (Compline):
“Now, Master, you may let your servant go
— Luke 2:29-32