Two thousand years ago, a man named Augustus won a great naval battle at place called Actium. With the conclusion of this battle, he became master of the Roman Empire and the first emperor. Over the next forty years he rebuilt and reformed Rome the city, and Rome the society. As part of this reformation, he decided to take a census the entirety of the empire so his people could be accounted for and taxed.
One challenge he had in doing this was that the Roman Empire was not a homogeneous society. There were Italians, Carthaginians, Gauls, Celts, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Spaniards, and Germans. Many of these peoples had been part of the empire for less than one hundred years. The traditions of these societies were very much alive in the minds of the people. These conquered societies may have been under the control of Rome, but there was always the threat of rebellion. One sure way to start a rebellion was to begin a series of taxes to feed the government of the conquerors. How was Augustus going to fulfil his desire to count and tax his people?
The answer was simple and brilliant. Instead of counting and taxing the whole empire according to the customs of Rome, Augustus allowed the far-flung territories to count and tax according to local tradition. This solved the immediate political question, but the emperor did not realize that he was part of fulfilling prophecies about the life and mission of Jesus Christ.
“The Lord Hath Comforted His People”
What are these prophecies? While there are too many to recount individually, I would like to highlight a few.
After Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, they were commanded to offer animal sacrifices. All Adam and Eve knew at the time was that their Father commanded it. Still, they acted in faith knowing that God asked them to do it for an important reason. The Book of Moses says that “after many days” an angel appeared to Adam. This angel asked why he was making the sacrifices. Adam answered by saying he did not know exactly why he did it, but since it was commanded by God, he would do it. The angel then explained what animal sacrifice was for. He said: “This thing is a similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten of the Father, which is full of grace and truth.” (Moses 5:7) Adam learned that a Saviour would be born, and His mission was to lay down His life as a sacrifice on behalf of the Children of God so their sins could be paid for.
Isaiah lived about seven hundred years before Christ and was prolific in his prophecies of the Messiah. In the ninth chapter of his book, He proclaimed: “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” It is interesting that in this scripture we are not told that Jesus would die for us. Rather, He was declared to be a person who could give us rest. Because of Him, we do not need to worry about anything. When we have troubles, He will counsel us. When we are afraid, He will give us peace. When we are unsure of policy, rules, and guidelines- He will teach us.
Later in his writings, Isaiah taught us about our Messiah. “Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O Earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon us afflicted. But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.” Here we read that we are to be happy and rejoice in the Lord. Zion’s (Israel’s) response was that they felt forsaken by God. Isaiah, writing as though the Saviour was speaking, said: “Can a woman forget her suckling child, that she should not have compassion upon the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet I will not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me.” Isaiah shows us that because of the wounds in His hands, Jesus is constantly reminded of us and what His mission is.
There were also many prophecies of the life and mission of the Saviour in the Book of Mormon. Nephi had a vision where he saw the birth of Christ, His life, His death, and His resurrection (see 1 Nephi Chapter 11). Alma preached that Jesus would come and take upon Himself the pains and sicknesses of the world so He could know how to succour His people (see Alma Chapter 7). One of the greatest Book of Mormon prophecies of the life and mission of Jesus came from Samuel the Lamanite.
Samuel was sent by God to preach to the Nephites and call them to repentance. The people rejected his words and threw him out of the city of Zarahemla. He was called by God to go again to the city and preach- he was told that there was much more that the people needed to hear.
Since the people would not let him through the gate, he climbed the wall and taught from there, where all could see and hear him. He told the people that the coming of the Messiah was to occur in five years’ time. The past prophecies were quite clear that Jesus would be born, live and die in the land of Jerusalem so Samuel gave the people a sign to look for. He said that they would know that the Saviour was born when there would be
great lights in heaven, insomuch that in the night before he cometh there shall be no darkness, insomuch that it shall appear unto man as if it were day. Therefore, there shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night […] for ye shall know of the rising of the sun and also of its setting; therefore that shall know of a surety that there shall be two days and a night; nevertheless the night shall not be darkened; and it shall be the night before he is born. (Helaman 14:4)
Samuel also said that there would be a new star that would be visible to the people. These signs, and others that were not written would prove the coming of the Saviour.
The final two prophecies that I would like to look at are made immediately before the birth of Jesus. The first was a vision given to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary lived in Nazareth, a city in Galilee which is north of Jerusalem. She was unmarried but engaged to Joseph, a carpenter that also lived in Nazareth. Mary was visited by Gabriel, an angel of God. Gabriel said, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed are thou among women.” Understandably, Mary was a little frightened by the visit. After allaying her fear, Gabriel told her that she had been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. She was told that His name was to be Jesus and that He was to have many titles such as “Son of the Highest” and that He shall be given the throne of David to rule over the house of Jacob forever (see Luke 1:26-33).
The faith of Mary at this point is extraordinary. She did not hesitate when she said, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38) This simple statement is filled with maturity and discernment. She was a young woman who was to become pregnant without being married. At the time, this was an exceedingly serious offence. The Law of Moses sets out some very dire consequences for unwed mothers- she could be stoned to death. Still, Mary trusted in the Lord knowing that if God sent an angel to her, promising that the Saviour of the world was going to be her son, it would come to pass.
Let us now turn to Joseph. Eventually he found out that Mary was pregnant. He knew the child was not his, and he also knew that Mary could be stoned for being pregnant (see Deuteronomy 22:23-24). It would have been a trying time for him. What would he do? He could either accuse her of being a criminal or he could be merciful and quietly settle the matter. Joseph chose mercy. As he continued to ponder on his choice, he was granted a dream. In the dream, an angel appeared to him and explained who the child was going to be. He said, “Joseph, thou 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) Joseph got up and did exactly as the angel commanded.
“She Shall Bring Forth a Son”
A few months before his meeting with Mary, Gabriel was sent to Zacharias. Zacharias was a priest and served in the temple at Jerusalem. It was his responsibility to burn incense at the altar inside the temple. While he was doing this, Gabriel appeared and spoke with Zacharias. Gabriel promised him that his wife, Elizabeth, would conceive and bear a son. His mission would be to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, long awaited by the Jews. The name of the boy was to be John.
How would you react to such a promise? I am sure many would be surprised, or humbled. Zacharias, considering his and Elizabeth’s ages, scoffed and said that it was impossible since they were both too old to have children. To remind Zacharias of the power of God and give him a sign of the truth of the promise, Gabriel said that he would be struck dumb until the birth of John. This came to pass and when he came out of the temple Zacharias’s family saw he could not speak. They soon discerned that he had seen a vision (see Luke 1:9-22). In due course, Elizabeth became pregnant.
When Mary was visited by Gabriel, she was told of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary, who was a relative, decided to travel and stay with Zacharias and Elizabeth. When Mary arrived, and Elizabeth saw her, the unborn child “lept in her womb” and she was filled with the Holy Ghost. Elizabeth then said,
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? […] And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:41-45)
This would have been a welcome testimony to Mary. As mentioned above, she was in danger from established law and what Joseph would do, it would have been greatly reassuring hearing the words of Elizabeth.
Mary’s response to Elizabeth shows both the trepidation and hope she felt.
My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden; for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever. (Luke 1:46-55)
She saw herself as unworthy but knew that her child would do a great work among God’s children.
After spending three months with Zacharias and Elizabeth, Mary returned home. Once home, she confronted the issue of being pregnant and unmarried. Her faith was rewarded with Joseph learning the truth about the child she would bear and his decision to stand in as the father.
It was at this point that Augustus, in far off Rome, declared the census of the empire in preparations for new taxes. It was the custom of the Jews to be counted according in family groups in the traditional homeland of that family. This meant that there was going to be a lot of travel for the people in the province of Judaea. It was not enough for the head of the family to travel to the ancestral homeland, the whole family had to go as well. Joseph, being of the royal house of David would have to travel to the town of Bethlehem to be counted. Mary was compelled to go with him according to the laws and customs of the Jews- even in her late term pregnancy.
We are not sure how long the journey took but we do know that the path they would follow would be difficult in the best of circumstances. Travelling from Galilee to Bethlehem involves crossing rivers, traversing gorges and hills, sleeping under the stars, and enduring tremendous heat. It is not hard to imagine the struggle it would have been for Mary and Joseph to move with those who trundled south with them.
Good Tidings of Great Joy
Eventually, Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. We are told that the inns were filled to capacity. There was no room anywhere. With the amount of people traveling to and through Bethlehem, it is likely that private homes were filled too. The only place that had room to house people was a stable. While not ideal, Mary and Joseph took up residence in the stable until they could fulfill the requirements for the census. We are not sure how the counting was done or how long it took but Luke tells us that “the days were accomplished that she should be delivered,” so it is entirely possible that Mary and Joseph were there for more than a few days.
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7) What a simple statement. The Gospel is built on simple things. What a wonderful comfort it is to know that something as momentous and integral to our salvation can be encapsulated in a few simple words. There was the Redeemer, laying in a simple manger, wearing simple clothes, with simple surroundings.
It was at this time in the land of the Nephites that Samuel’s prophecy was fulfilled. The sun set but there was no darkness. The new star also shone brightly for the people to see. So spectacular were these signs and the teachings by the prophets that many of the non-believers were converted to the gospel (see 3 Nephi 1:19-23).
Outside of Bethlehem there lived shepherds. These shepherds were taking their turn being the night guards over the sheep they cared for protecting them from predators. They were fiercely loyal to their sheep- as they were to their own families. They were dedicated to the safety of the sheep- preferring to die rather than let a predator kill the sheep. As they kept their nightly vigil, they were astonished to see an angel clothed with the glory of the Lord. They feared what was to happen to them (see Luke 2:9).
The angel calmed them saying: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” This simple statement fulfils every person’s desire- to know that they are loved and cared about. The life and mission of the Saviour is for all of us. None are excused from the love of God and the scope of the Atonement. The angel continued, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” The shepherds were granted an expansion of their vision when “a multitude of the heavenly host” appeared and praised God. They reiterated the message of the angel saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” After giving this praise, the vision closed (Luke 2:10-15).
What happens next is remarkable. The shepherds whose duty was to watch over the sheep at night, defending them from nocturnal predators, chose to leave their flocks and hastily travel into Bethlehem to find the newborn Saviour of the world. They trusted what they had been told by the angel and sought after the Lord. Luke wrote that the shepherds did not hesitate to go and look for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. They found the family just as the angel had told them (see Luke 2:15-20).
Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like to be someone in Bethlehem that night. I cannot imagine that it would be too comfortable staying in a town that was overcrowded, doing something that was incredibly inconvenient. It must have been jarring to have shepherds travel through the town at night rejoicing and praising God after they had seen the Messiah. The people they woke marveled at what the shepherds had said. The true import of the message of the shepherds did not resonate completely with those that heard them rejoice. They did not take the time to hear what the shepherds were saying. We know this because of what Luke told us of Mary’s unique reaction to the shepherds- “But Mary kept all these things, an pondered them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19)
Mary took time to consider and understand what had happened that night. She did what we all should do. We need to take the time to think and pray about the truth of new information we receive. It is not enough to marvel at something we see or hear, we need to put that information to the test by seeking the Lord’s will.
“There Came Wise Men from the East”
Something that is not commonly understood by us today is the respect given to the deities of differing cultures by ancient societies. The Romans allowed their conquered peoples to continue worshipping their deities. The Greeks that ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great conquered the country, merged some of their gods with the Egyptian equivalent. Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, decreed that the temple in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt (see Ezra Chapter 1).
The prophecies of a coming Messiah had been spoken, written, and shared over many centuries. They were spread around the ancient empires of the Middle East through the conquest and resettlement of the Children of Israel beginning in 721 BC. There were quite a few large Jewish communities in cities such as Alexandria in Egypt- home to the Great Library, Babylon, and Antioch. With these large communities, came copies of the scriptures that would be used to teach the Jews. The scriptures would have also would have been copied and placed in centres of learning, like the Great Library of Alexandria to be available for study by others.
Matthew records in the second chapter of his book that after Jesus had been born wise men came from the east. We are not sure who they were or how many came to see Him. What is known is that they had studied the ancient prophecies, internalizing their message. They saw the same star that the Nephites had seen and correctly understood it to be a sign of the birth of the Messiah. With the appearance of the star, they set out to find the Saviour so they could bring gifts and worship Him.
After a meeting with King Herod in Jerusalem, the Wise Men arrived in Bethlehem. Their first reaction to seeing the young child was to fall down and worship Him (Matthew 2:11). Though Jesus had not yet begun His ministry, the Wise Men were still able to see who He truly was. Their studies and travels were not in vain- the Lamb of God lived and was growing “in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.” (Luke 2:52) They left gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh for the child and departed back to their homes in the east.
“I Must Be About My Father’s Business”
Why is the birth of the Saviour a momentous and defining event in the history of the world? What does commemorating it do for us? The answer is exceedingly simple. The birth of the Messiah fulfilled an old hope and inspired a new one. The people who lived before the coming of the Saviour looked forward with hope to the time when he would come and Atone for their sins, take their pains and sicknesses upon Himself, and break the bands of death. Their hope was fulfilled with His coming and the performance of the Atonement. The new hope He inspired is the hope we have today. The hope that we are able access the enabling and cleansing power of the Atonement when we repent of our mistakes and seek to lift those around us.
The birth of Jesus Christ is the hinge of history. Every prophet from Adam to Nephi son of Helaman, taught that there would be a Christ and He would live and die for us. Every prophet and apostle from Peter to Russell M. Nelson taught that Christ did come, did live, and did die for us. They have also taught that Jesus rose again and continues to look after us today.
Our current priesthood leaders have encouraged us to gather Israel on both sides of the veil in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We have been asked to search for our ancestors and prepare to take their names to the temple so they can receive the blessings and covenants that are made there. Temple and Family History work is missionary work. We reach out to our ancestors just as missionaries reach out to our friends and neighbours. We invite them to come unto Christ and show our love for them by performing the proxy ordinances. Elder Dale G. Renlund said that Temple and Family History Work is “far more than an encouraged hobby, because the ordinances of salvation are necessary for all of God’s children. […] Is breathtakingly amazing that, through family history and temple work, we can help to redeem the dead.”
Our efforts to gather Israel on this side of the veil take two tracks. First is the missionary work we do when we share our testimonies with those around us. When we prayerfully seek opportunities to share what we know to be true, we will find those friends of ours who are ready and able to learn about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Lord Himself declared to Joseph Smith that the worth of a soul “is great in the sight of God.” He followed that statement by saying that we would have unrivalled joy when someone is converted to the Gospel and joins the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see Doctrine and Covenants 18:10, 14-16). Inviting people to come unto Christ is what we promised to do when we were baptised. Alma explained that we covenanted to stand as a witness of Jesus Christ at the time of our baptism.
Alma also outlined the second track of the gathering of Israel on this side of the veil. This second track is Ministering. We are to reach out and lift those who need help. Life is hard. We all have good days and bad days. When you think back to your bad days, how often has someone said an encouraging word, smiled, or done service for us? How much did that brighten your day? All of those simple and natural acts were efforts to Minister to us. They helped us pick ourselves up and continue moving forward.
I would like to close with this quote from Pope Francis:
It is nice to hear this encouraging word: stand up and raise our heads because right during those moments when everything seems to be coming to an end, the Lord comes to save us. We await Him with joy, even in the midst of tribulations, during life’s crises and the dramatic events of history.
The birth of the Saviour is one of those moments where He comes to save us. He came to teach us how to look after each other. He came to take anything and everything that hurts us upon Himself so He can better Minister to us. He came to give hope to the discouraged, joy to the sad, courage to the weak, and peace to the fearful. In that stable long ago, a baby was born who would teach us that love is the greatest tool we have when we reach out to lift up. We are His hands- given the ability to share His message and do what he did. As we go through this Christmas season, look for opportunities and listen to the promptings you receive to help someone.