(50) She gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. – Luke 2:7

Luke gives a short account of the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary have to travel from their home town of Nazareth to Bethlehem, at least three days’ journey on foot or donkey, in order to register to pay taxes to Rome as decreed by Caesar Augustus. It is there that Mary gives birth to “her firstborn, a son” (Luke 2:7) who they name Jesus, meaning ‘The Lord saves’. The traditional interpretation that there was no room at the inn is probably based on a mistranslation of the word which is elsewhere translated as “guest room” (see Luke 22:11) and it is more likely that she gave birth in a house which, like many at that time, would have also housed animals at one end, so the manger acted as an emergency cot.

Luke then describes the appearance of angels to shepherds who were “keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8). The angels directed the terrified shepherds to the town where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (Luke 2:16). The noisy shepherds spread the news throughout the whole town which amazed the people.

Jerusalem was only about five miles from Bethlehem so after about six weeks they made the journey to the temple to present their firstborn to the Lord. By now they had got used to this scrap of flesh who cried and fed and needed changing just like any other baby and maybe they were wondering if he really was that special, but at the temple they receive two confirmations of who he is.

First Simeon, an old man who was “righteous and devout” (Luke 2:25) came and took the child in his arms and prayed that he was now ready to depart this world as he told the Lord that “my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:30). He prophesied that Jesus would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32), as well as causing division in Israel. He is followed by an old lady called Anna who gave thanks for Jesus and started to speak to those around “who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).

Matthew ignores the reasons for Jesus being born in Bethlehem but records the visit of ‘Magi’, or ‘wise men’ “from the East” (Matthew 2:1). (Magi is a Greek word, the plural of Magos, which was originally associated with Persian priests, so indicating that their ‘wisdom’ came from the Medes and Persians. It is possible that their belief in a coming Jewish king came from Daniel who was the chief of the wise men in the time of Nebuchadnezzar 550 years earlier. They were not kings.) They arrived at King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem asking to see the baby “who has been born king of the Jews” saying that they “saw his star when it rose” (Matthew 2:2 – other versions have “in the East”).

Herod the Great, although not a Jew himself, had ingratiated himself in Rome and had been appointed as King of the Jews by the Roman Senate in 40BC. He was a ruthless, paranoid tyrant who killed his wife and three sons as well as others in his family and beyond in order to protect his throne. So, hearing of a potential rival claim to the throne greatly troubled him. He consulted the chief priests who told him that, according to the prophet Micah, the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Herod tells the wise men and asks them to bring news of the child back to him so that he can worship the child too.

The wise men visit Jesus in a house – this was many months after the visit of the shepherds – and worship him, giving costly gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Following a dream warning them not to go back to Herod they go home by a different route.

Joseph is then told in a dream to go to Egypt and so he takes Mary and Jesus there for some years until Herod died. Herod, once he realised that the wise men were not coming back, shows his true colours and sent his soldiers to kill all the male children in Bethlehem less than two years old. It was only after Herod died that Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth.

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