Wednesday, May 18, 2016

20 Mysteries: The Birth of Jesus

Matthew 1:25-2:18:

[25] And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

[1] When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. [2] Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. [3] And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. [4] And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. [5] But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:
[6] And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. [7] Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; [8] And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. [9] Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. [10] And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.     [11] And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. [12] And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country. [13] And after they were departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell thee. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. [14] Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: [15] That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son.     [16] Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. [17] Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: [18] A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

Luke 2:1-20:

[1] And it came to pass, that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. [2] This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus, the governor of Syria. [3] And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. [4] And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, [5] To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
[6] And it came to pass, that when they were there, her days were accomplished, that she should be delivered. [7] And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. [8] And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night watches over their flock. [9] And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear. [10] And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people:
[11] For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. [12] And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. [13] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: [14] Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will. [15] And it came to pass, after the angels departed from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath shewed to us.     [16] And they came with haste; and they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. [17] And seeing, they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child. [18] And all that heard, wondered; and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. [19] But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. [20] And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God, for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

John 1:14:

[14] And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we saw his glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Now and forever. Amen.

This is the third Joyful Mystery in these 20 reflections on the mysteries of the rosary: the Birth of Jesus. The passages I'm gong to be looking at, which regard this event, are laden with meaning, and, quite frankly, there's a lot of text here to go through, as you can see. I will try to touch on some of what I consider to be the more important highlights of this story.

You will notice that there are two birth narratives, each situated within its own historical context, and each highlighting its own specific portents. In Matthew's narrative, we're reminded that Herod is the ruling king of the region, a minister under the rule of Caesar in Rome, and we're told the story of the visiting wise men, and the slaughter of the innocents. In Luke's narrative, we're told there is a census being taken, as ordered by the emperor, which is why Mary and Joseph are in Bethlehem, and there are no vacancies at any of the inns, and we also see the story about the shepherds who visit Jesus after He is born.

Herod and the Census

Firstly, in Matthew's account, we witness the death of Herod after the birth of Jesus. Since, from Roman records, we know Herod died in 5 B.C., this has to imply to us that, if Jesus was born late in the year (December), then Jesus must have been born 6 B.C., and John the Baptist conceived in 7 B.C. This still works, for keeping our timeline with Jesus being born in December, because between 7 and 5 BC, Zachary's Temple service would still have fallen within the March/April, September/October periods.

Luke's account doesn't mention Herod by name in this scene, but it should be understood that he was the ruler at the time, as he is mentioned as such in the previous chapter during the time when Zachary received his vision.

In Luke's account, we're told that Caesar Augustus issued a decreed that a census (or enrollment) of Roman citizens across the empire be taken. This accounts for two things: first, it gives us reason for Jesus and Mary being in Bethlehem, which was not their home (they lived in Nazareth). Apparently, the law was that in order to complete the census, one had to return to one's ancestral home to enroll. And since people had scattered throughout the region, there were a lot of people travelling for the same reason they were. Hence, no room at any of the inns.

Second, the mass movement of people would have made determining who the Christ child was nearly impossible for Herod. Sure, he's told that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, and under normal circumstances it should have been a simple matter to figure this out, because there would have only been so many children born at any given time. However, because of the preponderance of visitors, an effective investigation would have been difficult. Soldiers would have been tied up keeping the peace, and managing the crowds as they filled out the census. This gives us cause to understand why Herod asked the Wise Men to attempt to locate the child, since that's what they were doing anyway.

Jesus, Her Firstborn

Just a quick word on this. Both Matthew and Luke mention that Jesus was "her firstborn." This is neither to establish that Mary didn't have children before Him, nor to imply that she had other children after Him. Rather, the Firstborn was a particular status within Jewish tradition, and it wasn't always the child that was born first.

Firstly, a female child could not hold this status. The Firstborn always belonged to a male child. Furthermore, if you had children from both a wife and a concubine, it was the firstborn male of the wife who held this status, even if there were other children born before him by the concubine. Also, if you were a widower who took a second wife, the firstborn from the first wife continued to hold this status, even if the second wife had a son. So, the best we can determine from Jesus being named firstborn, was that Joseph didn't have children from a previous marriage.

More importantly, to be the Firstborn meant that you would carry the blessings and responsibilities of the Covenant. This is why the Firstborn features so prominently throughout the Old Testament. Establishing Jesus as the Firstborn is an indication that He carries in His person the responsibilities and blessings of the Covenant, which He is to fulfill.

The Blood of the Innocents and the Swaddling Clothes

You may be wondering why I've linked these two images, from the two Gospels, together. Allow me to explain. Each of these establish two things about Jesus: His mission and His humanity. After Herod realizes that the Wise Men have skipped town, he goes into a rage and kills all the boys in the area who were of an appropriate age. During this time, the angel commands Joseph to leave to Egypt for safety. This should immediately recall to our minds the massacre of the firstborn of Egypt at Passover, which allowed the People of God to leave Egypt, and be freed from their slavery. This establishes Jesus' mission: it is a salvific work of God; out of death, new life.

This also shows Jesus' dependence on His parents. He really is an infant who can be killed like any other, and there is certain need for them to flee the wrath of Herod. This is a clear demonstration of His humanity.

The Swaddling Clothes establishes the same things. There are only two other references to swaddling in the Bible. The first is Job 38:9. Set within the context of Job, a faithful servant who nevertheless struggles with God's will (as sure an image of Israel as there can be), the fuller context of the verse is the following:

[4] Where wast thou when I laid up the foundations of the earth? tell me if thou hast understanding. [5] Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it?
[1] The Lord: That is, an angel speaking in the name of the Lord. [6] Upon what are its bases grounded? or who laid the corner stone thereof, [7] When the morning stars praised me together, and all the sons of God made a joyful melody? [8] Who shut up the sea with doors, when it broke forth as issuing out of the womb: [9] When I made a cloud the garment thereof, and wrapped it in a mist as in swaddling bands? [10] I set my bounds around it, and made it bars and doors:

As a rebuke to Job's anger, God is basically putting him in his place. God has been around for a long time, from the foundations of the Earth. More than that, though, God, Himself, laid the foundations of the Earth. He created it. More than that (in verses 8-10) God references the great Flood "the sea... broke forth" as out of a womb, and He "swaddled" the sea in bands of cloud. The sea here is both the instrument of Salvation (mankind steeped in wickedness was destroyed that the Covenant be preserved), and the instrument of a new creation, and God handles it like a baby.

So, by specifically making reference to the fact that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes (which... of course you would do with a newborn baby), Luke is linking Jesus to another image of salvation, the Flood waters (Baptism), but this time it's God who is being swaddled, rather than Him doing the swaddling. And just as God was making the point with Job that His work and vision spans millennia, and therefore beyond human comprehension, so too ought we to see the great Providence in God's plan coming to fruition in this altogether unlikely scenario.

The other instance we see swaddling in the Bible is from the book of Wisom 7:4. The wider context is as follows:

[1] I myself also am a mortal man, like all others, and of the race of him, that was first made of the earth, and in the womb of my mother I was fashioned to be flesh. [2] In the time of ten months I was compacted in blood, of the seed of man, and the pleasure of sleep concurring. [3] And being born I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, that is made alike, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do. [4] I was nursed in swaddling clothes, and with great cares. [5] For none of the kings had any other beginning of birth.

Take a moment and imagine that Jesus is speaking the words. I hope this is enough to help establish His true humanity.

Bethlehem and the Manger

Bethlehem is derived from two Aramaic words which together mean "House of Bread." A manger is a feeding trough for animals. These two images taken together foreshadow the Eucharist. Jesus is laid in manger after He is born. This signifies that He is the True Food that comes from Heaven, and that He is born in the House of Bread indicates to us that this food is as the Manna that fed His forefathers in the desert. After the primary work of salvation takes place, passage through the Red Sea, Baptism, the symbol of death and rebirth, God sustains His people with Manna. Likewise, are we sustained, after the primary work of Salvation, our Baptism, by the Eucharistic meal in which we partake at each Mass.

The Wise Men and the Shepherds

Though the Messiah was given first to the Jews, through prophecy, and Covenantal Relationship, the first people to recognize the Messiah were foreigners and the lowest caste of Jewish society. It was not the Jewish High Priest, or priests, or the Scribes, neither the Pharisees nor the Sadducees, the ruling and teaching classes of Judaism. It was outsiders and the humble. People, incidentally, that nobody would believe.

The Shepherds were given a vision of angels singing the glory of this wondrous work. They were given clear direction of where to find their Saviour and Messiah. Their humility and simplicity afforded them a most awesome gift: to be among the first to witness the coming of the Messiah.

The Wise Men were given Divine guidance by the light of their own religious beliefs and scientific pursuits. They witnessed a star of such importance that they understood it as signifying the birth of a king. By this, we see that even non-believers may come to the truth as revealed by God in their own pursuits of truth and righteousness. For this, they were likewise given a gift afforded even to those most stringent of believers, considered the most righteous of their time. They were allowed to offer gifts and adoration to the king of the universe.

Gold, Frankincense, Myrrh

I'm going to finish with this. These are the gifts given to the Infant Jesus by the Wise Men. Each signifies an important truth about Jesus.

Gold - The first is gold. This symbolizes kingship, and is given to Him in recognition of the fact that He is a King.

Frankincense - This was a resin product that was burned as incense during religious ceremonies in the Temple. This gift was a symbol and recognition of Jesus as High Priest, according to the order of Melchizedek.

Myrrh - Like frankincense, myrrh was also a resin product. It was an oil that was used as an embalming agent in Jewish burial rites for it's pleasing aroma. This was a prophetic gift, signifying the kind of death Jesus would suffer.

I sincerely hope you made it this far. I know this was a large post, but I wanted to get to as much as I could. Thank you so much for reading!

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