It is a story that never grows old in the telling:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. …
“And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
“And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
“To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
“And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”1
We find it remarkable that the very Son of God, the great Jehovah of old, should be born into this mortal world in the humblest of circumstances. An inn would have been lowly enough, but it was not even an inn. Rather it was a stable, and the babe was laid on the hay of a manger where common animals fed. Even so, the greater condescension is that Jesus should have submitted to mortality at all, even if He were to be born in the best and most elegant of circumstances. With Paul, we marvel at “God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh”2—that He should have become a baby; that He should have been a child and then a man, suffering “temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue”3 and even death.
How is it that He who ruled on high in the heavens, the very Creator of the earth, should consent to be born “after the manner of the flesh”4 and walk upon His footstool5 in poverty, despised and abused and, in the end, be crucified? Why this near inconceivable degradation? Jesus explained: “I came down from heaven, not to do mine own will, but the will of him that sent me. … And this is the will of him that sent me, that every one which seeth the Son, and believeth on him, may have everlasting life: and I will raise him up at the last day.”6 Faithfully, Jesus endured all that was necessary in life and in death to atone, redeem, and establish a celestial pattern for the children of God—for us.
It was essential that the Son of God be born in the flesh and descend below all things7 that He might “redeem all things.”8 Paul spoke of it as Jesus having “descended first into the lower parts of the earth … that he might [fulfill] all things.”9 Then, “when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive.”10 In latter-day revelation we read that “he that ascended up on high, [is] also he [that] descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ.”11
Jesus was the Firstborn among spirits and the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. Although we are not begotten of God in the flesh, we are, just as Jesus, the spirit offspring of God. Thus, our birth into mortality is also something of a condescension, and like Christ’s, it has a noble purpose. Just as Jesus, we came down from heaven to do the will of Him that sent us and to achieve, with the grace of Christ, immortality and eternal life.12 Might it be important for us, as we seek to “ascend up on high,” also to descend below at least some things that we might comprehend more fully and become more Christlike? If Jesus needed certain experiences, might we also require some challenges and trials, “that [our] bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that [we] may know according to the flesh how to succor [one another] according to [our] infirmities”?13
The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith while he was a prisoner in the jail at Liberty, Missouri, some of what Joseph had yet to suffer, and then He said: “All these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?”14
At this season, I recall the poignant experience of Joseph F. Smith, the sixth President of the Church, at an earlier time in his life, when he was a young father:
“He was working at the Church tithing office from 6 a.m. until 11 p.m. each day, for which he received three dollars per day in tithing pay. [Tithing pay] meant that he could go to the tithing store and exchange his pay [voucher] for flour or meat or molasses. At least the family had food [although little or no money]. He described how he felt that holiday as he longed to provide his family with a wonderful Christmas:
“‘I left the old home with feelings I cannot describe. I wanted to do something for my [children]. I wanted something to please them, and to mark the Christmas day from all other days—but not a cent to do it with! I walked up and down Main Street looking into the shop windows—into … every store—everywhere—and then slunk out of sight of humanity and sat down and wept like a child, until my poured-out grief relieved my aching heart; and after a while returned home, as empty as when I left, and played with my children, grateful and happy only for them.’”15
Joseph F. Smith grew up without his father, Hyrum Smith, and in his youth was sometimes rough and undisciplined. I cannot help but believe that this experience, along with others, helped transform him into the strong, tender, and spiritually sensitive man he became. Just as the Savior, “though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered.”16
If we consistently rely on “the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah”17 and look to Him in every thought,18 whatever we suffer will also lead us to be better. But this is not all. Just as the Savior’s experiences in mortality had redeeming purpose, our experiences, especially the difficult ones, will prepare and enable us to lift and help redeem one another.
At Christmas when we ponder the birth of Jesus and His example of near-constant service, we are prone to draw from our own resources that which would bless and liberate others. The stories of people helping and blessing one another at Christmastime are legion. And that is certainly one of the main reasons we rejoice so much in this holiday.
One such story unfolded just a few weeks ago in West Jordan, Utah. Four-year-old Ethan Van Leuven had battled an acute form of leukemia since he was two. He had been treated with an experimental drug, full-body radiation, and a bone marrow transplant. Though the cancer was in remission for a time, by October of this year it was out of control and no longer treatable.
Ethan’s father, Merrill, and mother, Jen, realized that their little boy would soon be taken from them. “I … want him to know how proud I am of him,” said Merrill, “for fighting through this, and in the midst of his challenge being such an example of faith and strength to me.”19
Halloween was coming at the end of October, Ethan’s birthday was in November, and his favorite holiday, Christmas, would come the following month. When it became apparent that Ethan would not live long enough to experience any of these one last time, the members of his ward and stake and other neighbors and friends banded together to hold all of these celebrations for Ethan in one week—Halloween was on Tuesday, a birthday celebration on Thursday, Christmas Eve on Friday, and Christmas Day on Saturday. Ethan’s parents, who had often helped others, now graciously accepted the help that so many wanted to give.
“Christmas Eve,” on October 24th, featured Santa Claus arriving at the Van Leuven home on a fire truck. Some sent or brought gifts to Ethan. A 13-year-old boy, a stranger to the family, donated his stuffed animal collection that had been years in the making. A local radio station played Christmas music for three hours in the evening for Ethan and his family. More than 150 people crowded into the Van Leuvens’ front yard, singing Christmas carols, and members of the ward created a live Nativity on the lawn, complete with a small baby representing the Christ child. The family was taken on a hayride pulled by a tractor through the neighborhood, where neighbors had decorated their homes with Christmas lights.
Finally, Ethan and his family returned home for a private “Christmas Eve” celebration and their “Christmas Day” on Saturday, concluding their week of holidays. Ethan passed away three days later, leaving behind a family and a community enriched by his example and their own acts of love and service to make a suffering child’s last days happy ones.20
And so at Christmas, the stories of sacrifice and ministering multiply across the world. Our gifts and service gladden hearts; the kindness of others pours healing balm into our own wounds. It is living the Savior’s way of life. And since, as He, we came down from heaven to do the will of the Father, it must not be only an annual event, but rather the pattern of our lives. In all that serves to deepen our empathy, broaden our understanding, and purify our souls, His declaration reassures us: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.”21