This Christmas season, through all of our various Christmas traditions, I hope that we are focused first upon the Lord Jesus Christ. Wise men still adore Him.
We commemorate His humble birth at this time of year, even though we know it did not occur in December but in April. Scriptures declare that His mother, Mary, was espoused to Joseph. They had participated in the first of two components of a Jewish marriage ceremony. Their espousal might be likened to an engagement in our culture, which is followed later by the second component of a marriage ceremony.
Luke’s account records the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary when she first learned of her favored future.
“And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
“And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus.
“He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest” (Luke 1:30–32).
Note the capitalization—God is the Highest. Jesus was to be the Son of the Highest.
Before Joseph and Mary came together, she was expecting that holy child. Joseph desired to protect her privacy,1 hoping to spare Mary the punishment given to a woman found pregnant without a completed marriage. While he pondered these things, the angel Gabriel appeared to Joseph, saying,
“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).
Mary and Joseph did not need to be taught the deep significance of the name Jesus. The Hebrew root from which it was derived, Jehoshua, means “Jehovah is salvation.” So the mission of Jehovah, soon to be named Jesus, was salvation, and His supreme destiny was to become the Savior of the world.
Now let’s consider the fond and familiar story that we read at Christmastime in the second chapter of Luke:
“And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed” (Luke 2:1).
This was really a registration of the citizenry of the empire of Rome. Herod made a decision that people should be counted in the land of their ancestors. Mary and Joseph, then living in Nazareth, had to travel southward to the city of David, a distance of approximately 70 miles (113 km). Perhaps they traveled even farther if they went around the hostile intermediate province of Samaria.
Almost certainly they traveled with relatives who likewise were summoned to the land of their ancestry. This difficult trek was no doubt made with their animals, such as dogs and donkeys. They likely camped out several nights, as three to four days would have been required for that journey.
“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” (Luke 2:7).
To better understand this verse, we need to be aware of the culture of that time and region, and we need to learn one word from the original Greek text. In the Greek New Testament, the root from which inn was translated is kataluma. We don’t have an equivalent word in the English language. The Greek prefix kata- (or cata-) means “a bringing down.” We see it in English words such as catastrophe and cataclysm. When the prefix kata- was joined with the suffix -luma, it meant literally “a breaking down of a journey.” A kataluma was a place to rest or to lodge, or a guest chamber in a lodging place.
In those days an inn was not like a Holiday Inn or a Bethlehem Marriott. A lodging place in that part of Asia had to provide accommodations for traveling caravans, including the people and their animals. Caravans stayed at what was then, as still is, known as a caravansary, or a khan.
Such a facility is typically rectangular in shape. It has a central courtyard for the animals that is surrounded by walled cubicles where the people rest. These quarters allowed guests to be elevated slightly above their animals, with open doorways so that owners could watch over their animals.
The Joseph Smith Translation of Luke 2:7 indicates that there was no room for them in the “inns,” suggesting that all of the katalumas or cubicles of the caravansary were occupied.
At a caravansary, animals were secured for the night in the center courtyard. In that courtyard there would have been donkeys and dogs, sheep, and possibly camels and oxen, along with all of the animals’ discharges and odors. Because the guest chambers surrounding the courtyard were filled, Joseph possibly made the decision to care for Mary’s delivery in the center courtyard of a caravansary—among the animals. There, in that lowly circumstance, the Lamb of God was born.
Instead of those four words: “wrapped in swaddling clothes” in the English text, only one word is needed in the Greek New Testament. That word is sparganoo, which means to envelop a newborn child with special cloth, strips of which were passed from side to side.3 The cloth would probably bear unique family identification. That procedure was especially applicable to the birth of a firstborn son.
You remember the announcement of an angel at the birth of Jesus: “This shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). His wrappings surely would have been distinctive.
What about the manger? The French word, manger means “to eat.” A manger is a trough or an open box in a stable designed to hold feed, provender, or fodder for animals to eat. Elevated from the floor of the contaminated courtyard, a manger was probably the cleanest site available. Such a feeding trough became the cradle for our Lord!
Now, two millennia later, though we don’t know all the details pertaining to His birth, we certainly understand the unique parentage of this Babe of Bethlehem. We declare solemnly and with conviction: Jesus was born of an immortal Father and a mortal mother. From His immortal Father, Jesus inherited the power to live forever. From His mortal mother He inherited the fate of physical death.
Those unique attributes were essential for His mission to atone for the sins of all mankind. Thus Jesus the Christ was born to die (see 3 Nephi 27:13–15). He died that we might live. He was born that all humankind could live beyond the grave. His Atonement was wrought in Gethsemane—where He sweat great drops of blood—and on Golgotha, or Calvary, where His body was lifted up upon a cross above the place of the skull, which signified death.
This infinite Atonement would release man from the infinitude of death (see 2 Nephi 9:7). His Atonement made the Resurrection a reality and the gift of eternal life a possibility for all who would obey His teachings. His Atonement became the central act of all human history.
Our recollections of Christmas are enriched by these realities. Each one of us with a testimony of the Lord has the privilege in faith to know of His divine parentage and to testify that Jesus is the Son of the living God.
Jesus descended below all things in order to rise above all things. He expects us to follow His example. Yoked with Him, we can rise above all challenges, no matter how difficult they may be (see Matthew 11:29–30).
The time is coming when those who do not obey the Lord will be separated from those who do. Our safest insurance is to continue to be worthy of admission to His holy house. How blessed we are to have temples available. The greatest gift you could give to the Lord at this or any other time of year is to keep yourself unspotted from the world, worthy to attend His holy house. His gift to you will be the peace and security of knowing that you are worthy to meet Him, whenever that time shall come.
As a special witness of His holy name, I testify that Jesus is the divine Son of the living God. He will love you, lift you, and manifest Himself unto you if you will love Him and keep His commandments.4