By Geoff Openshaw
Note: Taken from a discourse delivered December 2010
Many of us have pleasant memories of our childhood as we eagerly awaited the arrival of Christmas morning. Presents, wrapped in all manner of deceiving paper and ribbon, slowly took over the area around the tree, leading up to that one exciting morning every year when we were given gifts by family members and loved ones.
And then it was over. 364 more days to go.
The origins of gift giving for Christmas are rooted in the visit of the Three Wise Men, or Magi, as they came from their “country in the east” to honor the newly-born Son of God. Many Christian traditions hold that the wise men arrived twelve days after the birth of the Savior, thus giving us the Twelve Days of Christmas. That day today is known as Epiphany, and is generally celebrated on January 6th.
Today, sadly, what was originally an ancient attempt to honor the birth of Jesus has been contorted by man; and in our society, the focus during Christmastime turns away from the Lord and towards those worldly pursuits which we are encouraged to repudiate. The greatest gifts are not given by man, however well-intentioned they are. The greatest gift ever given to us comes from our loving Heavenly Father in the form of his Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Prophesies of Christ
The birth of the Savior was prophesied long before it came to pass. Throughout the Old Testament, the Jews lived the Mosaic Law, and taught that the Messiah would eventually come to save Israel. As the Lord said to Ahaz, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel translates to God with us, meaning that the Lord will come to save and redeem his people.
Micah offers another prophecy regarding the divinity of Jesus. He says, “But though, Beth-lehem…, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2). I love this account because of that last phrase – “whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting.” Few other passages of scripture so perfectly illustrate the eternal nature of Christ’s role. He, along with the Father, created the world in which we now live. He would later come to the world in the flesh to save and redeem man. And He continues to guide the work of eternity today. Christ’s Atonement truly is infinite.
The Nephites were also promised signs of the coming of the Lord. One of these signs came through Samuel, a Lamanite. As he preached to the many wicked Nephites in the years leading up to the birth of Jesus, he promised that as a sign of the Savior’s birth there “…shall be on day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there was no night…. And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld; and this also shall be a sign unto you” (Helaman 14:4-5).
Can you imagine awaiting the fulfillment of this prophecy? To the faithful, it was surely an auspicious promise, but also one that was received with a sense of anxiety, as the righteous followers of the Lord were persecuted in the period leading up to the time appointed for the Savior’s birth. The non-believers said, “But behold, we know that this is a wicked tradition, which has been handed down unto us by our fathers, to cause us that we should believe in some great and marvelous thing which should come to pass, but not among us, but in a land which is far distant, a land which we know not; therefore they can keep us in ignorance, for we cannot witness with our own eyes that they are true” (Helaman 16:20).
Sometimes just as these people doubted the actuality of the Savior’s birth and mission, we, too, can have a tendency to stop believing that the Lord’s mission is real and applies to each and every one of us. We fail to believe that the star will ever actually shine in the sky. We doubt that He will ever come. In those moments we must follow the counsel of the Savior to “Be not afraid, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Brothers and sisters, the birth of the Savior in Bethlehem really did come to pass. He truly is the Son of God and came here to fulfill the great designs of the Father.
The Birth of the Savior
We are familiar with the basic tenets of the story of the birth of Christ. The Roman Empire controlled Judea and was about to carry out a general taxing and census of the empire. Roman law taxed people where they lived, but it also respected Jewish custom, which required that individuals register in their ancestral homes, which is why Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p. 91-92).
Mary, of course, was pregnant, though not with Joseph’s child. We have been fortunate through many accounts to learn about the divine nature of Mary, though we tend to speak very little about Joseph. This is, perhaps, because he does not utter even one recorded sentence in the scriptures. But we know he was a righteous man.
Under Jewish law, Joseph had two options when he learned of Mary’s pregnancy: 1) Have Mary tried in public and condemned, possibly resulting in her death; or 2) privately sever his spousal contract with her. Joseph loved Mary and would spare her any embarrassment or pain if he was able. He decided to privately annul their spousal agreement. Only after he had chosen to spare Mary trial, injury, or embarrassment did an angel appear to him and directed him to take Mary as his wife (Talmage, Jesus the Christ, p.84).
In that brief story there lays a potent example of Christlike love and compassion – and from the very man whose son Jesus was not. Only after acting through love and mercy did Joseph receive the witness that his role was much more important than that of any other husband.
We are familiar with the rest of the story in Bethlehem. Jesus was then born in the midst of animals and debris – hardly fitting for the Savior of the World, but perfectly representative of the humility which would define Him throughout his ministry. Even then, in his nascent state, the King of Kings was teaching us.
I find it interesting that the first people to visit the baby Jesus were nearby shepherds. These were no ordinary shepherds. Under Jewish law, the only shepherding allowed near cities and towns was to raise animals for sacrifice. These animals had to be perfect and without blemish. Surely the flocks of these shepherds were meant to be offered up as symbolism for the very baby that now lied in their midst. Jesus is simultaneously referred to as the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd – the Lamb of God because he offered up the final sacrifice of blood so that we may live, and the Good Shepherd because without His guidance and love, we would be lost. The duality of that role carries a certain poetic weight. The baby in the manger would both be our guide and our Savior. He would go on to endure all things so that we may be free from pain and torment and attain exaltation. Through Christ we have the gift of agency and the gift of being saved from spiritual and physical death.
Our Gifts to the Savior
Most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol, and its protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. In the story, which is set on Christmas Eve, Scrooge is a greedy, self-absorbed businessman with little regard for the welfare of others. As the story progresses Scrooge is visited by three different ghosts, each showing the past, present, and future. Through the experience Scrooge comes to understand the consequences of his treatment of others and the grim future that faces him if he continues down his current path. Scrooge awakens the next morning a changed man. He now looks outward and not inward for his joy. He finds that kindness, compassion, and generosity improve not just the lives of the people around him, but his own life.
When reading stories like A Christmas Carol we routinely focus on the “Christmas Spirit,” which is best described as a vague sense of charity, happiness, and do-goodery. After the publication of A Christmas Story local newspapers actually noted a sudden burst in charitable behavior in Britain. While this is wonderful, it is unfortunate that such selfless acts became popular due to a piece of literature and not because of a devotion to Christ. The real Spirit of Christmas comes from loving the Lord and following his example. Our greatest gift to Christ is our desire to emulate Him in all that we do.
So while Christ has given us innumerable gifts through his pre-mortal, mortal, and post-mortal ministries, what can we do to adequately commemorate His birth? The Gospel boils down to a few very simple, overarching principles. In Mark we are commanded to “love the Lord thy God with all the heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength,” which is regarded as the first great commandment. The second, of course, is to “love thy neighbor as thyself. There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31, italics added). We learn in John that the greatest way to love the Lord is to keep his commandments. Through obedience, we celebrate the Atonement and make it a continual part of our lives; but just as important is to love others and to seek their welfare.
It is my hope that we will go out of our way to show Christlike compassion toward others. We commemorate the Lord’s birth once per year, but our responsibility to care for others and work to embody Christ’s love transcends seasons or holidays. Just as the Atonement is infinite, our eternal progression is neverending, and made possible only through the love of our Savior. The prophets of old testified of his coming. It is unfathomable that the Jews in the meridian of time saw the signs of his coming, yet failed to recognize their Messiah when he was physically in their midst. And today, in a society defined by rancor and schadenfreude, the potency of the Atonement is increasingly lost on more and more people. Doubt and disbelief are mistaken for intelligence and progression.
I testify that he did come and that he lives. His love for us is beyond our grasp and if we are willing to invest whatever level of faith in him that we do have, we will see that investment increase more than we can fathom. We never need to despair because He is always with us.
This Christmas, let us give gifts of faith, love, and charity. Let us help the less fortunate and strive to humble ourselves more. It is my prayer that as we spend Christmas with loved ones, enjoying holiday traditions and the festivities, that we will take the time to remember what joy there truly is to celebrate, for the Lord Jesus Christ was born and would go on to complete the ultimate sacrifice for all of us. Surely that is an occasion worth celebrating.