PALESTINE AT THE TIME OF JESUS, Part 2. Plus “THE CHRISTMAS STORY”

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In yesterday’s post, I talked about the religious and political divisiveness in ancient Palestine that had to do with various groups of Jewish citizens: The Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots and Essenes.

Another source of seething hostility in Palestine was a strange and completely new experience of the times, the phenomenon called ‘Religious Persecution’. People had often wondered why God allowed good people to suffer despite their being good. But now, as the Jews found themselves being persecuted simply because of their religious practices, they began to wonder why it was that God would allow people to suffer because they were good! Such persecution seemed the very essence of evil.

Fortunately, the belief in a cosmic struggle between Good and Evil carried with it a growing conviction that Good would ultimately triumph. Therefore, the experience of religious persecution, according to Julie Galambush in “The Reluctant Parting”, “proved to be the catalyst for a developing belief that those who died for their faith in this world would be rewarded in another world – life after death through resurrection.” Rather than being seen as unfortunate wretches who had been unaccountably forgotten by God, such people began to be seen as martyrs – religious heroes whom God would reward in the afterlife for their goodness and their faithfulness. The philosophical belief that God – and Good – would ultimately triumph over Evil, coupled with rising political tension with Rome and the anticipation of inevitable war, led to an increasingly ‘Apocalyptic‘ view of the world: in other words, many Jews in Palestine began to believe that the ‘End of the World’ (at least as we know it) was rapidly approaching. God was about to triumph over Evil, He would judge the wicked, He would reward the just, and a New Order would dawn.

To lead God’s legions to victory against hopelessly adverse political conditions, and to establish a new kingdom of God, a leader with divine power would be necessary. And thus, a Messianic hope was kindled in the heart of Judaism. God had promised Samuel that an anointed son of David would rule over the Israelites forever. Where was he? Now, after centuries of Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman oppression, faith in God and hope for the future merged with the new belief that God was finally going to send Moshiach, “the anointed one”, the Messiah, to rescue Israel and lead them to a new world.

As Galambush writes: “Messianic expectations, cosmic dualism, martyrdom, and resurrection – an entire constellation of beliefs absent from ancient Israelite religion – suddenly took center stage. In some respects Jewish life continued as it had done for centuries: the rituals in the Jerusalem temple followed forms set down in Leviticus, and the rhythm of Sabbath and the festivals went on as always. But in the final centuries before the Common Era, Jewish popular imagination had come to occupy a far more colorful religious landscape, one in which history was fast approaching its end.”

It was into this colorful, dangerous, and hopeful world that a child called Jesus, of the Tribe of Judah and the House of David, was born in Bethlehem.

THE CHRISTMAS STORY

 

It began in the Temple. It began with a passionate prayer that opened the gates of heaven.

 

An elderly couple – the priest Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, who both were “righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord” –were nonetheless barren, just as Abraham and Sarah had been barren. So Zechariah entered the Sanctuary of the Temple and lit the incense – sending the smoke of prayer up to the Lord – while all the people, oppressed and desolate, gathered and waited outside the gates.

 

His prayer was heard, and the angel Gabriel appeared to the old man, just as he had done so long ago when he appeared to Abraham in Canaan, to announce the miraculous coming of the long-awaited son of his old age. Gabriel now said that this boy was to be named John – ‘the Grace and Mercy of God’. John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit”, and as God’s agent he would go before the Lord to turn the hearts of parents toward their children, and to turn the hearts of children back to God, and in the spirit of Elijah he would “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

 

But again, as with Abraham, there was a tinge of doubt. Zechariah said to the angel, “Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.” The angel assured him that all is possible for God, and John, like Isaac, would come as foretold. This time, however, in response to his doubt, Gabriel muted Zechariah until the time of the birth, so that he could remain turned inward in a state of prayer, and would not be able to speak more words of doubt.

 

When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God again sent forth Gabriel to Mary and Joseph of the royal House of David, in the town of Nazareth, in Galilee. ‘Galilee’ means ‘revolution’, as in the revolution of the Sun, and ‘Nazareth’ means a place of special ‘sanctification’. Mary was in a state of great holiness. She was a “Virgin”: that is, her soul was pure and completely free of sin. Joseph also was a righteous man, who understood dreams much like his namesake, the first Joseph. Mary and Joseph were betrothed, but they were not yet married.

 

Gabriel came first to Mary, and said, “Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.”

 

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: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever: and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

 

“Behold the handmaid of the lord,” Mary responded. “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Gabriel then departed, and Mary “arose” and “went into the hill country” to spend time with her kinswoman Elizabeth. “Blessed art thou among women,” Elizabeth said, and “blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” And Mary responded, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”

 

After three months, John was born in the hill country, and Mary returned home. Joseph now saw that she was with child, but “being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example”, he planned to divorce her quietly (the only legal way to end a betrothal).

 

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, 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 Spirit.

 

Then Joseph, being “raised from sleep”, awoke –the Eye of his Soul was opened — and he did just as the angel Gabriel had said.

 

In those days, a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that there was to be a Census taken of all the world. Everyone was ordered to go to their own home towns to be registered. So Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem, the birthplace of David, for Joseph was the descendant of kings. And in Bethlehem, which means “House of Bread”, and which signifies this realm of body and flesh, Mary’s time came and she gave birth to her son. Because there was no room for them in the inn, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable carved out of a cave behind the inn, she wrapped him in bands of cloth for swaddling clothes, and cradled him in a manger – a feed box for animals. Formed at the Beginning in the Heaven above Heaven, Christ was then conceived and born at the level of Earth – the Spirit had become Flesh.

 

Gabriel then came to the shepherds who were keeping careful watch over their flocks that night. The glory of the Lord shone around him, and at first they were afraid like Moses at the Burning Bush. But Gabriel said, “Fear not.”

 

Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.

 

And suddenly the shepherds heard the whole choir of heaven singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

 

The angels then departed, and the shepherds made haste to find Mary and Joseph and the baby in the manger. When they had ‘seen’, they went and told everyone all they knew concerning the child. While the people wondered at these things, they returned to the manger, to praise and glorify the Lord.

 

On the eighth day, according to law and custom, the child was circumcised. Joseph and Mary then presented him to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, and as the Law of Moses required, they ransomed their firstborn son with a sacrifice that consisted of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.

 

In the Temple were two aged prophets who had long been awaiting the birth of the Christ child – Simeon and Anna. Each blessed the child in turn. Simeon took hold of the babe and prayed, “Now let thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

 

A light to enlighten the gentiles, and the glory of

 thy people Israel.

 

Simeon then blessed them and prophesied to Mary: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel [that is, to be a critical factor in the descent and ascent of many souls], and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

 

Then Anna came forth. She had been a widow for eighty-four years, and had not left the Temple in all that time, fasting and praying night and day. She came at that instant and gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of the child to all those who were awaiting redemption in Jerusalem.

 

When all these rites and ceremonies were finished, Joseph and Mary took their infant son and returned home.

 

Shortly thereafter, from Persia in the East came wise Astrologer Priests who had ‘seen’ in their sacred arts the birth of a Divine King of the Jews. They followed the Light of his Star and came to King Herod in Jerusalem. “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?”, they asked him. “We have come to pay him homage.”

 

This of course frightened old Herod, as well as frightening the citizens of Jerusalem – for they well knew the violent tendencies of this jealous and brutal Idumean pretender. Herod quickly excused himself and called together his own priests, demanding an explanation. They told him that the Messiah was prophesied to be born in Bethlehem, in Judea. Herod then returned to the wise men from the East, and told them they would find the child in Bethlehem, shrewdly adding, “When you have found him, bring me word so that I, too, may go and worship him.”

 

The wise men set out, and the Star they had seen rising in the East now led them directly to where the child was. “And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him.” Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: Gold, the symbol of the royal bloodline, and the symbol of perfection of the soul; Frankincense, an herb that burns with pure white smoke, that was used for the incense in the Tabernacle, a symbol of prayer and sacrifice; and Myrrh, an herb of healing and embalming, used by Moses in the making of holy anointing oil, a symbol of rebirth and resurrection.

 

The wise men then left the holy family and returned to their own land. But having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod, they followed another road.

 

After they left, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, and said, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and remain there until I bring you word. For Herod is about to search for the child to destroy him.”

 

When Herod realized he had been tricked by the wise men, he was furious. Once again, an order went out to kill all the little children in and around Bethlehem. But again, as in the story of Moses hidden in the bulrushes, it was too late.

               

[W]hen Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel:

for they are dead which sought the young child’s life.

And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.

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