Tuesday, December 25, 2012
The story of the birth of the Savior is one of the most beloved of all accounts in the scriptures. It is reenacted each Christmas season and millions of homes around the world display a creche or nativity scene to remember the sacred events that occurred when the Savior was born. Aside from being a nice story told to children at Christmas time the accounts recorded by the Gospel writers are heavily symbolic and teach many truths of the role of the Savior in the great plan of our Heavenly Father.
In her book Christmas, the Original Story, Margaret Barker argues that Luke and Matthew chose which details to include about the birth of Jesus Christ to teach their readers about the identity and mission of the Savior. Included below are some of the items she discusses in her book.
Barker mentions that the Protoevangelium of James tells us that Mary was engaged in weaving a new veil for the temple while she was pregnant with the Savior. The temple veil was composed of the same materials as the tunic which was worn by the temple high priest. This tunic was understood by the Israelites to represent the mortal flesh of the high priest.
When entering the Holy of Holies the high priest took off the tunic and wore only his linen clothing. As the high priest emerged from the Holy of Holies he put the tunic on. This was understood as representing his birth from the Holy of Holies or from the presence of God and his taking upon himself a mortal body. The early Christians understood the Savior as being the archetypal high priest and the depiction of Mary weaving the temple veil while pregnant symbolizes her creating the physical body of the Great High Priest. (143)
The setting of the birth of the Savior in the stable is very well known. Artistic depictions of the nativity show Joseph and Mary with the child Jesus in the stable surrounded by animals. It is interesting to note that when John had a vision of the Lord upon his throne in Heaven the throne was surrounded by all kinds of animals (see Rev. 4:6-9).
To the Israelites the Holy of Holies represented the dwelling place of God. The Ark of the Covenant was understood as God's throne so anytime a prophet describes seeing the throne the vision can be understood as having its setting in the temple. The setting of the nativity in a stable, therefore, suggests that it can be understood as occurring in the Holy of Holies of the temple.
The Swaddling Clothes
On pages 75 and 76 Barker argues that Luke mentions the swaddling clothes as an allusion to the high priestly garments. She states:
"She [Mary] wrapped him in swaddling clothes is, literally, 'she wrapped him around'. Why mention the baby's clothes? Because the clothing of the 'newly born' high priest was an important part of his becoming the Son... In an early Christian wisdom text, Wisdom the Mother gives to her son 'a high priestly garment that is woven from every Wisdom'."
Also on page 76 Barker mentions that the Hebrew words for manger and Jerusalem are almost identical and there is apparent word play intended by the Gospel writers. The intent of this wordplay seems to be to reinforce the setting of the the events of the birth of Jesus Christ in the temple in Jerusalem.
The Ox and the Ass
In early Christian art the creche scene is often depicted with an ass and an ox looking into the manger (see figure above). It appears that this convention alludes to Isaiah's condemnation of the Israelites found in Isaiah 1:3. The condemnation appears to apply specifically to the ruling class of Isaiah's day and which the early Christians applied to the ruling class of the their day. The words for 'ox' and 'ass' in Hebrew are similar to the words for 'prince' and 'priest'. The early Christians apparently utilized this word play to suggest that while the ox and ass recognized the Savior for who he was the political and religious leaders of his day did not.
Additionally, the utilization of the ox and ass in their art work may have been an effort to place the birth of the Savior symbolically in the Holy of Holies. In the Holy of Holies of Solomon's Temple there were two large cherubim in addition to the ark (see below). The ox and the ass may have represented these two creatures.
On page 77 of her book Barker states:
"The ox and the ass looking into the manger were part of the nativity scene from the very beginning, even though they are not mentioned in the text-testimony to the importance of sources other than written... The Habakkuk prophecy, 'Be known in the midst of the two creatures, be recognized in the drawing near of the years, be manifested in the coming of the Time.' (LXX Hab. 3.2) assumed these two creatures, but linked them to the two cherubim of the ark and the throne where the king had sat as the Lord."
There are many more fascinating details that Margaret Barker discusses in her book which are too numerous to mention here, but it has helped me recognize what a rich and fascinating account we have of the Savior's birth. I highly recommend the book.