“Jesus of Nazareth,” Ensign, Dec. 1980, 3
We celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ at this season of the year. Some years ago, Sister Kimball and I were in the Holy Land with Elder and Sister Howard W. Hunter, and on Christmas Eve we were mingling with thousands of religionists and curious from around the world. We bent over to get through the small aperture into the Church of the Nativity and inched our way in turn to the crypt where some churches claim are the sacred spots of the manger and the birth of the Savior.
As we stood looking at the metal star in the concrete floor, it seemed to fade and we seemed to see a crude manger in a cave and sitting by it a lovely lady with a beautiful face and sweet spirit watching a little infant wrapped like other Hebrew babes in swaddling clothes. He had likely already been washed and rubbed with salt and laid on a square cloth, his little head on one corner and his tiny feet on the corner diagonally opposite. The cloth had been folded over his sides and up over his feet and the swaddling bands tied around the precious little bundle. His hands would be fastened to his sides, but he would be loosened occasionally and rubbed with olive oil and possibly dusted with powdered myrtle leaves. If still in swaddling bands, he could be handled easily on the trip to Egypt, and he could even be strapped to his mother’s back.
How grateful we are that the baby Jesus was born, but do we place more emphasis on his birth than upon other phases of his experiences? Is birth the major event in any of our lives? We might ask to what are we born? For what purpose is our birth?
We remember that billions have been born.
Cain was born, but terminated his life in shrouds of obscurity. What of his life?
Nero was born, but his life seemed to justify it little or not at all. His persecution of the true believers caused them to be martyred, burned at the stake, ravished by wild animals to satisfy his own sadistic cravings. What of his life?
Adolph Hitler was born. What of his life? Millions starved and died in Dachau and in other torture chambers.
Yes, men die—all men die. Millions have died unheard, unsung, unknown. The question is, when they die have they fulfilled the measure of their mortal creation? Certainly it is not so much that men die, or when they die, but that they do not die in their sins. Many antediluvians died ignominiously in their sins in the flood. Those of Sodom and Gomorrah went into eternity in their transgressions with their garments stained and their souls polluted. But look at others. Abel died knowing his offering was accepted of the Lord. Abinadi died at the stake a martyr, upholding truth, bearing testimony. His is a reward of exaltation.
Christ died. Ah! Here is the great death that counts. He died a propitiation for our sins to open the way for our resurrection, to point the way to our perfection of life, to show the way to exaltation. He died purposefully, voluntarily. His birth was humble, his life was perfect, his example was compelling; his death opened doors, and man was offered every good gift and blessing.
Yes, every soul has his free agency. He can have all the blessings Christ lived and died to give him. But Christ’s death and plan are all in vain and even worse than futile if we do not take advantage of them: “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16).
The Savior came “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). His birth, death, and resurrection brought about the first. But we must join our efforts with his to bring about the second, to attain eternal life.
To the Nephites, he summed up the eternal plan for exaltation: “Therefore, what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Ne. 27:27).
Leading the Jewish multitudes up onto the mountain, he elaborated extensively upon the requirements for exaltation. His celebrated Sermon on the Mount seems to have included all the commandments and all the requirements, and his conclusion was—“Be ye therefore perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
Perhaps he could have died long years earlier and accomplished the first of the requirements: resurrection and immortality. But it seemed that he must live a longer—even danger-filled—life so he could establish firmly the way to perfection.
For more than three decades he lived a life of hazard and jeopardy.
From Herod’s horrible murder of Bethlehem’s infants to Pilate’s merciless giving him to the bloodthirsty mob, Jesus was in constant danger. Perilously he lived with a price upon his head, the final price paid being thirty pieces of silver. It seemed that not only human enemies would snarl his life, but even his friends would desert him; and Satan and his cohorts would hound him ceaselessly. Yet, even after his early death, it seemed that he could not leave the earth until he had trained further his leaders. For forty days he remained to prepare the Apostles in leadership and the people in Sainthood.
As we look on his life, we see prophetic patterns. As predicted, he was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). How could he effectively lead his people—how could he show us the way to keep his commands—unless he experienced sorrow as well as joy? How could it ever be known if individual perfection is possible, or how could one be persuaded to reach for it, did not someone prove it could be done? So he lived through trials, day and night, all his life.
Early in his ministry he gave the command to be perfect. Perhaps he already had some conception of what was to come in the tests he would face. Would he himself be able to live up to the exalted ideal of perfection? Could he stand the continuous strain?
But his day by day life confirmed his power, his ability, his strength. From birth, his life was a rugged one. Born in a manger without the conveniences even of the average Israelite home, he was an unwelcome guest. There was no room for him in the inn.
When still young, he must be whisked away to a far country to save his precious life, a perilous journey in great haste and fear, a trip which was rugged for the new infant, perhaps still being nursed by his mother. On the trip he would suffer hardships, sand storms, fatigue, new food, new customs, a new and strange world. The trip to Nazareth was an even longer and more arduous journey, this to avoid again a heartless ruler.
His trials were continuous. Perhaps his brother, Lucifer, had heard him say when he was still but a lad of twelve: “Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). Then came the time when Satan sought to trip him. Their encounter in the previous world had been on more equal terms, but now Jesus was young and Satan was experienced. By subtlety and challenges he thought to destroy this budding Savior. Jesus had spoken of his father-son relationship. Lucifer determined to test that. Hungry after a long fast, Jesus’ body demanding sustenance, the cruel question came hurling at him: “If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread” (Matt. 4:3). Bread would have tasted so good that moment.
Then, on the pinnacle of the temple, an ugly thought was planted. Perhaps the Lord fully sensed his unlimited power, but to use it for himself and to satisfy Satan’s devilish wish would be wrong: “If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down: for [the angels] shall bear thee up” (Matt. 4:6).
And finally on the exceeding high mountain where could be envisioned the wealth of nations, the power of kings and emperors, the glory of affluence, the satisfactions of every urge, desire, want and passion, came the appealing promise: “All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9).
But to all of these appeals came the stout refusal, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God and him only shalt thou serve” (Matt. 4:10).
What a lonely life he must have lived! No more could he live a private existence. At nearly every miracle he asked the healed one, “Go thy way and tell no man.”
But the recipient of his power and goodness went abroad and blazed the matter and published it, “insomuch that Jesus could no more openly enter into the city, but was without in desert places” (Mark 1:45).
His every statement was challenged. He must defend every principle. “Why don’t you fast?” “Why do your disciples eat with unwashed hands?” “Why do you break the Sabbath by healing on that day?” The leaders sought to kill him for healing on the Sabbath!
It was bad enough to have his enemies try to trap him, but then even his friends “went out to lay hold on him. For they said, he is beside himself.” (Mark 3:21.)
To whom could he go for sympathy? Was this the reason for his frequent climbing of the mountains for privacy and comfort from his Father? Lonely, alone, no one to confide in, no place to go. As he said: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head” (Luke 9:57). So he climbs the hills, but is followed. He sails across the sea, and there is the multitude. He lies down to rest in the ship, and is rudely awakened with criticism: “Carest thou not that we perish?” (Mark 4:38).
When he landed at the area of the Gadarenes, frightened by his miracles they “besought him to depart from them” (Luke 8:37). So he re-embarked and recrossed the sea of Galilee.
When he fed them, they followed him, but for the wrong reasons: “Ye seek me … because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26).
When he gave them strong doctrine and required much at their hands, “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:66).
And even as he walked toward his death, he had to say to his chosen Twelve: “I have chosen you twelve, and one of you is a devil” (John 6:70). He walked daily thereafter with a traitor.
How lonely! How disquieting! To escape and wait, knowing that death was but a short time away! “He would walk no more in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him” (John 7:1).
He sought to go incognito, “but he could not be hid” (Mark 7:24).
One of his greatest disappointments was his homecoming. No celebrations for him, only curiosity and rejection. “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). The common boy from their common streets, they said.
“And he could there do no mighty work … because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:5–6)—and because of their jealousy and sarcasm. What a homecoming! Poor Nazareth! Poor Nazarenes to reject their own boy, their own Redeemer! They would have thrown him from the precipice at Nazareth but for his quick escape. They would have stoned him in Jerusalem, “but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple” (John 8:59).
And after another discourse, “they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand” (John 10:39).
A price was on his head. Physical violence confronted him always. People were enjoined to reveal his whereabouts so he could be put to death. The specter of death preceded him, sat with him, walked with him, followed him.
How difficult it must have been for him who could wither a fig tree with a single command to restrain himself from cursing his enemies. Rather, did he pray for them. To retaliate and fight back is human, but to accept indignities as did the Lord, is divine. He was tested continually: when he permitted himself to be kissed by the known traitor yet did not resist; when he was captured by a vicious mob, yet did not permit his loyal Apostle Peter to defend him, though that worthy man was willing to die fighting for him.
With twelve legions of angels at his command, he yielded himself and disarmed his courageous Apostles at his side. He accepted this manhandling and the indignities without retaliation. Had he not said, “Love your enemies”? (Matt. 5:44.)
In quiet, restrained, divine dignity he stood when they cast their spittle in his face. He remained composed. They pushed him around. Not an angry word escaped his lips. They slapped his face and beat his body. Yet he stood resolute, unintimidated.
Literally did he follow his own admonition when he turned his other cheek to be also slapped and smitten. And yet, he showed no cringing, gave no denials, offered no rebuttals. When false mercenary witnesses were paid to lie about him, he seemed to condemn them not. They twisted his words and misinterpreted his meanings, yet he was calm and unflustered. Had he not taught, “Pray for them which despitefully use you”? (Matt. 5:44.)
He who alone on the earth created the world and all that is in it, he who made the silver from which the pieces were stamped which bought him, he who could command defenders on both sides of the veil—stood and suffered.
What dignity! What mastery! What control! Even when he, the perfect, the sinless, the good, the Prince of Life, the Just, should be weighed on one side of the scales against the murderer, the seditionist, the insurrectionist, Barrabas—and Barrabas won—even when Barrabas won his liberty at the price of Christ’s crucifixion, yet the Savior said not a word of condemnation to the magistrate who made the unjust decision.
Neither did he say anything to the people who called for Barrabas, crying “Release unto us Barrabas” (Luke 23:18). Even when they cried for his blood, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him” (Luke 23:21)—yet he showed no bitterness nor venom nor condemnation. Only tranquility. This is divine dignity, power, control, restraint. Barrabas for Christ! Barrabas released, Christ crucified. The worst and the best; the just and the unjust; the Holy One crucified, the degenerate malefactor released. Yet no revenge, no name-calling, no condemnation. No lightning struck them, though it could have done. No earthquake, though a severe one could have come. No angels with protective weapons, though legions were ready. No escape, though he could have been translated and moved from their power. He stood and suffered in mind and body. “Bless them that curse you,” he had taught (Matt. 5:44).
Yet still further tests came. Though pronounced innocent, he was scourged. Unworthy men lashed him, the pure and the Holy One, the Son of God. One word from his lips and all his enemies would have fallen to the earth, helpless. All would have perished, all could have been as dust and ashes. Yet, in calmness, he suffered.
Even when delivered to the soldiers to be crucified, he prayed for them who despitefully used him. How he must have felt when they violated his privacy by stripping off his clothes and then putting on him the scarlet robe!
Then, the crown of thorns. How painful and excruciating! And yet, such equanimity! Such strength! Such control! It is beyond imagination.
Blood from the thorns seemed to be what they wanted. For had they not just said, “His blood be on us and on our children”? (Matt. 27:25.) Now nothing could stop them. They hungered to satisfy their blood lust, to satiate it. The crucifixion would do that, but first they must satisfy their beastly appetites for sadism; first they must cast their diseased spittle in his holy face, acting out subhuman atrocities.
With a reed in his hand, a scarlet robe over his shoulders, and a crown of thorns on his head, he was made to suffer the worst indignity: they laughed and mocked and jeered and challenged him. Grabbing the reed from his hand, they would strike him on the head. Yet, he stood there, the model of long-suffering.
Still they moved about him. In base mockery they feigned worship, praying mockingly to him, doing him false reverence, joking, laughing, giving full vent to their fiendishness. Was all their ugliness, all their pent up grievances against mankind, all their bitternesses against acquaintances and enemies loosed upon this one so pure, clean, and worthy? Even a bull tires of goring its victim—even a cat tires of playing with its captive mouse—but these tyrants, these bloodthirsty men—would they never tire of blasphemous conduct? Would they never get their fill? How low can the children of God go! How base can man become!—he who may be but a little lower than the angels, he who is created in the image of God. What would they do when their victim could suffer no more and no more please their depravity?
They would have his sore and bruised and bloody body carry the weighty implement of his own death. Their strong backs unburdened, they watched him sweat and heave and strain and pull, a helpless victim. Or was he helpless? Were not the twelve legions of angels still at his command? Did they not still have their swords unsheathed? Were they not still agonizing, yet restrained from taking a hand or coming to the rescue?
He goes his way alone. The nails are hammered into his hands and feet, through soft and quivering flesh. The agony increases. The tree is dropped in the hole; the flesh tears. What excruciating pain! Then, new nails are placed in the wrist to make sure that the body will not fall to the ground and recover.
The mockery grows as the rabble walk alongside and look up, leering and blaspheming and mocking. “He saved others; himself he cannot save” (Mark 15:31). They had seen or heard of his miracles: how the winds and waves had yielded to his word, how lepers had been made clean, how the lame had walked and the sightless had seen, how the dead had been raised, how Lazarus had walked forth alive from the grave after he had been dead for days and his body already decomposing. And so the taunt came again: “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (Matt. 27:42). What a temptation it must have been for the Lord who could have stepped down whole and well without scars or braises! What a challenge it must have been, yet he had set his mind and had sweat great drops of blood in his anguish as he faced his mission—to move forward and wade through all gross indignities and meet death at the end, to bring life to these very men and their children, if they would heed.
Here, with mortal life fast ebbing—here he restrained himself, controlling the temptation to “show them” his power. As he had been tempted in the wilderness to satisfy his hunger by causing stones to become bread, as he had stood on the mountaintop and was tempted to show his tempter what he could do, so now he was again approached. Surely Lucifer, who had tempted him in the wilderness, on the mountain, and on the pinnacle of the temple—surely, he had done an efficient work in prompting his underlings. They now used the same tactics, the same words: “If thou be the King of the Jews, save thyself” (Luke 23:37). The thief on the cross needled him, “If thou be Christ, save thyself and us” (Luke 23:39). All around were others only little less criminal in their persecution. The swaggering clergy in their long embroidered robes, the leaders of the people—cheap, low, degraded humans—they also were to rave and rant and mock and jeer.
His hour had come. He was alone, yet among crowds of people. Alone he was, with eager angels waiting to comfort him. Alone with his Father in deepest sympathy, but knowing that his Son must walk alone the bloody, tortuous path. Alone, drained, feverish, dying, he called out: “My God, my God why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46.) Alone he had been in the garden—praying for strength to drink the bitter cup.
He had said, “Love your enemies.” Now he showed how much one can love his enemies. He was dying on the cross for those who had nailed him there. As he died, he experienced such agonies that no man had ever before or has since experienced. Yet he cried out, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Was this not the last word—the supreme act? How divine to forgive those who were killing him—those who were clamoring for his blood! He had said, “Pray for them which despitefully use you,” and here he was praying for them. His life met perfectly his teachings. “Be ye therefore perfect” was his command to us. With his life, his death, and his resurrection, Jesus truly has shown us the way.
And so, as resurrection and death and life are important to achieving perfection, so also is birth. And with the thought, my mind comes back again to Bethlehem, the Bethlehem of today. My wife and our party move about with the surging crowds, we are jostled and pushed. We are nearly drowned in the ocean of innumerable bodies and faces. It is hard to concentrate upon the sacred object of our coming. There is little on the hill which can stir our reverence or satisfy our longing to be alone with our thoughts.
We have our taxi take us to the hill overlooking the shepherds’ field. Below us in the little valley is the field of Boaz and Ruth. Before us is the undulating area where shepherds once watched their sheep. On the brow of the hill is a cave opening out over the little valley. There, tradition says, the shepherds slept and watched on that eventful night. An open cave could protect them from the night’s coolness, yet still they could watch their flocks. There, gazing into the valley, the only place near Bethlehem where we could find privacy, we stood in the dark, looking out into the starry sky as did the shepherds, and with the shepherds contemplating the angel dressed in exquisite whiteness in the center of infinite glory, and the words he had said to the humble shepherds:
“Fear not: for, 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 this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10–12).
Did not the angels sing that night? We, too, seemed to hear faint music, not loud, but in symphonic harmony it penetrated deeply our hearts. We seemed to hear singing in unison, the never-to-be-forgotten melody, the cry of the ages: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
As the strains of the heavenly words merged with our hearts, we four sang. After singing “Far, far away on Judea’s plains, shepherds of old heard the joyous strains,” we stood close together in the star-lighted night with our wraps pulled tight about us—physically close, mentally close, spiritually close, emotionally close; and we communed. No lights but the twinkling lanterns in the heavens, no sound but the whispering of our subdued voices. Our Father seemed to be very near. His Son seemed close. We prayed. More in unison than a single voice, our four hearts poured out love and gratitude that rose to mingle with the prayers of all mankind that night.
We prayed our gratitude. We prayed our love. Like the raising of the flood gate releasing the long impounded and pent up waters behind a dam, our voices almost inaudible, mellowed with reverence, softened by the intangible forces of the heavenly world, we poured out our prayer of thanksgiving: grateful, Father, that we know so positively that thou dost live; that we know the babe born here was in reality thy Son; grateful that thy program is real, workable and exalting. We told him we knew him, we loved him, we would follow him. We repledged to his cause our lives, our all.
The years have come and gone since then, but always at this beautiful season, we repledge ourselves to his work—and invite all people everywhere to join us in our prayers of joy and love and gratitude for the life and teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.