Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Setting and Story of Christmas

Luke 1:
5¶There was in the days of Herod, the king of Judæa, a certain priest named Zacharias, of the course of Abia: and his wife was of the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elisabeth.
 And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless.
 And they had no child, because that Elisabeth was barren, and they both were now well stricken in years.
 And it came to pass, that while he executed the priest’s office before God in the order of his course,
 According to the custom of the priest’s office, his lot was to burn incense when he went into the temple of the Lord.
 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying without at the time of incense.
 11 And there appeared unto him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.
 12 And when Zacharias saw him, he was troubled, and fear fell upon him.
 13 But the angel said unto him, Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John.
 14 And thou shalt have joy and gladness; and many shall rejoice at his birth.

 26 And in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth,
 27 To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

29 And when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and cast in her mind what manner of salutation this should be.
 30 And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.
 31 And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.
 32 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:
 33 And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
 34 Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?
 35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
 36 And, behold, thy cousin Elisabeth, she hath also conceived a son in her old age: and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren.
 37 For with God nothing shall be impossible.
38 And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her.

The center of Nazareth. The inverted cone shaped cupola church is the Basilica of the Annunciation (Roman Catholic) and is built over the site where western Christians believe Mary lived and where the angel Gabriel came to visit her. The church at the middle right with a small dome and two towers is the Greek Catholic Church which is located on the site of an ancient synagogue. The square white steeple (upper left) marks the traditional site of the home of Joseph. The village of Nazareth at the time of Jesus was probably no larger than the area circumscribed by these places.

The city of Nazareth sits in a basin in the hills of the lower Galilee.

A few years ago the Muslims of Nazareth planned to build a large mosque (rising in height to the top of the church steeple) on the site of this plaza. After much contention, the mosque was never built.

A small Muslim shrine remains and atop it is a call for Christians to convert.

The upper/main level of the church includes large mosaic representations of Mary and Jesus from many different countries.

One of my favorites is from Cameroon and depicts villagers bearing gifts for the mother and child.

Australia's contribution showing the actual annunciation.

Mexico with the Virgin of Guadalupe

Most unique/unusual/puzzling--the Untied States' contribution of Mary descending from heaven.



Down below are the remnants of Crusader and Byzantine Churches that mark the spot believed to be the home of Mary and the place of the annunciation.

Behind the altar is the grotto where tradition has Mary's home being located and where the Annunciation took place

In the portico surrounding the courtyard of the church are even more mosaics. The one from the Philippines is my favorite--in part because it actually depicts the annunciation (in a very Filipino sort of way).


The Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel is built over Nazareth's spring. According to Orthodox tradition, Gabriel first came to Mary while she was retrieving water.

The spring

A fresco from inside the church shows that event. The fact that there are two sites of the annunciation means the Christians of Nazareth do not contend over sacred space as happens in Jerusalem where six different sects tensely share control of  Church of the Holy Sepulcher and in Bethlehem were Armenians, Orthodox and Roman Catholics still content over control of the Church of the Nativity.

Down hill from the Orthodox Church of the Annunciation is Mary's Well. Water was eventually channeled from the Church (where you can still pull up water to drink from the spring) to this more accessible source.

A crowned bride and groom circle an altar as part of their marriage ceremony in the Orthodox Church.

Matthew 1
 18 ¶Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.
 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.
 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son ofDavid, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
 22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,
 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
 24 Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife:
25 And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS.

39 And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda;
40 And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth.

Ein Kerem (lower third)--traditional home of Elisabeth, Zacharias and John

Church of the Visitation in Ein Kerem

 41 And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost:
 42 And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.
 43 And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
 44 For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.
 45 And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
 46 And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord,
 47 And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
 48 For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
49 For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
 50 And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
 51 He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered theproud in the imagination of their hearts.
 52 He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
 53 He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
 54 He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
 55 As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
 56 And Mary abode with her about three months, and returned to her own house.
 57 Now Elisabeth’s full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son.
 58 And her neighbours and her cousins heard how the Lord had shewed great mercy upon her; and they rejoiced with her.

Luke 2
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

Israeli soldiers in Manger Square Bethlehem 1989. Then and now there was not peace in the land as two competing peoples (Jews and Romans, Israelis and Palestinians) sought to control the land.

Israeli Police watching over the exit from Friday prayers at the Noble Sanctuary/Temple Mount (1997).

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judæa, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

A group of BYU students walking the rocky hills of Samaria in 1982. This is one route the holy family could have taken to Jerusalem, but it meant going through rival Samaria.

The more likely route was via the Jordan River valley to Jericho and then up to Jerusalem through the Judean Wilderness. The three towers on the distant hill are on the crest of the Mt of Olives.

From the middle of the Judean Wilderness looking down to Jericho.

And looking up to Jerusalem. A rough route to travel, pregnant and on a donkey.

1982 view of Bethlehem to the southeast from kibbutz Ramat Rachel--southernmost Jerusalem.

View southward to Bethlehem from Shepherd's Field.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

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.And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

A caravanseri (caravan hotel) in Acre/Akko.

A Caravanseri in Edirne Turkey. Historically these buildings are where caravans would stop in cities. The goods they carried, plus any animals they brought were stored in the lower rooms, while the travelers slept up on the second level. Some suggest that "Inns" at the time of Jesus were similar in structure. There may have been no room for Mary and Joseph to sleep up above and so the Holy Family found lodging down below with the animals. Makes sense.

The Church of the Nativity In Bethlehem (Steeples from l to r) Roman Catholic, Armenian, Greek Orthodox.

The view of Bethlehem with its many steeples and minarets from atop the Greek Orthodox Steeple.

This is the longest standing Church in the Holy Land--it being the only church not destroyed by the invading Persians in 614. It is built in a traditional Byzantine basilica style.

The roof of the Church of the Nativity leaked for years, but the three competing and jointly controlling powers could not agree on who should repair it. The Roman Catholics had the money to do it, but the Armenians and Greeks Orthodox felt that if the Catholics paid to fix it they would then claim control of everything underneath it. Fortunately, the neutral Israeli government contributed a new roof which helped to keep the delicate status quo in place.

Beneath this Greek Orthodox altar is a grotto where tradition has it Jesus was born.

The 16 pointed star marks the spot. Its removal by competing Catholics and Orthodox helped cause the Crimean War.

The place where the babe Jesus laid in a manger.

An adjacent grotto is where Jerome translated the Bible. Grottoes like this beneath or behind homes were also used to stable animals.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

No one knows where the shepherds were when the angels visited, so there are many options: Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant. Mormons even like to find their own fields. 1982 photo.

Catholic Chapel at Shepherd's field

Christian-Arab-Palestinian town of Beit Sahour with the Greek Orthodox Church of Shepherd's field.

From Beit Sahour looking up to Bethlehem.

Mormons love to come to this valley to the northwest of Beit Sahour to remember that first Christmas night.

The lovely valley between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has many olive trees and several watch towers.

Travelers on a LDS cruise and the BYU students gather in "Mormon Shepherd's Field" in 1982. Special guest is Elder Howard W. Hunter--seated at right.

Winter Semester 2010 BYU Jerusalem Center Students gather in March for a Christmas Program. Bethlehem is in the distance. The route of the separation wall/barrier/fence cuts across the middle of distant hillside.

A few months later the summer semester students invited the Emmett family to participate in the nativity play as the sheep--including one black sheep.

Palestinian shepherd leading his flock near Gibeon (Jib) 1989.

Palestinian Shepherdess at the one time Jerusalem Sheep market out side the wall near the Pool of Bethesda. 1979.

Palestinian shepherd following his flock near Bethlehem 2010.


Judean Wilderness

Sheep and Goats in the Judean Wilderness

BYU students and Emmett kids learning at Neot Kedumim how to be a shepherd. It is not as easy as it looks. They learned that you can't force sheep, that they often don't like to follow and the best way is to have a few good ewes who are trained to lead the way--shepherds can then follow. 

By the time the third group gave it a try they were much better. No forcing, just gentling moving along with.

 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
 16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
 17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
 18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

 19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

21 And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, his name was called JESUS, which was so named of the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

 22 And when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were accomplished, they brought him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord;
 23 (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord;)

24 And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.

25 And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name wasSimeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the Holy Ghost was upon him.
 26 And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.
 27 And he came by the Spirit into the temple: and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him after the custom of the law,
 28 Then took he him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said,
 29 Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:
 30 For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
 31 Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people;
 32 A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.
 33 And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of him.
 34 And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against;
 35 (Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also,) that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

36 And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity;
 37 And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day.
 38 And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem.
 39 And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.

 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judæa in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

Camel riding in Egypt.

First time on a camel is fun. To get up from its kneeling position it rocks up by first standing on its back legs (which throws you forward so hold on tight and scream) and then on its front legs.

Atop a camel selfie.

Camel caravan in Morocco. I am the one on the second camel waving my hand while I take the photo of our shadow.


The shortest travel-able route from the east (perhaps Persia) to Bethlehem was across the Syrian desert with a stop for water at the oasis of Palmyra/Tadmor. 

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judæa: for thus it is written by the prophet,
 And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
When the wise men visited Herod they may have stopped at his three-towered palace on the western edge of Jerusalem

Or they may have stopped at his palace--the green area in the distance--in Jericho.

Or at his hill top palace called the Herodian to the east of Bethlehem. I like the idea of this site because it overlooks the area where the shepherds may have been. Such irony that the mighty king missed the announcement.

The hill top palace.

The view from the top of the Herodian westward towards Bethlehem on the far hill.

Enterprising merchants in Bethlehem now sell these olive wood nativities where a wall keeps the wise men from visiting the Holy Family.

It is very unlikely that the visit of the wise men would have been to the same place the shepherd's visited. Still the Church of the Nativity is of interest to the wise men part of the story. Apparently the story is told that the Byzantine Church included a mosaic on the triangular shaped portion above the short entry just below the cross that depicted the wise men as Persians. When the Persians rampaged through the Byzantine controlled Holy Land they destroyed all of the churches on their way. Until they rode in to Bethlehem. There, the story goes, they looked up and saw their fellow countrymen--the magi. They could not bear to destroy them so they let the church stand.

 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

 11 ¶And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
 12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Frankincense resin oozing from a tree in Oman.

13 And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.

14 When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt:
 15 And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son.

16 ¶Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
 17 Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the prophet, saying,
 18 In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.

The holy family and the Nile River. From the Coptic Hanging Church in Cairo.

From the Coptic Hanging Church in Cairo.

 1¶But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeareth in a dream to Joseph in Egypt,
20 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.
 21 And he arose, and took the young child and his mother, and came into the land of Israel.
 22 But when he heard that Archelaus did reign in Judæa in theroom of his father Herod, he was afraid to go thither: notwithstanding, being warned of God in a dream, he turned aside into the parts of Galilee:

40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.

52 And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.


While there is no contention over the site of the annunciation in Nazareth, there is a small kerfuffle over where the Holy Family lived once they returned from Egypt. The traditional site is the Church of St. Joseph (square white tower left center). It has Roman era granaries and other ruins beneath it so it could be the place. On the other side of the old part of town is the Sister of Nazareth convent--also with a squat square tower (lower center right). The sisters have uncovered beneath their convent Roman era ruin including a nice rolling stone tomb and a one time spring--which early pilgrims mentioned as being associated with the house of Joseph. The sisters (from one Roman Catholic Order) are reticent to challenge the claim of the Franciscans--also Catholics so they quietly make their case with great conviction.

The courtyard of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent--it also has a nice hospice.

The wonderful illustration used in this post come from the above book. It was first published in 1931 after the Petershams had traveled to the Holy Land for inspiration. I really enjoy their detail of holy land landscapes, garb, vegetation and architecture. All of the other photos in this blog are mine from my many trips to the Middle East.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Chad. Really enjoyed it! Merry Christmas to you and yours! Bob

  2. Thanks Chad, well worth a look especially just before Christmas 2015. Merry Christmas to you, Marie and your family.

  3. My God! Un bellissimo lavoro da parte tua, Chad! Mi hai commossa! Grazie! Lo salverò per rivederlo e mostrarlo anche alle mie nipotine! Nonna Norma.