The apostle John famously penned, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). The power of these words is sometimes lost on 21st century Christians, who often quote them as a kind of religious catch-phrase. Contrary to the modern, heavily romanticized emotion that is associated with the word “love,” the ancient readers of the New Testament would have understood the term within the context of the covenant. To these early Christians, covenant-love brought to mind loyalty, kinship, and an obligation to one’s duties and promises. The love of God, in this case, implied His loyalty and promises to His creation as a whole; a creation described by Samuel the Lamanite as being “cut off from the presence of the Lord” and desperately in need of redemption (see Hel. 14:15-19). The Lord promised “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17) by means of atonement as well as deliverance from bondage through the chosen Messiah. The Messiah was to be the priestly king “after the order of Melchizedek” (Ps. 110:4), the one of whom God would declare, as the Psalmist did, “Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten you” (Ps. 2:7). This was to be the royal child called “Wonderful-Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). It was this child that would ultimately fulfill Isaiah’s dualistic prophecy: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).
The 1st century Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria described the temple veil as the boundary between the heavenly and earthly realms, with its colors representing the elements of the material world. The elaborate clothing of the ancient high priest bore these very same colors, being made of the same material (see Ex. 26:31, cf. Ex. 28:6, 8, 15). Before entering the Holy of Holies (i.e. the heavenly realm), the high priest would instead wear only white. By symbolically putting off the things of this world, he was eligible to enter into God’s presence as a purified, divine son. Upon returning, the robes and colors of the earthly realm were donned once more. Descending from his heavenly home, the Great High Priest was thus ritually incarnated. “And [Mary] brought forth her first born son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). In Luke’s words we find the literal fulfillment of that which Nephi saw centuries prior: “I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white…And [the angel] said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God? …And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Everlasting Father!” (1 Ne. 11:13, 16, 20-21). As Mary clothed the Great High Priest in His earthly garments, heavenly messengers were declaring to shepherds in the field that the Lamb of God, the Shepherd-King, was born. It was this which led Matthew to write, “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 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...And [Joseph] knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (Matt. 1:22-23, 25).
After centuries of oppression, Israel was delivered out from under Egyptian rule. The final plague that led to the end of Israel’s slavery and bondage was the death of the firstborn throughout the land of Egypt, with those of the Israelites being protected by the blood of an unblemished lamb. As a token of remembrance, the firstborn of Israel were to be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed (see Ex. 13:2, 13, 15). Thus, Luke records that Mary and Joseph “brought [Jesus] to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord; (As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to the Lord)…And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel…And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ…Then took he [Jesus] up in his arms…and said, Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace…For mine eyes have seen thy salvation…A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel…And Simeon…said unto Mary his mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel…(Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also)…And there was one Anna, a prophetess…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” (Luke 2:22-23, 25-26, 28-30, 32, 34-36, 38). The Spirit revealed in the temple that day that the child Jesus was the long awaited Messiah, the Firstborn, the Lamb of God, the Redeemer and Savior of Israel. The piercing sorrow prophesied by Simeon must have weighed heavily on Mary as Joseph’s dream warned them of Herod’s upcoming massacre and commanded them to flee unto Egypt. Following Herod’s death, the family returned, prompting Matthew to recall the words of Hosea regarding Israel: “Out of Egypt have I called my son” (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1). Hosea’s prophecies of the restoration of Israel would carry great significance for the Christ child’s own future and the means by which He would bring salvation to Israel: “For [the Lord] hath torn, and he will heal us; he hath smitten, and he will bind us up. After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight” (Hos. 6:1-2).
In his famous essay "On Fairy Stories," The Lord of the Rings author and Oxford professor J.R.R. Tolkien coined the term “eucatastrophe.” The word was meant to portray the opposite of tragedy and embody the “Consolation of the Happy Ending.” Being a devout Catholic and key figure in C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, Tolkien concluded his essay by saying, “The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy…There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits…[T]his story is supreme, and it is true” (pgs. 23-24). And so it is. The Gospels contain the witness accounts of the Savior’s miraculous conception, birth, and childhood; from Mary and Joseph to Simeon and Anna to the wise men and shepherds to Elizabeth and Zacharias. The Book of Mormon adds its witness to those of the Gospels with numerous prophecies and testimonies regarding the coming of the Savior. Samuel the Lamanite prophesied of signs in the New World that would appear at Christ’s birth. It was the fulfillment of these signs that delivered a remnant of faithful followers from certain death at the hands of the wicked. In this sense, the very birth of Christ had saving power. The restoration and revelations through Joseph Smith and other modern-day prophets continue to testify of the birth, ministry, death, resurrection, and second coming of Jesus Christ. These testimonies, along with the personal conviction given by the Holy Ghost, are what bring us hope. Christ’s mission is not yet over and the work is not yet complete. But we can partake of His Atonement here and now. By so doing, we can gain a beautiful glimpse at what the future holds in store. Christ has been here before. And He is coming back. “Pray always, that ye may not faint, until I come. Behold, and lo, I will come quickly, and receive you unto myself” (D&C 88:126).
1. See Frank Moore Cross, "Kinship and Covenant in Ancient Israel" in his From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998), 7-11; William L. Moran, “The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 25:1 (1963); J.A. Thompson, "The Significance of the Verb Love in the David-Jonathan Narratives in 1 Samuel," Vetus Testamentum 24:3 (1974); Gail O'Day, "I Have Called You Friends," Christian Reflection: A Series in Faith and Ethics - Friendship 27 (Spring 2008).
2. See Margaret Barker, Christmas: The Original Story (London: SPCK, 2008). Kindle edition. "The World of the Temple" and "The Virgin Birth."
3. See Margaret Barker, The Great High Priest: The Temple Roots of Christian Liturgy (London: T&T Clark, 2003), "Beyond the Veil of the Temple: The High Priestly Origin of the Apocalypses"; Barker, 2008, "The World of the Temple."
4. See Daniel C. Peterson, "Nephi and His Asherah," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9:2 (2000). For Barker's take on Peterson's work, see her "Joseph Smith and Preexilic Israelite Religion," BYU Studies - The Worlds of Joseph Smith 44:4 (2005). For the conflation of Mary with the heavenly Mother of God, see Barker, "The Images of Mary in the Litany of Loreto," Usus Antiquior 1:2 (July 2010) and April D. DeConick, Holy Misogyny: Why the Sex and Gender Conflicts in the Early Church Still Matter (London: Continuum, 2011), Ch. 1-2.
5. Barker, 2008, "The Birth of Jesus" and "The Annunciation to the Shepherds."
6. See J. Wijngaards, "Death and Resurrection in Covenantal Context (Hos. VI 2)," Vetus Testamentum 17:2 (April 1967).
7. See Colin Duriez, "Tollers & Jack," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); Chris Armstrong, "J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, A Legendary Friendship," Christianity Today (Aug. 2003). For more on Catholicism's influence on Tolkien, see Thomas Howard, "Sacramental Imagination," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); Bradley J. Birzer, "Tolkien: Man Behind the Myth," Christian History & Biography 78 (2003); C.N. Sue Abromaitis, "The Distant Mirror of Middle-Earth," Touchstone 15:1 (Jan/Feb 2002); Stratford Caldecott, "The Lord & Lady of the Rings," Touchstone 15:1 (Jan/Feb 2002); David Lord Alton, "The Fellowship of the Ring: J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholicism and the Use of Allegory," Lecture given at the Catholic Society of Bath University and Bath Spa University College on 20 February 2003.
8. See David Tayman, "180 Years Ago: Joy to the World, The Lord Will Come!" Worlds Without End (Dec. 5, 2012) for the millennial aspects of W.W. Phelps' revision of Watts' classic.