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Faith and the First Christmas

Every year, we read the story of the First Christmas as it is recorded in the Gospel of Luke. I love that tradition. And this year, I'm struck by the contrasts between the sacred events that occurred in Bethlehem that night, and what was happening at the same time among the Nephites. Here are some of the differences that strike me.

Knowledge of His Name:

Among the Jews, Jesus's name was not prophesied, but it was among the Lehites. Note that the name "Jesus" is an anglicized version of the Aramaic name "Yeshua," or "Yehoshua" in Hebrew. So the name we translate as "Joshua" (meaning Jehovah Saves) from the Hebrew Old Testament becomes "Jesus" when translated from the Greek New Testament. The Nephites knew that Jesus would have the same name as Moses' successor Joshua, who was a type of Christ when he led the Children of Israel into the promised land after their exile in the wilderness. (The Nephites would not have known this, but there was another Joshua who was also a type of Christ. He was the great high priest who was also crowned as king (Zechariah 6:11) when the Jews returned to their land after the Babylonian captivity in order to rebuild the temple).

Knowledge of His Messianic Mission

There were a multitude of messianic prophecies known to the Jews, but they were difficult to reconcile. So much so, that one school of thought looked forward to two Messiahs: a Messiah ben Josef (from the tribe of Ephraim), who would struggle and suffer and possibly die in an unsuccessful attempt to deliver Israel; and a Messiah ben David, of the royal lineage, a king and priest who would redeem and liberate the Jews, usher in an era of peace, and reign in the world to come.

Among the Nephites, prophets declared that one Messiah, Jesus Christ, would fulfill both roles...and more. He would go forth, teaching and healing, casting out devils, giving sight to the blind, sound to the deaf and capacity to the cripples, even raising the dead. And then he would be rejected by his own people, he would suffer for the sins of mankind, and he would be crucified, only to rise from the dead on the third day (1 Nephi 19:9-10; Mosiah 3:9-10). But that would not complete his mission. Eventually, his gospel would fill the Earth, and he would bring salvation to every nation, kindred, tongue and people (1 Nephi 19:14-17).

Signs of His Coming

There's a surprising contrast between the quiet of the Saviour's advent in the Holy Land and the outpouring of information and signs that heralded it among the Lehites. For example, Samuel pinpointed the time of His birth five years in advance. He also prophesied great lights (note the plural) in the heaven that would dispel the darkness of the night before the holy birth, a new, extraordinary star, and many signs and wonders in the sky (Helaman 14:2-6).

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, it seems like the new star wasn't even noticed until wisemen came from the East and inquired about it. While the entire population of the Lehite civilization fell to the earth in wonder when the sun set but night didn't fall, there's no indication that the same night in Jerusalem seemed in any way remarkable to the general populace. It seems that only a very few, like the shepherds who were visited by angels, and the distant wisemen, saw visible signs and wonders that night. There were others, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, who were moved by the Spirit to recognize the Lord in his infancy, but that was without fanfare.

I have long assumed that the night without darkness in the Americas was lit by a supernova. But that doesn't make sense. As prophesied by Samuel, the new star was an additional sign but not the main wonder. There were other lights that filled the sky and the phenomenon was localized to the land of the Lehites.

So, my questions:

A: Why did the Lehites know so much more than the Jews?

B: Why were they given signs that the Jews were not?

I'm not convinced that the Lehite prophets had any more insight on the Messianic mission than Jewish prophets. Nephi seems to get much of his foundational understanding from the prophet Isaiah and testifies that both seers saw the Messiah in vision (2 Nephi 11:2). But Isaiah was instructed to obscure his teachings in a manner that they would not be easily understood (Isaiah 6:9-10; Jacob 4:14), while Nephi and his successors had the privilege of writing plainly (2 Nephi 25:4).

Could that be because the Lord had to be rejected by his people, had to be crucified in order to fulfill his mission? The prophecies among the Jews could not be so plain and the wonders so clear that a massive uprising would have prevented his execution.

Futhermore, and probably more importantly, following him needed to be a matter of faith, directed by the Spirit. Had the Jews known ahead of time his name, his mother's name, and even the precise date of his birth, recognizing him when he began his ministry would not have required much direction from the Spirit or the exercise of a whole lot of faith.

Instead, he came quietly out of a humble family in Nazareth, whence no good thing was supposed to come. In contrast to his cousin John, whose miraculous conception was easily identified because of his mother's age and the the public wonder of Zachariah's being stricken mute and suddenly healed, the miracles surrounding Jesus' birth were private and not easily apparent. That meant that his disciples had to recognize him by the witness of the Holy Ghost, not just the signs. And when his doctrines turned difficult, when he was surrounded by controversy, and multitudes left him, they had to deepen their faith and hold fast.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, prophetic sharing of specific details about him challenged faith, rather than taking away the need to exercise it. It was tempting to be skeptical about such precise prophecy, especially about events that were to take place on the other side of the world (Helaman 16:17-21).

What this means to me: the Lord always provides adequate witnesses to give us cause to believe, and also withholds enough that we get to choose, to exercise and to strengthen our faith.

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