The Birth and Early Childhood of Christ

Beloved brothers and sisters in Christ Our Only True God and Our Only True Savior,



The Roman empire was in effective control of the Middle East after 63 B.C. By permission of the Romans, Herod the Great (a nominal Jew of Idumaean descent) reigned as "king of the Jews" in Palestine from 37 B.C. until his death in 4 B.C. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, "the city of David," during the latter days of Herod's kingship" (see St. Matthew 2:1, 19).

Two complementary accounts of the miraculous birth of Christ are contained in Saint Matthew 1-2 and Saint Luke 1-2. Both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke the Evangelists attest to the virgin birth of Christ. The Annunciation of the advent of Christ by the Angel Gabriel to Mary, the mother of Jesus, is recorded in Saint Luke 1:26-38; and the Orthodox Church teaches that Mary's voluntary submission to the will of God--her freely willed agreement with the divine plan announced by the Angel--was a fundamental and necessary condition of the union of God and man in Christ. "The Incarnation was not only the work of the Father, of His Power and His Spirit; it was also the work of the will and the faith of the Virgin." Because of Mary's positive response to the Annunciation, our salvation through her Son, Jesus Christ, has become possible. Thus, when the Orthodox Church "shows honor to the Mother of God, it is not just because God chose her but also because she herself chose aright."

In the course of time, then, the Virgin Mary "was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit" (St. Matt. 1:18). When Joseph, to whom Mary was engaged, discovered her pregnancy, he "resolved to divorce her quietly." But an Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to take Mary for his wife, "for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit." The Angel also told Joseph that Mary's child would be a son who was to be named "Jesus" (which means "the Lord saves") "for He will save his people from their sins" (St. Matthew 1:20-21).

Thus, Joseph and Mary were married according to Jewish law. And while the couple was on a journey to Bethlehem (to enroll their names in a census that had been ordered by the Emperor Augustus Caesar), Mary gave birth there to her divinely conceived son (see St. Luke 2:1-7). Saint Matthew interprets the miraculous conception and birth of Christ as a fulfillment of the words of the Prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel" (which means, God with us)" (St. Matt. 1:22-23; see also Isaiah 7:14).

Saints Matthew and Luke represent two different traditions concerning the immediate aftermath of Christ's nativity. According to Saint Luke, the birth of the Savior was announced by Angels to shepherds tending their flocks "out in the field"; and the shepherds, hearing the joyful tidings of the advent of the Messiah, visited the holy family in Bethlehem in order to "see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us" (St. Luke 2:8-20). Saint Luke goes on to tell us that, at the age of eight days, Christ was circumcised and given the Name Jesus, and that, thirty-three days after his circumcision, at a service of purification in the Jerusalem Temple, he was presented to God "according to the custom of the law" (St. Luke 2:21-27); see also Lv. 12; Ex. 13:2, 12; Nb. 3:13).

The Roman Catholic church and some Protestant churches hold a yearly festival commemorating the "Presentation of Christ in the Temple" or the "Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary." But in the Orthodox Church, this festival (celebrated on February 2nd) is known as the "Meeting of Our Lord"--"the meeting, that is, of Christ with His people." For at His presentation, as St. Luke tells us, Jesus' Messianic identity was recognized and proclaimed by the holy man Symeon and the prophetess Anna (St. Luke 2:25-38). "Our Lord, brought to the Temple by his mother and by Joseph, now meets His chosen people in the persons of Saint Simeon the Elder and Anna the Prophetess." The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon "that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ" (St. Luke 2:26). And upon seeing the baby Jesus, Simeon was prompted by the Spirit to cry out, "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace..."--the famous "Song of Simeon" (St. Luke 2:29-32), which is sung in the Vespers services of Orthodox churches throughout the world. Simeon also said to Mary, "Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also)" (2:34-35). Supporting the witness of Simeon, the prophetess Anna "gave thanks to God, and spoke of...[Jesus] to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem" (2:38).

Saint Matthew's post-nativity narrative stands in significant contrast to the account presented in St. Luke. Following his description of Christ's birth, St. Matthew tells us that "wise men" (Magi, not magoi, seers, astrologers, magicians) from the "East" (probably Persia [today's Iran] came to Jerusalem, saying, "Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him" (St. Matthew 2:1-2). According to a popular Christian tradition, there were three Magi, and they were not only visionaries but also kings. Herod, who thought of himself as "king of the Jews", and knowing that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, sent the Magi to that city , encouraging them to seek out the newborn child, "that I too may come and worship him" (St. Matt. 2:3-8). Herod's real intention, of course, was to find the Christ and have him killed. Guided by the "Star of Bethlehem," the Magi found the Holy family, "and they fell down and worshipped" the Christ-Child, offering him gifts of "gold and frankincense and myrrh" (St. Matthew 2:9-11). These gifts, it has been said, symbolize the Kingship, the Deity and the Humanity of Jesus; for in ancient Middle Eastern thought, gold was the substance of kings, incense was an offering to God and myrrh--a cosmetic and medicinal spice--was associated with the human body.

After venerating the Infant Jesus, the Magi, warned by God of the dark purposes of Herod, returned to their own country without informing the evil king of the whereabouts of the Messiah. St. Joseph, too, was warned of Herod's plan, and he fled with Mary and Jesus into Egypt. Herod, "in a furious rage" at having been "tricked by the wise men," had all the male children in the region of Bethlehem "who were two years old or younger" killed. According to our Orthodox tradition there were 14,000 infants killed. Shortly after this "Massacre of the Innocents," Herod died (in 4 B.C.), and the holy family, like ancient Israel, returned from Egypt to Palestine. Saint Joseph, his wife and his foster child went to live in Nazareth, a small city in the Northern district of Galilee (see St. Matt. 2:13-23).

Although the post-nativity accounts of Saints Matthew and Luke are different, they are not necessarily contradictory. It is quite possible that the traditions incorporated in Saints Matthew and Luke have preserved true partial recollections of the Lord's infancy. It is unlikely that the visit of the Magi took, place immediately following the birth of Christ, for the text of Saint Matthew implies that the wise men themselves had calculated the nativity as occurring up to a year or two prior to their visit (2:7, 16). Thus, these events may well have taken place subsequent to the Meeting of Our Lord in the Temple (St. Luke 2: 21-38), but prior to the holy family's "return to Nazareth," spoken of in Saint Luke 2:39. It is then possible to see the post-nativity accounts of Saints Matthew and Luke as together constituting an icon of Christ's saving mission to both Jews and Gentiles. For the Lukan account stresses that the advent of the Messiah was revealed first to Jews (the shepherds in the field), and in his description of the circumcision and meeting. Saint Luke emphasizes that everything was performed according to the Mosaic Law (see St. Luke 2:39). In contrast to Saint Luke, Matthew's story of the Magi represents Christ's relationship with the Gentile world; and the Magi's worship and adoration of the Lord is a symbol of the Church, the New Israel, in which membership is determined by faith and not by ethnic lineage. Thus, on Christmas Day, the Orthodox Church sings: "O Master Who has risen as a Star out of Jacob, Thou has filled with joy the watches of stars [the Magi]...As the first fruits of the Gentiles were they led unto Thee, and Thou has openly received them, as they brought Thee acceptable gifts."

The Gospel of St. Matthew begins with a detailed genealogy tracing the ancestry of Jesus (1:1-18). Saint Matthew's genealogy traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, thereby emphasizing Christ's relationship with God's chosen people of the Old Covenant. By contrast, St. Luke goes back beyond Abraham to Adam, who was, originally, "the son of God" (St. Luke 3:38). Saint Paul, the Apostle to whom St. Luke was a disciple, thought of Christ as the New Adam (see 1 Co. 15:22, 45-49) in whom we may be adopted as "sons of God" (see Romans 8:14-17). It is likely that this Pauline teaching lies behind St. Luke's genealogy and that St. Luke's purpose in tracing the ancestry of Christ to Adam is to emphasize the Lord's solidarity with the entire human race and to underline the divine sonship, which is offered to all in Christ.

The genealogies of Christ, then, which are presented in the gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke, proclaim that Jesus is "the Son of David," "the Son of Abraham" and, indeed, "the Son of God."

With sincere agape in His Holy Diakonia,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George