by Sherrie Johnson
Dec. 1988 Ensign
I passed through masses of icons, silver lanterns, and trinkets before descending the stairs into a sea of people crowded into the small cave. Heat and noise mingled in the heavy, stale air. People jostled for position, nudging, pressing, seeking to see the silver star that marked the place where some say the Savior of the world was born.
People kissed the walls. Others walked through, merely curious. One weeping woman knelt despite the throng, kissed the floor, then gave herself up to intense yet soundless sobbing. Uncomfortable with the sudden exposure to a stranger’s soul, I looked away.
By straining, I caught a glimpse of the star embedded in the rock floor; then I eagerly sought the egress that would take me from the place. I had seen what I came to see but not felt what I hoped to feel. Disheartened, I hurried out of the cave into one of the churches built over it. Few tarried there, and I found in the courtyard a more amiable spot than the one below. Freed from the sights and sounds and press, I sank onto a chair as cold jolts of disappointment intensified in me. How could this be the place of the Savior’s nativity?
For years I had imagined, pondered, and prepared, and I wanted the place to elicit all the feelings I’d encountered while studying. But it didn’t. In an attempt to push away the disappointment, I let my mind wander over what I’d learned of the event in Bethlehem that I’d come to love.
Bethlehem—the name means “house of bread.” Whether or not the cave below me was the actual stable of Christ’s birth, this was the town. Words came to mind, words I had heard almost every Sunday since I was a child: “Bless and sanctify this bread to the souls of all those who partake of it, that they may eat in remembrance of the body of thy Son” (D&C 20:77). Christ, the Bread of Life, was born in the house of bread and placed in a manger.
As a child I had thought manger was a synonym for crib. I remembered my surprise at learning that a manger is a box made to hold food for animals, a feeding trough! Now, as I sat in Bethlehem, I imagined a manger filled with oats that beasts of burden hungrily devoured. They, like me, would eat and in a few hours want more. No matter how nutritious earthly fare is, it is never enough. The next day, even the next hour, the stomach growls for more.
In my mind’s eye I saw hands brushing away the last few oats. The same hands filled the manger with fresh straw and placed the Babe in the feeding trough. Words leaped to mind: “He that cometh to me shall never hunger” and “He that eateth of this bread shall live for ever” (John 6:35, 58). The heavenly fare offered in the manger was not only eternal but capable of lifting us to God. How fitting that Mary should cradle her son, the Bread of Life, in a manger.
I thought of Mary, His mother. The intense emotion of birth was familiar to me, but Mary was the mother of God’s child. I thought of the joy and the sorrow she bore and wondered what her feelings were as she wrapped the Son of God in swaddling clothes.
Oh, the swaddling clothes! As Mary beheld Him in the manger, did her heart race with premonitions of a time when she would see Him wrapped in linen and laid in another cave, called a sepulchre? In a stable-cave Mary gave Jesus mortal life, and from a sepulchre-cave Jesus came forth to give Mary and all mankind immortal life. Both caves are mortal reminders of Jesus’ condescension, or of His descending “below all things” (see 1 Ne. 11:16; D&C 88:6).
His condescension is difficult to understand. He was God “but made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men” (Philip. 2:7). The same verse in the Greek New Testament does not mention reputation but instead says that He “emptied himself.” He was God, yet He emptied himself of power to begin anew, growing from grace to grace. He was the Word, and yet He came as a wordless infant. He was the Almighty One, and yet helplessly He took nourishment at Mary’s breast. He was King of Kings, and yet He came as the servant of man. He, the great I Am, condescended to be the beast upon which all burdens would fall, born among animals at Passover time.
I thought of the significance of the Passover. As families throughout the land prepared their symbolic meal of lamb, the Lamb of God was being born, and because of His living and His dying, the nullifying effects of death would pass over us. But Passover also meant springtime—lambing season. A few miles away, shepherds were helping to bring new lambs into the world. Deemed by the upper classes as men of naught, the shepherds were nevertheless saviors to the sheep. Besides assisting in the births, they nourished, gathered, comforted, and protected their flocks, sometimes risking their lives to defend them. There was deep irony in the fact that Jesus, the Good Shepherd, would be deemed by the Pharisees and Sadducees as a man of naught while in the very act of giving His life to save them.
But there is more to this symbolism of shepherd and sheep. One scholar notes that a tower called Migdal Eder—the watchtower of the flock—stood on the road between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The sheep that were gathered there belonged to the temple flock, from which the sacrificial lambs would be taken. Some Jews believed that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem and revealed at Migdal Eder (see Marvin R. Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, 4 vols. [1887–1900], 1:269).
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). How fitting that the angelic announcement was made to humble men serving the needs of sheep that might die in similitude of the Lamb of God. But that has not changed. It is still to those who are feeding His sheep that He reveals himself. It is to those who serve that the testimony is revealed, the testimony that all who are unclean have a Savior and can come forth from the darkness of their tombs into the Light of Life.
Thoughts of that light brought to mind the Christmas star. Piercing the darkness, it stood above all nations, far above and untouched by anything worldly. Christ, the Life and Light of the World, is like that star. His light, the light of Christ, still guides wise men and wise women to their promised land, where they can behold for themselves the greatest star, the Son.
Ah, the Wise Men. Of all the stories associated with the birth, their story intrigues me most. They must have had scriptures or an oral tradition that prophesied of Christ’s birth, or they would not have recognized the sign or known where to go once they saw it. We are told they saw the sign in the East and then traveled west to Judea. It was a long journey, and once in Jerusalem they began to inquire, “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” (Matt. 2:2).
News of their inquiries concerning a king reached Herod, and he sent for them. He was troubled by prophecies that another would rule Israel—after all, wasn’t he the king of this land? But the Wise Men knew that he was not the king they sought. After they left, they followed the star until they reached Jesus, and there they presented their gifts to Him.
And what marvelous gifts they were! We don’t really know how many Wise Men came, but tradition claims three because there were three gifts: gold, the metal of kings and symbol of a celestial world because of its refined purity; frankincense, used in making incense that was burned on the temple altar as a symbol of prayers arising and connecting God and man; and myrrh, an aromatic gum used to make incense, perfume, and ointment for embalming. I remembered a picture of a myrrh plant and was startled anew by its spikelike thorns. Even at the Christ child’s tender age, the gifts given Him bore testimony of who He was and what He would do. Gold for the King of Kings, frankincense for the Mediator between God and man, myrrh for the body that would be buried for us.
For us! That was the most important part. If He had not died for us, no light, no sign, no bread would be enough. We would have spent our lives in futility and then perished. But because of Him, we live and will live. Because of Him, all who desire will find light. Because of Him, all who seek with pure intent will find God.
All who seek! I ventured into the crowded cave once more and looked again at the worshipers and icons that surrounded me. Something had changed. Before, these sights and sounds so foreign to my upbringing had made me uncomfortable. Now, instead of gaudiness, I saw expressions of love. Instead of strange behavior, I saw devotion. Instead of disappointment, I felt peace.
And in that moment of recognizing the peace, a symbol came to me that I hadn’t thought of before. The celebrated birth was to a virgin, innocent and pure. As if calling me from a deep sleep, chastening words whispered, It is only in a pure heart that Christ can be born again.