Jesus, Once of Humble Birth

Far, far away on Judea’s plains, there were “shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 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.” Easing their fears, the angel said, “I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” (Luke 2:8-12). Around six hundred years prior to that night, another heavenly messenger heralded the birth of the Savior, asking the Book of Mormon prophet Nephi, “Knowest thou the condescension of God?” (1 Nephi 11:16). Nephi then saw a virgin, “bearing a child in her arms. And the angel said unto [Nephi]: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!” (1 Nephi 11:20-21). Though it was announced by angels, the birth of Jesus Christ was no spectacle. Unaware of the identity of the Child that was to be born, the innkeeper offered only a stable as lodging for His mother, Mary, and for Joseph. There, the Savior of the world was born, the very same One who Isaiah prophesied would be called, “Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” of whose “government and peace there shall be no end” (Isaiah 9:6-7). Though He was the God for whom Israel had built a temple of gold, silver, and brass, He lay His head in a straw-filled manger after His birth. Though He was the Framer and Creator of the earth and the cosmos, He came into the world to be raised by a humble carpenter. Though He had toppled the walls of Jericho, had led an army of three hundred to triumph over the Midianites, and had routed the Assyrians who had laid siege to Jerusalem, He was, as a newborn, totally vulnerable to Herod’s jealous malice. Though He had given the Children of Israel daily manna and had sent ravens to feed the prophet Elijah in times of famine, He chose to become entirely dependent on a virgin mother—who had never before raised a child—for His sustenance and care.

Recalling the humble condition of the Lord’s birth, Phillips Brooks wrote:

How silently, how silently

The Wondrous gift is giv’n!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of his heav’n.

The Savior came into the world without fanfare and without pretense. The Greatest of All, He chose not to be born into luxury and fame, but He chose, rather, to be born in a stable in Bethlehem, exemplifying from the beginning His teaching that “whosoever of you will be chiefest, shall be servant of all” (Mark 10:44). But, though the wondrous gift of God’s own Son was given silently, the effects of that gift extend into the eternities. Surely, this is the condescension of God: He was the very Word who was “in the beginning with God” by whom “all things were made” and in whom “was life” and the “light of men,” and He “was made flesh, and dwelt among us” in order to give “to them that believe on his name” the “power to become the Sons of God” (John 1:2-4, 12, 14). This is the joy of Christmas, the glad tidings brought by angels through the millennia—that the Son of God, though apparently small and simple, came into the world and prepared the way for us to return to live forever with our Father in Heaven, the greatest gift of all.

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When reports began to circulate that Jesus of Nazareth was the prophesied Messiah, some underscored the obscurity of his origin, asking, “Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). Nevertheless, Jesus continued to do great things in the Galilean countryside, healing lepers, restoring sight to the blind, preaching to multitudes, calming storms, and even raising the dead. Indeed, He grew up as a “tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground” (Isaiah 53:2), working many miracles and preaching an unequaled gospel of peace and selfless love. His life exemplified the truths He taught: he forgave as often as He taught mercy, he comforted as often as He taught compassion, and He bowed in prayer as often as He taught humble devotion. What made His ministry great was not that it was done in the great metropolises of the ancient world among kings and philosophers, but that it was done with godly grace, dignity, and power. Nobody was beneath or above His notice, from the devoted widow who cast her meager mites into the temple treasury, to Nicodemus, “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1), because His mission was “to preach good tidings unto the meek,” to “bind up the brokenhearted, to pronounce liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound” (Isaiah 61:1). Because “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), we all depend on Him and on His goodness and mercy in order to overcome opposition in the world and in order to inherit the richest blessings of heaven. As a result, the quiet glory of Jesus’ earthly ministry continues to touch each of us without exception.

Paul taught that “we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together” (Romans 8:16-17).  Jesus Himself taught the same principle with His incomparable plea: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30). There is in that plea the promise that Christ will make our burdens light, the promise that, through Him, we will find an inheritance of rest to our souls. To celebrate His birth, then, is not to celebrate the birth and life of a great humanitarian or of a gifted teacher or of an unrivaled leader. To celebrate His birth is to celebrate the life of the only sinless Son of God who gave His perfect life in sacrifice so that “the world through him might be saved” (John 3:17).

Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him: and with his stripes we are healed…. Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:4-5, 12)

What does the Christ ask for in exchange for such an incomparable gift? That we become “as a little child” (Luke 18:17), that we “keep [His] commandments” (John 14:15), and that we “love [our] neighbor as [ourselves]” (Matthew 19:19).  He asks only that we accept His help to abandon our weaknesses and flaws and that we embrace a higher, more heavenly pattern of living. With the assurance of His aid and the promise of His peace, there is nothing to impede us as we pursue a course closer to perfection. Thus, the celebration of Christmas is as much a celebration of the Savior as it is a celebration of gratitude for the strength He gives us to overcome sin, sickness, and sorrow.

Born into the simplest circumstances, Jesus Christ lived and died and showed the world “that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass” (Alma 37:6), for who would have said that one who appeared to be merely the son of a Nazarene carpenter was the Savior and Redeemer of all the world? Surely, though, He was—the Son of God, the light and life of the world. Indeed, because of the great things He did in spite of his simple appearance, we have the assurance that, by our small and simple efforts, great things will come to pass in our lives and in the lives of those we love. Reflecting on that truth embodied in Christ’s birth, life and ministry, Parley P. Pratt penned the poetic verse of the hymn “Jesus Once of Humble Birth,” a quiet reminder of the price He paid so that we could be joint heirs with Him in the eternities:

Jesus, once of humble birth,

Now in glory comes to earth

Once He suffered grief and pain;

Now he comes on eath to reign.

Now he comes on earth to reign.

Once a meek and lowly Lamb,

Now the Lord, the great I Am.

Once upon the cross he bowed;

Now his chariot is the cloud.

Now his chariot is the cloud.

Once forsaken, left alone,

Now exalted to a throne.

Once all things he meekly bore,

But he now will bear no more.

But he now will bear no more.

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I know that Jesus Christ lives, that He loves us, and that He gave His life for us that we may live. I know that great things can result from small efforts, and I know that as we press on, refusing to succumb to the opposition that faces us, we will find joy and peace. Thus, at this sacred time of year, I wish you a merry Christmas, one resplendent with the light of faith and the warmth of hope in our Savior, Jesus Christ.

The Gift of Gratitude

While Christ traveled in the wilderness, a multitude came unto Him, “having with them those that were lame, blind, dumb, maimed, and many others, and cast them down at Jesus’ feet,” hoping, no doubt, that He would exercise His miraculous power for their benefit. Of course, He was moved by His incomparable love and “healed them” (Matthew 15:30). That multitude then remained with Jesus for three days, and the Savior said to His apostles, “I have compassion on the multitude, because they continue with me now three days, and have nothing to eat: and I will not send them away fasting, lest they faint in the way” (Matthew 15:32). Beyond addressing the needs the people had brought to His feet, Jesus wanted to make sure that all their needs were addressed before they departed His presence. Thus, He asked his disciples what food they had among them, and they responded that they had seven loaves and a few little fishes. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus then “took the seven loaves and the fishes, and gave thanks, and brake them, and gave to his disciples, and the disciples to the multitude” (15:36). All ate, and, in the end, there were baskets of food to spare.

Jesus feeds the multitude (lds.org)

Jesus feeds the multitude (lds.org)

Referencing this miracle, President Thomas S. Monson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints explained, “Notice that the Savior gave thanks for what they had—and a miracle followed…. We have all experienced times when our focus is on what we lack rather than on our blessings. Said the Greek philosopher Epictetus, ‘He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.’” I bet that if I had been faced with feeding thousands with a basketful of food, I would probably have felt abject despair; however, faced with that prospect, Jesus Christ gave thanks—that He had something—and a miracle followed.

It can be difficult to see past what we lack in order to express gratitude for what we have. It’s hard to be grateful for our shoe when there’s a pebble stuck in it. At such times, we often fail to realize just how uncomfortable walking would be if we had no shoes at all. I can’t say that I’ve mastered the ability to see past the troubles of my life, but I can remember a time when a conscious effort to express gratitude opened my eyes to the abundance of God’s mercy during what could have otherwise been a defeating and discouraging time.

While I was serving in Brazil as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ, my missionary companion and I were about to knock on the door of an apartment complex when two men rode up beside us on a motorcycle. They stopped us and shouted, “The Mormons’ house is on fire!” After they told us the address of the apartment in question, my companion and I abandoned our plans and headed home. When we rounded the corner of our block, we found inky smoke oozing out of the open window. Our neighbors were gathered at the foot of the building, terrified and screaming that the flames would make it to the propane tank connected to the kitchen stove. While we waited for the firefighters, the security guards at the hospital behind our building ran up and put out the fire. I called the other pair of missionaries who lived with us, and we headed upstairs to see what was left.

One of the missionaries living in the apartment had accidentally left the iron plugged in before he left for the day’s work. At some point in the afternoon, the iron had caught fire, taking the ironing board and a pair of black rubber boots with it. Though the flames had been hot enough to consume the boots entirely and to discolor the tile floor in the corner of the room, they only singed the edge of the couch that shared the corner with the ironing board. The burning boots had filled the apartment with smoke and covered every exposed surface with stinky soot, and we spent the rest of the afternoon staring at the blackened walls and ceiling in a sort of daze, contemplating the work that lay ahead. I couldn’t help but feel grateful, though, that the Lord had kept the fire from burning the couch: had the couch caught fire, the damage would likely have been catastrophic.

Of course, we spent the next week cleaning and painting the walls, soaking our white shirts in countless liters of bleach, and sleeping in an apartment in a distant corner of the city. That meant that after splitting the day between restoring the apartment and teaching the gospel in the streets, we ended the day with a fifteen-minute bus ride and a twenty-minute walk through dark, narrow streets. On about the third day of that routine, my companion and I got to the door of our temporary apartment to find that our key had stopped working. My companion jiggled the key in the lock; I jiggled the key in the lock. We tried every key on the keyring without success. We pushed the door and pulled the door, hoping to shift the lock somehow. Dirty and exhausted after a day’s work, we each offered silent prayers for help and then returned to our assault on the lock with renewed fervor. The lock didn’t budge, but we kept trying, and, eventually, the door swung open. We staggered into the apartment and fell on our knees to give thanks for the Lord’s intervention in our time of what felt then like desperate need.

With a charred apartment, an upset routine, and a worthless key, we had enough pebbles in our shoes to spare. President Monson taught, “When we encounter challenges and problems in our lives, it is often difficult for us to focus on our blessings. However, if we reach deep enough and look hard enough, we will be able to feel and recognize just how much we have been given,” adding later that “to express gratitude is gracious and honorable, to enact gratitude is generous and noble, but to live with gratitude ever in our hearts is to touch heaven.” For some reason, I found it particularly easy then to see the blessings by looking past the fiery trials of that week. I was then able to see how a loving Father in Heaven had been involved in the details of my life, always working to bless and encourage in the midst of discouraging circumstances. By focusing my efforts on expressing gratitude, I became more aware of the reality of God’s love, and, even now, the week my apartment caught fire stands in memory as one of the periods in which I felt closest to heaven.

Through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord asked, “[W]hat doth it profit a man if a gift is bestowed upon him, and he receive not the gift? Behold,” He continued, “he rejoices not in that which is given unto him, neither rejoices in him who is the giver of the gift” (Doctrine and Covenants 88:33). In order to give thanks for a blessing that we receive, we have to acknowledge first the blessing and then the God who has blessed us. As clear as it was for me to see the hand of the Lord at work in my life during the week of the fire, I fail occasionally to recognize the blessings in my life—and that makes it impossible to see God’s hand at work and to rejoice in His love. Speaking of gratitude, the Psalmist wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord, ye righteous; and give thanks at the remembrance of his holiness” (Psalm 97:11), reminding us that joy and gratitude are closely linked. As we look for blessings in a spirit of gratitude, we get better at seeing them, and the abundance of little mercies and comforts begins to outshine the ever-present distresses of life, illuminating each day with the joy that comes from knowing that God lives and that He loves us enough to take care of us from day to day.

When we, like the Savior, incline our hearts to heaven in gratitude for what we have rather than fret over what we lack, we prepare ourselves to witness great miracles. We may not see something as dramatic as the feeding of thousands with several small loaves, but, when we witness a door open after trying in vain to unlock it, the miracles that we do witness will seem great because of the incisive way in which they teach us about God’s love for us. We will come to see that God doesn’t afflict us with adversity, but that He blesses us with the help we need as we face the tribulation that is a natural consequence of living in a fallen world. I know that as we live with gratitude in our hearts we will, as President Monson promised, “touch heaven” and rejoice in the unconditional love of our Father in Heaven.