This is the fifth of a series of nine articles about the Immaculate Conception and other related themes that will be published daily from December 1 through 9.
Mary was expecting a baby and getting very close to the end of her pregnancy when she received the news. The Roman Emperor, the great Augustus had just ordered the population of the Roman Empire to be counted. In those days Augustus ruled over most of Western Europe, Asia Minor, Northern Africa and the Middle East.
Saint Luke says that Joseph and Mary went down to Bethlehem to comply with the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. There was a later census mentioned by Flavius Josephus St Luke obviously wanted to make the distinction when referring to the earlier census that took place in 5 or 6 B.C. At the time Quirinius was a “military governor” named by the Romans after a campaign to quench a local rebellion.
Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:1-7.
Joseph’s family was from the tribe of Judah and the house of David. He must take his wife along and register on the appointed day in Bethlehem, the city where King David was born, located about five miles due south of Jerusalem. Every inn and house available in town is filled with travelers, and so Joseph has to spend the night in a cave used to keep the animals at night. There is where the King of Kings was born that night. Joseph has to improvise a cradle for the baby in a trough where animals feed. There lays the future Savior of the World. What a great mystery is hidden in that simple image. There is no room for a family in the Empire that rules such extended territory. There Jesus gives us our first Eucharistic lesson, he has come to the world to be food for animal-like souls who have forgotten their divine origin and no longer remember their Creator.
Soon after, a group of shepherds arrive from the fields nearby and they have an amazing story to tell.
In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” Luke 2: 8-14
The priestly cycle of service of the Levites
We have heard many times the argument that Jesus could not have been born on December 25 because it is too cold for shepherds to be with their flocks out in the fields. That is a very strong argument, however the Church celebrates the birth of Christ that day but does not affirm that He was born on December 25. Later on we will learn that a few years later on a December 25, the Magi visited the Holy family. Let us concentrate now on why the shepherds were staying out in the fields. To understand this we have to revisit the announcement of the angel to Zechariah that we studied on The Silent Gospel of Mary. There St Luke tells us that Zechariah was a Levite priest of the order of Abijah. The High Priest Zadok had established those orders of priests by instruction of King David many centuries before.
“With the help of Zadok a descendant of Eliza and Ahimelech a descendant of Ithamar, David separated them into divisions for their appointed order of ministering.” 1 Chronicles 24:3.
That cycle began in the month of Nissan, which starts the counting of the months, the feast seasons and the priestly duty periods in the temple in Jerusalem. Each priestly division had to serve for one week, except during certain feasts when all 24 divisions had to be in the temple. Not to make this too complicated … the order of the cycle along with other information provided by St Luke allow us to narrow the time when John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah was conceived. Since Elizabeth was “in the six month of her pregnancy” when Mary came to visit, we can figure out from there two possible approximate dates for the birth of Jesus. It was either early in the spring, or early in the fall. I personally lean towards the spring birth. The priestly division where Zechariah was enrolled had to serve in the temple every six months every year. This allows for the two options for Jesus’ birthday: either at Sukkoth, the feast of the tabernacles, or very close to the Passover season. Here is where the shepherds out in the fields come to our help.
Ewes, lambing, and the birth of Jesus
Anyone familiar with raising sheep in the northern hemisphere knows that God meant for sheep to mate in the fall so that lambs could be born in the spring when the temperature is mild and grass is abundant. In that way the little lambs have a chance to survive and grow healthy.
In the autumn when days are shorter, the ewe’s brain begins to release hormones that trigger the start of her reproductive system. In the Middle East the ewes go through that seasonal breeding cycle. The length of gestation for a healthy ewe is about five months or shorter. What is important for us is that all ewes mate almost as the same time and also give birth nearly all together during the lambing days in the early spring.
Since lambing can be difficult and it is very dangerous for the ewe, the shepherds have to be out in the fields even at night to help them. Ewes usually give birth to one to three lambs at a time. Without the help of a shepherd they may die in the process.
The Passover Lamb
Christ is our Passover, and the Lamb of God. St Paul and others taught us that from the early days of the Church. The lamb sacrificed every Passover was a prophetic model of Christ.
“Purge out therefore the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, as you are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover lamb is sacrificed for us: Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8)
In the Old Testament, Moses received precise instructions as to how to pick a lamb and when to sacrifice it.
Speak to all the congregation of Israel, instructing them that in the tenth day of this month [Nisan] they shall take to them every man a lamb, according to the house of their fathers, a lamb for an house […] Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: you shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats. Exodus 12: 3-5
It is easy to see that if lambs were born early in the spring, a perfect lamb would be “about one year old” by the Passover feast of the following year. Passover is celebrated on Nisan 14. Christ died on Passover; at 3:00 p.m. while the Passover lambs were being ceremonially sacrificed at the Temple in Jerusalem.
This of course is not a definite proof that Jesus was born early in the spring of the year but given the evidence we have from St Luke, and knowing how God carefully arranges His prophetic models to follow the rhythm of human affairs … it is quite possible that the Lamb of God was born, in a manger, at the time when all lambs were born; and He was sacrificed, on the Cross, at the time when all Passover lambs were sacrificed in the Temple.
When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. Luke 2: 15-21.
One detail that easily escapes our attention is the origin of all the information we received through St Luke. Pure and truthful information has always been hard to find in this treacherous world but these “tidings of great joy” come from the Immaculate Heart of Mary:
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
These days many are expecting Christ to return, since the terrible events unfolding in the world seem to indicate we are living in prophetic times. Reflect on how Christ came to us the first time around and who brought Him to you. Jesus was born into the house of Mary and so this world will have to be turned into a Marian realm before Christ comes to reign. I do not know how that it is going to happen but I know her promise at Fatima in 1917:
“In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph.” Amen.
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On December 8 we are going to celebrate the day of the Immaculate Conception. These days the world seems to be fraught with danger and unspeakable acts of violence and hate. Yet we present to the world the banner of Mary. Miraculous events will soon happen just like in biblical times. We should not be afraid and wait for the moment when Mary makes herself visible to all before her Son turns His attention to the affairs of this world.
A tiny part of my mission was to write this article so you are aware of Our Blessed Mother’s interest in you and every human being alive today. Let us join in praying the Novena of the Immaculate Conception, asking Our Mother for peace in the world, and the prompt return of Her Son, Jesus.