It’s that time of year when many parents of young children ask their friends this important question: “Do any of you have a shepherd’s robe or sheep costume we could borrow for a couple of weeks?” We enjoy watching our little ones dress up as Mary or Joseph, an angel or camel, and listening to the history of how Jesus came into the world. We do it to help our kids learn the story and to remind ourselves of the same. We wrap them in burlap and flowing robes to help them act out the scenes of Jesus’s birth, inviting them to enter the culture and customs of Jesus’ world. In their telling of the story, they often read a portion of Matthew 1, including these verses:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-24)
Every year we are transported back into the world of 1st century Palestine as we again hear the beginnings of the Christmas story. But is that really the beginning?
Before the Christmas Story
As with much of the Bible, the scripts our children read to us are part of a story within a story— one that originated not just with the birth in a manger, but hundreds of years before. There are hints of the Christmas story throughout the Old Testament narrative, beginning even in Genesis. One of the greatest parts of the origin story for our Christmas plays starts with the prophecy Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7 in Matthew 1:23: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” What might our children encounter if they entered Isaiah’s world?
More than 700 years before Mary placed Jesus in the manger, God’s people were threatened by Assyria…