The setting was as peaceful as nature could provide, the coming of night in early spring. Skies crystal clear, with stars coming out first by tens, then by hundreds, and finally by thousands. Shepherds in the field finding relief from the glare of day and fatigue of honest labor. The only unusual—but remarkably beautiful—element in this pastoral scene was in a hillside stable close to the village, in which two human figures huddled over an infant lying in a manger, with only a few domestic animals witnessing the wonder they had seen.
These three, who had found no friend or willing host in crowded Bethlehem town, were, first, a beautiful young virgin mother named Mary (probably in her early or mid-teens if the traditions of the day were in force), whose courage and conspicuous faith are as striking as anything ever recorded in scripture. Second, her husband, called Joseph, older than his young wife but one who by definition must have been the most worthy man on earth to raise a baby that was not Joseph’s physical son but who would, in time, become Joseph’s spiritual father. Third, last, and most beautiful of all: the baby to be named Jesus, lying in swaddling clothes on the cleanest hay an anxious father could collect.
One irony this quiet, unpublicized scene belied was the fact that no baby had ever been born about whom so much was already known, of whom so much had already been written, and regarding whom so much was already expected. Indeed, knowledge about who and what He was started in the realms of heaven before anyone had been born! As Firstborn of the Father in the world of spirits, He was designated there to be the Savior of the world, foreordained to be “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Later, but still prior to His birth, He would be the grand Jehovah of the Old Testament, helping Noah save his family in time of flood and aiding Joseph save his family in time of famine. He was the magisterial Jehovah whose names would include “Wonderful, Counselor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.” He was the Alpha and Omega in the great plan of mercy that would eventually “preach good tidings unto the meek; … bind up the brokenhearted, … proclaim liberty to the captives, and [open] the prison to them that are bound.”
To accomplish this, He would tread the wine press of redemption utterly and entirely alone, with no mortal companion who would aid Him and no heavenly companion who could. In bearing all the sins and sorrows of mortality, He would bring the incomprehensible gift of salvation to the entire human family, from Adam to the end of the world. In the full course of His journey, He would be “the Shepherd and Bishop of [our] souls,” the great “High Priest of our profession,” the free-flowing “fountain of all righteousness.” All of these mortal duties and demands had yet to be met. But not tonight. Not this night. Here He was just a baby in the arms of a mother who adored Him, watched over by a father who was gentle and strong.
Soon those shepherds came representing the lowest of earthly activities, the poorest of men and their labors. Later, kings came, the Wise Men from the east, symbolizing the loftiest of temporal achievements, the richest of men and their labors. Above all—literally above all—angels came singing “Glory to God in the highest,” a veritable multitude of this heavenly host praising this little baby who had finally come to earth. Angels had, in fact, marked the path to this manger for centuries. Most recently, an angel had come to Mary in the magnificent annunciation to her of what she had been chosen to do and who she had been chosen to be. An angel came to Joseph giving him courage to marry this young woman who was mysteriously already with a child, a commandment that he instantly and faithfully rose to obey. After the birth, an angel told the young couple to flee—flee what would be Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (those tiny children who were the first of the New Testament Christian martyrs), and that same angel told the couple, when they could return from Egypt, to settle in distant Nazareth rather than Bethlehem or even Jerusalem. Obviously, the angels in heaven knew far more than mortals on earth regarding what this birth meant and what this child’s mission was, namely “[to bear] our griefs, and [carry] our sorrows: … [to be] wounded for our transgressions, [and] bruised for our iniquities: [to make clear that] the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and [that] with his stripes we [would be] healed.”
For me personally, it is significant that all of this unfolds in the night, that period when muscles relax and fatigue is laid to rest, when prayers are said, when revelation is anticipated and divine beings are most likely to be near. And once a year, night is when children can scarcely close their eyes for the delight that is bubbling within them, knowing tomorrow it will be Christmas. Yes, however difficult our day has been, the sweet dreams of the night can make everything right. As Elder Parley P. Pratt once wrote:
“God has revealed many important instructions … by means of dreams. … [Then] the nerves [are] unstrung, and the whole of mortal humanity lies hushed in quiet [slumber, and] … the spiritual organs … converse with Deity, … [with] angels, and [with] the spirits of just men made perfect.”
And so it was this night of wondering awe, where truly “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in the dreams of Bethlehem.
That night when in the Judean skies the mystic Star dispensed its light,
A blind man groped in his sleep and dreamed that he had sight.
That night when shepherds heard the song of hosts angelic choiring near,
A deaf man stirred in slumber’s spell and dreamed that he could hear.
That night when in the cattle-stall slept Child and Mother, without talk
A crippled man turned his twisted limbs and dreamed that he could walk.
That night when o’er the new-born Babe the tender Mary rose to lean,
A loathsome leper smiled in sleep and dreamed that he was clean.
That night when to his Mother’s breast the little King was held secure,
A harlot slept a happy sleep and dreamed that she was pure.
That night when in the manger lay The Sanctified, who came to save,
A man moved in the sleep of death, and dreamed there was no grave.
I leave with you, as my Christmas gift, the dreams of Bethlehem. And I do so in the name of the baby who makes all of those dreams come true, even the Lord Jesus Christ, amen.