Photo Credit: NASA/ Bill Ingalls
This year we have an event in the skies that hasn’t happened since March 4, 1226, nearly 800 years ago. People have been calling it the “Christmas Star” or the “Star of Bethlehem. We’ll tell you what it in just a moment.
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Maurine and Scot Proctor have taught Book of Mormon for many years in Institute and have spent extensive time in the Arabian peninsula, following Lehi’s trail. They are the creators of a foundation that has sponsored a multi-year archaeological study of the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful in Oman. They have written a book on the Book of Mormon, as well as immersed themselves in the culture, history, and geography of the scripture.
This year we have an event in the skies that hasn’t happened since March 4, 1226, nearly 800 years ago. People have been calling it the “Christmas Star” or the “Star of Bethlehem. We’ll tell you what it in just a moment.
Hello and welcome to Meridian Magazine’s “Come Follow Me” Christmas podcast. We are Scot and Maurine Proctor and we love to celebrate the real reason for the season. Our gifts to each other are just symbols of the real gift.
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So, what is that astronomical event that hasn’t happened since March 4, 1226, 800 years ago and how could anyone compare it to the star of Bethlehem? It is because on Dec. 21, the night of the winter solstice, which may be before or after you hear this podcast, Jupiter and Saturn will be in a conjunction. This means that they will line up, and though something similar to this happens every 20 years, this conjunction will be exceptionally rare because of how close the planets will appear to be to one another. A star-sighting of this magnitude won’t occur again until 2080.
Now, we don’t know exactly what the star of Bethlehem was. Was it a comet that suddenly appeared in the sky and hung for a bit over Bethlehem? Was it a supernova, a sudden explosion that also gave the Nephites a day, a night and a day without darkness? Or was it simply a sign or an astronomical event, that only studied star watchers could note? It is hard to say. When the wise men from the East who had been following that star came to Herod, the vicious king did not say, “I have been wondering what that bright star in the heavens is that has been commanding all of our attention.”
It is pleasing and not surprising that the exact time of the coming of the Lord to the earth would be marked by a new star, an event which would have to have been anticipated and put in place at the very formation of the universe. Jehovah was the creator. Such a thing could easily be in His economy. We love the wonder of it. At the same time, it would not be surprising if you had to pull yourself away from the bustle and noise and seek the star carefully to see it. We just don’t know.
But here’s a fascinating question, if you are listening to this podcast later than Dec. 21, did you see this unique conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn which hasn’t happened for 800 years? Maybe not unless someone told you about it, or you had a special interest in astronomy.
My whole life I have wished I could have been in that stable to celebrate that birth, to see the Christ child enter mortality on his way to Gethsemane where He fulfilled what He promised us. We imagine there would have been that angelic glow around each player in the scene—Mary, Joseph and especially Jesus. What if I had been there and hadn’t even known? What if I had walked by the stable where a young mother gave birth in such imperfect circumstances?
One writer said, “As dusk turned to darkness on that silent night long ago, the inns of the day were overcrowded. The small towns teemed with travelers and animals, and people plodded down the dusty roads through Bethlehem. For most of them this day and night would be no cause for celebration. In days to come, if they remembered at all, they would note with distaste that they were forced to travel here to pay their taxes to their Roman overlords. Worldly cares hung heavily upon this people as the quiet night came on. But for a handful of humble shepherds in the nearby rocky hills and for a group of searching scholars in a far off land, this would be a night never to be forgotten.
“Why were these few so privileged and not the others? The question is important for each of us as we approach this Christmas, for we can find ourselves in either group. The Reverend Peter Marshall expressed it eloquently when once he prayed, ‘Forbid it, Lord, that we should celebrate without understanding what we celebrate, or like our counterparts so long ago, failed to see the star or to hear the song of glorious promise.’ The question is, shall we spend Christmas like those long-ago taxpayers or like the shepherds and the magi?
It reminds me of a Christmas story told by one of the innkeepers who couldn’t find room for Mary and Joseph. “What could be done? The inn was full of folk…
“That they were so important—just the two—no servants, just a workman sort of man, leading a donkey, and his wife thereon, drooping and pale. I saw them not myself. My servants must have driven them away. But had I seen them, how was I to know?
“Were inns to welcome stragglers up and down in all of our towns from Beersheba to Dan, ‘til he should come? And how were men to know? There was a sign, they say, a heavenly light resplendent, but I had no time for stars. And there were songs of angels in the air out on the hills. But how was I to hear amid the thousand clamors of an inn?” (Amos R. Wells, “The Bethlehem Inn Keeper” comp. George Bickerstaff, Christmas Readings for the LDS Family (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, Inc., 1967, p.1)
Those who found the baby Jesus had pulled away from the clamor to do so. The shepherds could hear the angels’ chorus because they were not in the jangle of a city. The wise men had searched out signs. But most simply overlooked the scene and waited for the King to come in might and glory and to crush the world’s oppressions with a stroke. They missed it all. And so, might we, all these years later, be no wiser than the preoccupied innkeepers when we fail to see his presence in our lives.
That is because, of course, He still comes quietly, without loud proclamation. He does not crush our oppressions with a stroke but takes our hand and walks us through them with the sure experience of one who knows. But maybe, most importantly, though he came to all of us collectively, his ministrations are personal, letting each of us see Him just how we need Him.
To those whose health is impaired, He is the great healer. To the world’s forgotten, he is the one who notices even a sparrow’s fall. To the frightened, He is the comforter. For all of us, caught in the fog and frustration of mortality, his birth is a reminder that whoever we are and whatever burden we carry, God loves and remembers us.
Our lives are so harried and busy, it is easy to look down at our list of things to do instead of up at stars. If we are so absorbed in this life that we cannot take time to seek for Him can we imagine that if we had been there it would have been any different on that night of nights? Would we have walked right by that stable, preoccupied with the urgencies of living? Do we do it now?
When Christ was born in Bethlehem, it was an event long foretold and heralded with much anticipation. Though many Christian churches believe that the gospel taught by Jesus was a revolutionary set of ideas initiated in the meridian of time, as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we know that from the beginning, prophets anticipated His coming and His mission. His gospel was understood by prophets and believers in dispensations from the time of Adam.
When we look for witnesses, they are plentiful. Jesus said, “Search the scriptures; for…they are they which testify of me” (John 5:39).
The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob taught us, “Behold, I say unto you that none of the prophets have written, nor prophesied, save they have spoken concerning this Christ: (Jacob 7:11). Nephi said of his father Lehi, “And he also spake concerning the prophets, how great a number had testified of these things, concerning this Messiah, of whom he had spoken, or this Redeemer of the world” (1 Nephi 10:15).
We see that testifying of Jesus Christ , his reality, his mission, his atonement, his coming, was the privilege and focus of the prophets from the beginning. This was the essence of their teaching, and any appearance to the contrary misses the meaning or is a problem with the text.
Indeed, the atonement and mission of Jesus Christ is the gospel, and every other good thing that we love about the gospel flows from this central reality. He told his disciples when He preached in the new world, “Behold I have given unto you my gospel , and this is the gospel which I have given unto you –that I came unto the world to do the will of my father, because my father sent me” (3 Nephi 27:13).
Elder Bruce R McConkie said, “For four millenniums nothing ever said by men or angels was as important as their messianic prophecies. From the day in Eden when the Lord said that Eve’s seed should crush the serpent’s head, to a glorious night 4000 years later in the Judean hills, the most important utterances made on earth were the messianic prophecies. And from Messiah’s birth as long as time endures, the most glorious language that has been or can be spoken contains the Messianic testimonies born by the power of the spirit for the edification, blessing, and salvation of the receptive part of earth’s inhabitants.”
“Everlastingly and always, salvation is in Christ,” and righteous people have known and understood that from the beginning of time. Some in our day describe returning to God as a wheel with many spokes, all leading ultimately to the center. In other words, whatever people believe, as long as it inclines them toward a moral life is acceptable.
This is not true. The only way to enter God’s presence and be with Him again is through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies. He is the anointed and chosen one. It is not anyone else. It is not someone who is yet to come. It is not any other person. It is not any Idol –whether it be materialism or your own will, or easy gratification or entertainment, or the most popular political philosophy of the day. The prophecies through the ages serve as multiple witnesses to this central fact of existence. Jesus is the Christ, the only way to be saved. It is not a point that is debatable.
If one were basing a belief in Christ only on the number of the witnesses of His divinity and mission, you would be hard-pressed to deny His role as the Son of God.
Now despite all of these prophecies, on the night Jesus was born, as we have said, most people were preoccupied and missed it. In his own hometown of Nazareth where they knew him best, they missed it too.
Jesus, in his ministry, had been teaching in the towns round about and then returned to Nazareth. On the Sabbath day, He attended the synagogue, listening to the reading of the law and the prophets. In these services, men were appointed to read, and in this instance, He was recognized as a teacher eligible to assume the reader’s place.
He arose and began to read from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the broken hearted , to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of the site to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised.“
He closed the book and then sat down. Readers could also make commentary, so expectant eyes were upon Him. The scripture he had quoted was one recognized by everyone as specifically referring to the Messiah. Instead of detailed commentary, his only words were a declaration, “this day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (Luke 4:21).
His clear, unapologetic pronouncement that He was the Messiah offended them greatly but rings in our ears with joy. Who among us is not the broken-hearted, the captive, the blind, or bruised?
He is the compensation for our losses, which sometimes seem so great that no compensation could be possible. This is a wounding world, and none of us emerge without scars and pain. Our lives involve dashed expectations, unfulfilled hopes, disappointing weaknesses, debilitating sins that sometimes seem to hang on us like a chain. He is the balm, the liberator, the constant friend, the one who springs us from debtors’ prison from which there seems to be no relief.
Jesus Christ has willingly stepped forward to bear our burdens and make them light. Isaiah prophesied it and Jesus proclaimed it in an echo that was once said in the premortal world. “Here am I send me.” “This day is the scripture fulfilled in your ears.”
The day of His birth and every day of His life was that scripture fulfilled in their ears. But most missed his birth and the incomparable thing that had happened, the very event that had been anticipated for millennia.
His proclamation only made his home town angry, so angry in fact that they “rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built that they might cast him headlong” (Luke 4:29).
Since Maurine and I lead tours to Israel, we have stood on Mt. Precipice at the brow of that cliff and have told this story many times. It is a steep cliff that overlooks the Jezreel Valley with a wide view beyond it, where the battle of Armageddon will one day be fought. From this location it is clear that these men of Nazareth meant business. And Christ “passing through the midst of them went His way” (Luke 4:30).
Certainly, in Galilee, crowds followed him. It is true, that all men sought him to be healed, they clamored around Him for His blessed touch. The lame walked, the blind saw. They liked his divine gift to heal their immediate problems.
They liked the bread He made when he fed the 5,000, which was only counting the men. With the women and children, it could have been 20,000 or even more. With this demonstration they attempted by force to make Him king, so He could feed them again and again. How easy it is to be devoted to God when He meets your immediate need, and how much more difficult when you don’t see immediate answers to your prayers.
“Jesus answered them and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Ye seek me, not because ye saw the miracles, but because ye did eat of the loaves, and were filled” (John 6:26).
When He told them He had a more important bread to give them, and delivered the Bread of Life speech, many turned away. So many, in fact, that Jesus said to the Twelve, “Will ye also go away? Then Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6: 68-69).
These familiar stories from Jesus’s life make me wish that I could have been there and stood by Him. I wish that I could have laid down my busyness and rushed to the manger and seen the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes. I wish I could have stood by him In Nazareth with courage and shared my witness when His own village folk sought to cast Him off a cliff. I wish I could have eaten the loaves and fish which He provided and then embraced His bread of life speech and not turned away with the many who did. I wish that I could say to Him directly as Peter did when Jesus asked, “Will ye also go away?” I would like to look into His eyes and affirm my loyalty, “Lord to whom would I go. Thou hast the words of eternal life. I believe and am sure that thou art the Christ.”
But we live now and can’t be at the manger stall, but we can still stand with the same unwavering devotion before every pressure as disciples of Christ. As the world speaks less of Him, we can speak more. Our signs of Him may not be magnificent new stars, but we can notice with gratitude all the ways He touches our days. If we are persecuted for His name’s sake, we can count it an honor. If there are times when our lives look bleak, we can hold on to Him with hope. When His voice is a quiet voice, we can hear it as it pierces to the very center of our being.
I want to see Him again, and I feel certain that His face will be infinitely familiar to me. Only a handful got to see Him at His birth and knew who He was, but there will be no such quiet at His Second Coming. While we wait for the day that we see Him again, with all the fanfare the Lord of all Things deserves, let us look now for the quiet ways He shows His hand and speaks to us. We share with you a Christmas story where one saw his quiet goodness in a place she never supposed.
Growing up in a family with plenty of money, Susan Easton Black was used to abundant Christmases, but in December 1977, when she was an impoverished single mother, it was not to be that way. She said:
“Cuddling my sons, I reluctantly explained my abhorrence of debt and the specter of our economic plight. My emotions surfaced as the children attempted to comfort me by nodding assuredly, ‘Don’t worry! Santa Claus will give us gifts.’
“Cautiously I explained, ‘I think Santa Claus is also having a bad year.’
“With certainty my first-born son, Brian, announced, ‘But on television his sleigh is still filled with toys. With five days left till Christmas, he’ll have plenty for us.’ His younger brother Todd interjected, ‘Besides, Santa won’t forget us. We’ve been good this year.’
“As all three nodded in agreement, I did too. My sons had been good. They had found happiness and friendship in our family: we all were unusually close. Perhaps it was our circumstance. Yet, despite their goodness, they would soon be disappointed because neither Santa nor mother would bring the desired presents on Christmas Day.
“That night I cried and pled with the Lord for relief, for a glimmer of hope that Christmas in our home would be better than I anticipated. My verbal prayers awakened the children. They seemed to intuitively know what was causing my unhappiness. ‘Don’t worry about presents. It doesn’t matter,’ said Brian. I knew it didn’t matter on December 20th, but I knew it would be all-important on December 25th.
“The next morning, I could not hide the despair and self-pity that had marred my face through the night. ‘What is wrong?’ I was asked again and again at the university. My trite reply was ‘Nothing.’ Unconvinced friends pried and seemed in their own way to make matters worse. I snapped at the extended hand of friendship and grimaced at their undue interest in my personal life.
Arriving home, I methodically pulled the mail out of the mailbox as I entered the house. A curious unstamped envelope caught my attention. ‘To a very, very, very, very special lady’ was typewritten on the envelope. I gazed at the envelope and wondered if it were meant for me. Hoping it was, I tore it open. To my surprise I found several dollars inside, but not a note of explanation.
“’Come quickly,” I beckoned my children. Together we counted for money, examined the envelope, and expressed wonder at the anonymous gift. This was a direct answer to my prayer. There was enough money in the envelope to buy an extra gift for each child. I was stunned and amazed, and my joy and excitement of Christmas had returned. It was going to be a great Christmas Day after all. It wouldn’t be as lavish as those of my childhood, but it would be good enough.
“I was curious. Where had the money come from? Could it be from a neighbor, a friend, a classmate, or the bishop? Logical deduction let me first to near neighbors. Visiting from house to house in our neighborhood proved embarrassing. As I attempted to thank neighbors, each stammered and then confessed, ‘It wasn’t me.’ Calling friends and thanking them elicited clever expressions, ‘If you find out who is giving away money, tell them to send some my way.’ Classmates rendered similar comments.
“It must be the bishop, I decided. He knew what I paid in tithing and would be aware that a less than exciting Christmas would be awaiting my family. The children and I walked to his house and knocked on his door. Enthusiastically, we thanked him for his generosity. However, he denied being our benefactor and assured us that he did not know who had been so kind.
“Curiosity mounted as nightfall approached. I read the envelope again: ‘To a very, very, very, very special lady.’ This time I noticed that the ‘e’ and ‘l’ were misshapen letters produced by an old typewriter ribbon. I also observed that each dollar bill had been folded and unfolded many times, as if each one had been of infinite worth. My desire to discover the identity of the anonymous donor grew. Soon that desire was coupled with the gnawing resolve to return the money. The misshapen letters and folded dollar bills evidenced that the generous donor also had financial difficulties.
“I couldn’t sleep that night. Again and again, I ask myself, ‘Who was it?’ I had the clues of the old typewriter ribbon and the folded money, but not the answer. I can’t really describe how I finally knew who the benefactor was, but about 2:00 o’clock in the morning, I knew. I knew who had a broken typewriter, and who needed to replace their ribbon, and who carefully folded and unfolded money, checking each dollar bill. It was my three sons.
“With tears of love, I awoke the donors. Blurry-eyed, they asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ I replied, ‘Nothing’s wrong; everything is right! You gave me the money. You gave me all the money you possess! Opening the bedroom closet door, I pulled out three empty jars that had once contained their treasured fortune. They sat silent for several moments until my nine-year old Brian turned to his younger brother Todd and punched him. ‘You told,’ he exclaimed. Attempting to fend off further blows, Todd yelled, ‘It wasn’t me. It must have been John.’ Their five-year-old brother immediately said, ‘It wasn’t me,’ as both boys landed on him. In unison they asked, ‘How did you know?’
“I had searched outside my home for the answer –but the answer was within. I had seen generosity in all those around me, but had failed to recognize the generous hearts of my children.” My house, with all of its material flaws, was my heaven on earth, and my sons were my greatest treasure.” So, the Lord was right there in her house all along.
At Christmas we hang up 13 stockings by our fireplace as if our eleven children had not grown up and gone. But hanging up one stocking is always tender for us because it has our daughter’s name on it, “Melissa”. She graduated from mortality four years ago, and though there isn’t a day that we don’t think of her, it is particularly poignant at Christmas with her forever empty Christmas stocking. I was thinking this week about the generosity and the Lord’s touch within our own home.
Melissa was perhaps six years old when I was writing a book for a company and we were invited to their Christmas party at the Villa theater in Salt Lake City. A robust and cheery Santa Claus stood at the door and greeted each child, asking them what they wanted for Christmas. Melissa told Santa that all she wanted for Christmas was for her mother to feel better. What she didn’t know and we hadn’t shared with anyone was that I was expecting a baby and my morning sickness was vicious. All she could see was that her Mommy was sick all the time, and she must have worried that it was serious. Of course, within a few weeks Melissa got her wish and I felt much better. The next Christmas I was still working with the company on the book project and we were invited again to their party. Santa had been so impressed with the little girl who only wanted her mother to feel better for Christmas that he remembered her. When she came up to see him this year, he leaned down, looked in her face and said, “Did your mother get feeling better?” Melissa was so surprised that Santa remembered, that she, who had been on the edge of disbelief, turned to me and said, “Now I know, Santa Claus is real.”
Certainly, the quiet spirit of giving is real, but what is the foundation of all things and the center of our hope, the real source of hope and light is that baby born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. The mighty Jehovah condescended to come to us as an infant who cried in the night for his mother. Jesus Christ took on mortality that we would forever have someone to turn to in our pain and limitation. He knows what it is to walk the dusty roads of this earth as we do, knows what it is to hunger and thirst as we do, to see betrayal, to be wounded as we so often do. In that baby, lying in that manger is my absolute faith that I will once again see that woman, who was once a little girl who asked for a gift for me from Santa. He is my everything.
Every year when we take people to Israel, we stand in shepherd’s fields, and ask if people think the angel choir who sang for those watching their flocks by night was an audition choir. They say no. We ask if anyone could sing in it. They all say yes. We ask, “Who in this group, right here, sang in it?” They all raise their hands. “We did.”
Why? Because the event we had all anticipated since before the foundations of the earth when the Son of God stood forth with shining face and said, “Here am I, send me” was now upon us. He came to earth. The way was open for us to return to the presence of God? How could we keep from singing?
We love this song.
My life goes on in endless song
Above earth´s lamentations,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing,
It sounds an echo in my soul.
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm,
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
We rejoice in the Lord at this Christmas time. We’re Scot and Maurine Proctor and this has been Meridian Magazine’s Come Follow podcast. Next week we will begin studying the Doctrine and Covenants with Section 1. Thanks to Paul Cardall for the music and to Michaela Proctor Hutchins who is our producer.
From us here at Meridian Magazine to all of you, our dear and precious listeners we wish you a heartfelt Merry Christmas and a glorious and wonderful New Year.