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Father Nicholas Nelson: Getting Jesus’ early years right

We are still in the Christmas season, and the infancy narrative events for the liturgical year don’t end until Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple on Feb. 2. Looking at Jesus’ early years, it can be hard to put all the events of the infancy narratives together, especially because they are told by two different evangelists, and neither of the two speak all the events. For example, St. Matthew speaks of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the Magi, King Herod seeking to kill the baby Jesus, the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, and their return ultimately to Nazareth. But St. Matthew doesn’t mention the shepherds or Jesus’ circumcision or presentation in the Temple. St. Luke on the other hand, speaks of the birth in Bethlehem, the visit of the shepherds, Jesus’ circumcision and presentation in the Temple, and return to Nazareth. But he speaks nothing of the Magi or King Herod, and the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt. So how do we put all these historical events into one timeline?

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

The following makes the most sense to me.

In the year 7 B.C. (Dionysius Exiguus, sixth century B.C., who computed the year of Christ’s birth, was off by a few years!) Joseph and Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus, travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which is Joseph’s native town, to register for the census that Caesar prescribed for the entire world. At Bethlehem, they find lodging in a less-than-ideal place, because there was no room where people normally stay. This was most likely in something like a cave off the back of a house, the cave part being the area in which the animals would stay. It was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus.

The dogma of Mary’s perpetual virginity teaches that Mary always was a virgin, before, during, and after the birth of Jesus. St. Augustine said, “It is not right that He who came to heal corruption should by His advent violate integrity.” This birth was also pain free for Mary, who was immaculately conceived. St. Thomas Aquinas says the fact that she “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him a manger” gives evidence of her pain free labor. A mother giving birth in the normal way wouldn’t be able to “wrap” and “lay the child in a manger” herself.

After eight days, Joseph brought Jesus to the local synagogue for his circumcision. After 40 days, the requisite time for a Jewish mother’s confinement, they took the six-mile trip north to Jerusalem. It was at the Temple of Jerusalem that Mary completed the ritual purification according the Law and during which Jesus was “presented.” Mary, being the Immaculate Conception and having given birth without the violation of her virginal integrity, didn’t need to be purified. Jesus, the Son of God, didn’t need to be redeemed despite being the first born. Aquinas said they partook in these rituals for three reasons: One, because they were still under the Law; two, they didn’t want to give scandal; and three, as an example to others. In fact, notice that Jesus wasn’t ‘redeemed’ as the Law stipulated, but rather the opposite. He was “presented” to God. He wasn’t taken back from God by his parents but rather given to God.

After the presentation in the Temple, the Holy Family returned to Bethlehem. At this point, they acquired better lodging. They found a house to stay in, and Joseph found some work to do in order to provide for the family. Scripture speaks of a house at this point. Then within a year of Jesus’ birth, the Magi, seeing Jesus’ star come from the East, made their way to Jerusalem and then ultimately to Bethlehem. I believe that this star wasn’t just a natural phenomenon, like a comet or the coming together of Jupiter and Venus, but rather a miraculous phenomenon. St. Matthew speaks of the star “going before” the Magi and “coming to rest over the place where the child was.”

Within the next year or so, probably late 6 B.C., King Herod realizes that the Magi, who were warned by angels, were not coming back to him. He is furious and afraid of the newborn king and sends soldiers to Bethlehem to kill all the boys two years and younger. Joseph is warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt. They make the trip of at least 140 miles to get to Egypt. They find a home, Joseph finds some work, and they spend a couple of years there.

In 4 B.C., King Herod dies, and an angel tells Joseph that he can return to Israel, but not to Bethlehem, because Archelaus, who is just as bloodthirsty as his dad Herod was, reigns there. So, the Holy Family continues on to Nazareth where Jesus will grow up, live, and work until he begins his public ministry at the age of 30.

This chronology is not without difficulties, but according to the scriptural evidence, I believe this order of events best incorporates each of the infancy events. Every year during Advent and Christmas, I love to reflect over these events. They are true historical events. They really did happen. When we think about them, we can’t help but wonder and be in awe of God’s goodness and providence throughout history! Merry Christmas!

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].