Two miracle birth stories of Jesus

This Sunday in Sunday school, I will be teaching the children about the two stories that we tell about the birth of Jesus. In popular culture, we mush these two stories together — angels and shepherds get mushed in with wise men and the star in the east — but they really are two different stories, told by two people with differing theologies.

Part of the basic Biblical literacy I want to make clear to children that there are indeed two different stories. I don’t want to go into the subtle differences in the theologies of the two stories; it is enough for me that children learn that there are two stories. This will lay the foundation for later, when they can learn that the Bible is a collection of books by different authors, with different viewpoints. I also hope that having a good knowledge of the Biblical stories of Jesus will help them begin to distinguish the other additions that our culture has made to the Jesus birth stories — additions like putting animals in the stable, determining how many wise men there were, etc.

The Miracle of the Wise Men and the Star
The Miracle of What Angels Told to Shepherds


The Miracle of the Wise Men and the Star

The birth of Jesus happened in this way:

When Mary was engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be pregnant with a child. Then Joseph, being a just man, and not wanting to make a public example of her, was minded to put her away from him quietly.

But while he thought about it, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, you son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife; for her child is from the Holy Spirit. She will bring forth a son, and you shall call him ‘Jesus,’ for he will save his people from their sins.”

All this happened to fulfill that which God said through the ancient prophet: “A virgin shall be with child, and she shall bring forth a son, and they shall call him ‘Emmanuel’,” which means, “God is with us.”

When Joseph awakened, he did as the angel of the Lord had bid him do: he took Mary as his wife, but did not sleep with her until she had given birth to her firstborn son. And they named the baby “Jesus.”

Traditionally, the next part of the story happens on the holiday of Epiphany, which is on January 6, twelve days after Christmas. But most people include it with the Christmas story anyway….

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of Herod the king, wise men came to Jerusalem from the east, saying, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and have come to pay him homage.”

When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem was frightened with him. He called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and he demanded of them where this Messiah was to be born.

They said to him, “In Bethlehem, in the land of Judea, for the prophet said: ‘And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel’.”

Herod secretly called the wise men, and asked them what time the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search for the young child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I too might go and pay him homage.”

When they heard the king, the wise men departed. And the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced. They went into the house, and saw the young child with Mary, his mother. They knelt down, and paid him homage. When they had opened their treasure chests, they gave him gifts: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

God came to them in a dream, and warned them that they should not return to Herod. So they departed to their own country by another road.

This story continues with events that happen after the visit of the wise men, and which aren’t usually included in the Christmas story.

Things worth pointing out to children: (1) This story tells why Jesus is sometimes called “Emmanuel” — this second name comes from what an old prophet said. (2) This story does not tell how many wise men there are. Today, some people say there must have been three wise men (because that’s how many gifts they brought), but the story really doesn’t say. (3) We’re not really sure what the “wise men” actually were — they may have been Zorastrian priests, magicians or sorcerers, or astrologers. To be safe, we should probably call them the Magi. (4) The star that the Magi followed is not named in the story; it was only later that people began to call it the Star of Bethlehem.

[adapted from KJV Matthew 1.18-2.12, with reference to NRSV]


The Miracle of What Angels Told to Shepherds

A decree went out from the Emperor, Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be registered and taxed. This happened while Cyrenius was the governor of Syria.

Everyone went to be registered and taxed, each one into his own city. Joseph also went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee, into the city of David called Bethlehem in Judea; he went there because he was of the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was betrothed to be married; and Mary was great with child.

And so it was, that, when they were in Bethlehem, it came time for Mary to deliver her child. She gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and she laid him in a manger; they had to stay in a stable because there was no room for them in the inn.

In that same country there were shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flock at night. An angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very afraid.

The angel said to them, “Fear not: for see, I bring you good tidings of great joy for all people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is the Messiah. This shall be a sign to you: you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and good will toward all people.”

When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go into Bethlehem, and see this thing which has happened, which God has made known to us.”

They went with haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they had seen this, they told everyone what had been told to them about this child; and everyone who heard it wondered at the things which the shepherds told them.

Mary treasured what they told her, and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned to their fields, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them.

This story continues with events that happen after the visit of the wise men, and which aren’t usually included in the Christmas story.

Things to point out to children: (1) “Swaddling clothes” are bands of cloth that are used to bind an infant so the infant can’t move much; many cultures use swaddling clothes, including some people in the U.S. (swaddling clothes have been found to reduce the incidence of Sudden Infant Death syndrome). (2) A “manger” is a feeding trough, where you put food to feed animals. (3) The story does not mention any animals living in the stable; for all we know, the stable could have been empty except fro Mary, Joseph, and the baby. (4) In this story, an angel is a messenger of the God of the Israelites.

[adapted from KJV Luke 2.1-52, with reference to NRSV]