Joseph Fielding Smith, Ch. 25: “The Birth of Jesus Christ: Good Tidings of Great Joy.”

This year, the Joseph Fielding Smith manual included 26 chapters and noted that “because the book contains more chapters than can be covered in 12 months, ward and stake leaders may determine which chapters will best meet the needs of the members they serve.”[1] Included in the extra chapters are two that are particularly adapted to the Advent/Christmas season. The first of these is “The Birth of Jesus Christ: ‘Good Tidings of Great Joy,’” specifically devoted to the Christmas story.

Carl Bloch - The Birth of Jesus

Carl Bloch – The Birth of Jesus

The chapter starts out with a “From the Life of Joseph Fielding Smith” section that relates President Smith’s Christmas celebrations with his great-grandchildren, as seen through the eyes of a reporter followed by a statement from the president at Christmastime. Then, section 1 deals with Joseph Fielding Smith’s feelings about the Christmas story and his own reading of it. Section 2 deals with the idea that although Jesus Christ was a god, he was born a mortal and lived a mortal life, growing from grace to grace. Section 3 connects the birth of Christ with his primary role of redeeming mankind. Section 4 declares that we should let the story of Christmas permeate and influence our lives.

Resources

Nativity scene in the reflecting pool on Temple Square

Nativity scene in the reflecting pool on Temple Square

LDS.org has a pleathora of Christmas related resources—too many to cover in one lesson alone. First is, of course, their collection of Christmas devotionals, with both audio and video components, found here. The Bible videos site has depictions of the Christmas story for free, including a Nativity compilation found here. The Mormon messages site also has some Christmas videos available.

When it comes to discussing the importance of Christmas (and other) traditions, I always think of Elder L. Tom Perry’s statements on the matter:

I believe family traditions are like the hewn oak trunks driven into the ground to build the Old Fort House. Make the honoring of family traditions—holiday traditions, birthday traditions, Sunday traditions, dinnertime traditions—and the development of new ones a priority throughout your lives. Honor them, write them down, and make certain you follow them. Studies show that the reason young people join gangs is for the tradition and ritual of belonging to something larger than self. That is what a family should be. Be certain you are creating a rich environment in which your family can look forward to special times of the year when traditions hold you together as a great eternal family unit.[2]

Jumping ahead to section 3 (we’ll come back to section 2 later), the birth of Christ is connected to the Atonement. Alma told the people of his day that:

The Spirit hath said this much unto me, saying: Cry unto this people, saying—Repent ye, and prepare the way of the Lord, and walk in his paths, which are straight; for behold, the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and the Son of God cometh upon the face of the earth. And behold, he shall be born of Mary, at Jerusalem which is the land of our forefathers, she being a virgin, a precious and chosen vessel, who shall be overshadowed and conceive by the power of the Holy Ghost, and bring forth a son, yea, even the Son of God. (Alma 7:9-10.)

Immediately after announcing the future birth of the Savior, he goes on to relate the conditions of the Christ’s life and Atonement:

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people. And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me. (Alma 7:11-13.)

Finally, as he continues along in his sermon, Alma connects this idea with a reformation of life, much as the manual does, going into section 4 of the book: “Now I say unto you that ye must repent, and be born again; for the Spirit saith if ye are not born again ye cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven; therefore come and be baptized unto repentance, that ye may be washed from your sins, that ye may have faith on the Lamb of God, who taketh away the sins of the world, who is mighty to save and to cleanse from all unrighteousness.” (Alma 7:14.)

Walter Rane, the Nativity

Walter Rane, the Nativity

When it comes to discussing the personal influence of the Christmas story and season, our current Church president, President Thomas S. Monson, has spoken on the subject many times. He commented that:

Christmas is a wonderful time of year. It is a season when there are more smiles, more cheerful greetings, more acts of thoughtful kindness, more sweet remembrances of cherished friends and loved ones than are found throughout the rest of the entire year. In the troubled times in which we live, this is truly a miracle.

What is it that brings such love into our hearts, such joy into our lives? It is, of course, the spirit of Christmas. To catch the real meaning of the Spirit of Christmas, we need only drop the last syllable, and it becomes the Spirit of Christ. And one of the ways in which we obtain the Christmas spirit—the Christ spirit—is by willingly giving of ourselves to others.[3]

“The Spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than things.”[4] “There is no better time than now, this very Christmas season, for all of us to rededicate ourselves to the principles taught by Jesus the Christ. It is the time to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. It is well to remember that he who gives money gives much, he who gives time gives more, but he who gives of himself gives all.”[5]

Another president of the Church who left at least one statement of important suggestions on how the Christmas spirit can permeate our lives was President Howard W. Hunter:

This Christmas, mend a quarrel. Seek out a forgotten friend. Dismiss suspicion and replace it with trust. Write a letter. Give a soft answer. Encourage youth. Manifest your loyalty in word and deed. Keep a promise. Forgo a grudge. Forgive an enemy. Apologize. Try to understand. Examine your demands on others. Think first of someone else. Be kind. Be gentle. Laugh a little more. Express your gratitude. Welcome a stranger. Gladden the heart of a child. Take pleasure in the beauty and wonder of the earth. Speak your love and then speak it again.

Christmas is a celebration, and there is no celebration that compares with the realization of its true meaning—with the sudden stirring of the heart that has extended itself unselfishly in the things that matter most (“The Gifts of Christmas,” in Ensign, December 2002).

Come unto Christ

Walter Rane, Angel Appears to Shepherds

Walter Rane, Angel Appears to Shepherds

In the manual, President Smith states that Jesus “was as much a God when he was born into the world as he was before. But as far as this life is concerned it appears that he had to start just as all other children do and gain his knowledge line upon line.”[6] It is an interesting balancing act between the two—a perfect God living a mortal life—but one that is important to follow.

While he was on the earth, Jesus told his disciples that: “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). St. Peter likewise later wrote that: “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps: who did no sin, neither was there guile found in his mouth” (1 Peter 2:21-22). During Christ’s visit to the Nephites, he told his disciples: “what manner of men ought ye to be? Verily I say unto you, even as I am” (3 Nephi 27:27). Similarly, in our day, Elder Richard G. Scott taught that, “The greatest example who ever walked the earth is our Savior, Jesus Christ. His mortal ministry was filled with teaching, serving, and loving others…. He invites us to follow His perfect example.”[7]

The question may be asked, however: was Christ truly a real example of what we deal with? In other words, did he have a truly human experience that we can pattern our lives around? If he was a perfect God, destined to be the Savior, was he really even capable of sinning and did he deal with the veil as the rest of us do in our lives?

The somewhat chilling but empowering answer is yes. We learn from a section of Doctrine and Covenants that was revealed in order “that you may understand and know how to worship, and know what you worship, that you may come unto the Father in my name, and in due time receive of his fullness” (D&C 93:19, emphasis added) that Christ “received not the fullness at the first, but received grace for grace; and he received not of the fullness at first, but continued from grace to grace, until he received a fullness; and thus he was called the Son of God, because he received not of the fullness at first” (D&C 93:12-14). In his youth, Christ did not have a fullness—that is all power, all knowledge, all wisdom—but grew into it grace by grace as we all must do. Elder B.H. Roberts commented that:

You must remember, in all our consideration of the life of Messiah, one truth, which comes to us from the scriptures in an incidental way, viz., that “In his humiliation his judgment was taken from him.” [Acts 8:33.] As the veil is drawn over our minds when our pre-existent spirits come into this world, and we forget the Father and mother of the spirit world, and the positions we occupied there, so, too, with Jesus; in his humiliation his judgment was taken from him; he knew not at first whence he came, nor the dignity of his station in heaven. It was only by degrees that he felt the Spirit working within him and gradually unfolding the sublime idea that he was peculiarly and pre-eminently the Son of God in very deed.[8]

James E. Talmage likewise observed that:

He came among men to experience all the natural conditions of mortality; He was born as truly a dependent, helpless babe as is any other child; His infancy was in all common features as the infancy of others’ His boyhood was actual boyhood, His development was as necessary and real as that of all children. Over His mind had fallen the veil of forgetfulness common to all who are born to earth, by which the remembrance of primeval existence is shut off.[9]

carpenters-son-39540-gallery

Thus, Christ was subject to the veil and the limitations of a mortal body. The epistle to the Hebrews backs this conclusion up by stating that, “as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same… for verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham. Wherefore in all things it behooved him to be made like unto his brethren . . . for in that he himself hath suffered being tempted, he is able to succour them that are tempted” (Hebrews 2:14, 16-18). Christ was indeed subject to human frailties and the temptations of mankind. Because of this, not only is he able to relate to us and help us more thoroughly than he otherwise could have, but we are better able to relate to him in his experiences.

Other prophets saw the Christ and wrote of how He would experience the same experiences we all would. We already looked at the Alma prophesy that “he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of the people” (Alma 7:11), but there are other prophets who made similar observations. King Benjamin taught that: “And lo, he shall suffer temptations, and pain of body, hunger, thirst, and fatigue, even more than man can suffer, except it be unto death” (Mosiah 3:7). The author of the epistle to the Hebrews wrote that: “We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Christ is not so distant and set off from our experience—he suffered and felt all that we can, have, and will go through. He was tempted in all things, just like us. He also had to walk by faith, and not by sight. C.S. Lewis observed that:

It is clear that this knowledge [on his death] must somehow have been withdrawn from Him before He prayed in Gethsemane. He could not, with whatever reservation about the Father’s will, have prayed that the cup might pass and simultaneously known that it would not. That is both a logical and psychological impossibility. You see what this involves? Lest any trial incident to humanity should be lacking, the torments of hope—of suspense, anxiety—were at the last moment loosed upon Him—the supposed possibility that, after all, He might, He just conceivably might, be spared the supreme horror. There was precedent. Isaac had been spared: he too at the last moment, he also against all apparent probability… But for this last (and erroneous) hope against hope, and the consequent tumult of the soul, the sweat of blood, perhaps He would not have been very Man. To live in a fully predictable world is not to be a man.[10]

In commenting on this, Tad R. Callister wrote that:

To live a fully predictable life as suggested by C. S. Lewis, a life devoid of anxiety, suspense, and faith, is a pseudo-human life—it is no more than a façade. But this was not the case with the Savior. Never was more faith required of any man, at any hour, than when the Savior faced the terrifying aloneness of the hours surrounding the cross.”[11]

Finally, we note that it wasn’t until after the resurrection that Christ said that “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.” (Matt. 28:18.) It seems that prior to that time, he was indeed a mortal man faced with all the trials that mortality brings, though he was a God before his descent to earth life and remains a God now.

A Deeper Look

star-jesus-birth-154378-gallery

            This leads to another interesting doctrinal point—the Godhood of Christ before his mortal birth. In the manual Joseph Fielding Smith states that: “Our Savior was a God before he was born into this world, and he brought with him that same status when he came here.”[12] Over the years of writing his “Answers to Gospel Questions” series in the Improvement Era (the predecessor of the Ensign magazine), Joseph Fielding Smith was questioned about the nature of the Godhead and of Jesus in the pre-mortal existence. In one of the earliest questions published, he was asked:

Did the Savior and Adam exist on another planet as mortal beings before they came to this earth?

These people say that Brigham Young states that . . . the Savior came with a resurrected body because he said that he had power to lay down his life and power to take it up again, and inasmuch as the Savior states he had helped to create other worlds that he had to be a resurrected being to organize an earth.[13]

President Brigham Young and a few other LDS individuals have indeed made comments to that effect, and there is some room for that belief in a Mormon context. The questioner and Joseph Fielding Smith, however, sided with the idea that we may only have one body and can only undergo one resurrection, following which our spirit is inseparably connected with our body, thus Christ could not have had a body before his birth. In his response to this particular question, Joseph Fielding Smith noted that Christ created the world and that “these great works and this wonderful experience all came before our Savior had a physical body.” He went on to write (in standard, blunt Joseph Fielding Smith style) that:

This work was done by him when he was a Spirit. It is an erroneous notion without any foundation in truth to think that Jesus had to be clothed with a body of flesh and bones before any work could be performed by him. . . .

. . . The only physical body of flesh and bones he ever had was the body born of Mary in the village of Bethlehem, which in his resurrection became inseparably connected with his spiritual body.

The Prophet Joseph Smith said the doctrine of reincarnation is a doctrine of the devil.[14]

The basis for the discussion seems to be the importance of the body and the nature of God. As Latter-day Saints, we place great importance on having a body, since “the spirit and body are the soul of man,” (D&C 88:15) and “when separated, man cannot receive a fulness of joy.” (D&C 93:34.) We also believe that to become like God—the ultimate goal of our existence—we need physical bodies. Yet, we teach that prior to the birth of Christ, two out of three members of the Godhead did not have bodies and that they were able to manipulate physical matter to organize worlds. This has created a disconnect for some individuals. Beyond looking at what Joseph Fielding Smith wrote, as cited above, or by looking at the other side of the discussion, all that can really be said at this point is that Jesus was a God who organized the world before he was born on earth, whether or not he had a body before that time.

Nephi's Vision of the Birth of Christ

Nephi’s Vision of the Birth of Christ

Perhaps more importantly, this idea of the premortal godhood of Christ emphasizes what Nephi called “the condescension of God” (see 1 Nephi 11:14-33). In summary, Jesus the Christ left his high and holy station as the second member of the Godhead to live in the frustrating and painful limitations of mortality so that he could redeem and reach out to mankind. As President John Taylor wrote: “It was . . . necessary that He should descend below all things, in order that He might raise others above all things; for if He could not raise Himself and be exalted through those principles brought about by the atonement, He could not raise others; He could not do for others what He could not do for Himself.”[15] An interesting article in the Ensign on the subject a few years ago (available here) drove this idea home to me by taking the hymn “Jesus, Once of Humble Birth” and reversing the order of the concepts in each couplet:

Once in glory o’er all the earth;

Now He comes of humble birth.

Once in heaven did He reign,

Now He suffers grief and pain.

Once, the Lord, the great I Am;

Now a meek and lowly Lamb.

Once His chariot was the cloud;

Now upon the cross He bows.

Once in glory He appeared;

Now He groans in blood and tears.

Once their King He was known;

Now rejected by His own.

Once exalted to a throne;

Now forsaken, left alone.

Once the great Anointed Heir;

Now all things He meekly bears.[16]

To me, this beautifully illustrates the true power of the Christmas story and the life of Christ, as well as the depths of his sacrifices for us. Perhaps that is why Joseph Fielding Smith felt the way he did when he stated: “How can anyone read this touching story of the birth of Jesus Christ without wishing to forsake his sins?”[17]

Merry Christmas, everyone. Happy teaching.

Carl Bloch, "Shepherds Abiding in the Fields."

Carl Bloch, “Shepherds Abiding in the Fields.”

[1] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013), v.

[2] L. Tom Perry, “The Tradition of Light and Testimony,” Ensign, December 2012.

[3] Thomas S. Monson, Teachings of Thomas S. Monson, comp. Lynne F. Cannegieter (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2011), 49.

[4] Monson, Teachings, 50.

[5] Monson, Teachings, 48.

[6] Joseph Fielding Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013), 318.

[7] Richard G. Scott, “I Have Given You an Example,” CR April 2014.

[8] B. H. Roberts, The Mormon Doctrine of Deity: the Roberts-Van Der Donckt Discussion (Salt Lake City: The Deseret News, 1903), 196.

[9] James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1978), 111.

[10] C.S. Lewis, Joyful Christian (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), 171-172.

[11] Tad R. Callister, The Infinite Atonement, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 112-113.

[12] Smith, Teachings, 314.

[13] Joseph Fielding Smith, Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1957-1966), 1:5.

[14] Smith, Answers, 1:8-9.

[15] John Taylor, The Mediation and Atonement (1892), 144.

[16] David L. Frishknecht, “The Condescension of Jesus Christ,” Ensign, December 2011. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2011/12/the-condescension-of-jesus-christ?lang=eng

[17] Smith, Teachings, 316.

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