In December 2021, I did a short series of illustrations diving into the cultural context of the nativity for Advent. I didn’t do as many as I had hoped, but I hope to add on to it!

Mary, Mother of Jesus

She was a young girl, likely overwhelmed by the weight of her complicated destiny, which included the stigma of a scandalous pregnancy. “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:45

The Magi

The Bible describes Magi only as “men from the East.” We don’t know how many there were, but stories from history evolved that name three: Melchior of Persia, Gaspar from India, Balthazar from Arabia.

As they studied the stars for a sign of the newborn king, historians speculate they were Eastern astrologers. They were looked down on in early Jewish society for being sacrilegious and seeking God through the “heathen arts” due to their ignorance.

Their presence at the Nativity scene is thought to be a fulfillment of prophecy in Isaiah 60 about the nations arriving with rich gifts to pay tribute to the king of the Jews.

Being no theologian, I thought it was fascinating they were included among those drawn to Jesus. Who was conspicuously NOT invited? The rich, powerful, and learned. I also love how these men represented different nations and cultures, who were welcomed into the presence of the new king.

The Star

It was a star that led the Magi to baby Jesus (Matthew 2). There’s some speculation among astronomers as to what the star might’ve been. A likely scenario was a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, the moon, and the sun. A conjunction is when at least two celestial bodies seem to meet in the night sky from our perspective on Earth.

From “This conjunction fits…for a few reasons. First, this conjunction happened in the early morning hours, which aligns with the Gospel’s description of the Star of Bethlehem as a rising morning star. The Magi also lost sight of the star, before seeing it come to rest in the place where baby Jesus lay in the stable. This could have been the result of the retrograde motion of Jupiter, which means that it appears to change direction in the night sky as Earth’s orbit overtakes it. 

“Normally, planets move eastward if you’re following them in the sky,” [Grant Mathews, an astrophysics professor] said. “But when they go through retrograde motion, they turn around and go in the direction that the stars rise and set at night [westward].”

It was also likely that the Magi, being astrologers, read something symbolic in the sky. They may not have seen a single star, per se, but some kind of celestial alignment that had an astrological meaning to them.

My takeaway is not about legitimacy in astrology, but that God chose to use a language familiar to the Magi to reveal Himself to them. And that revelation was SO compelling, they traveled 1,000 miles from Persia (current day Iran) to Bethlehem on a camel caravan.

“But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matthew 13:16).

The Gifts

The gifts presented to the baby Jesus were gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We understand the value of gold, but I learned that frankincense and myrrh were both symbolic and practical. There was high demand for them in the first century Middle East, which made them widely available. Frankincense, which was often burned, symbolized prayer rising to the heavens like smoke, while myrrh, which was often used in embalming, symbolized death. As far as their practical uses, they both had medicinal properties. Priests recommended them for the treatment of wounds and many other ailments.

I love that these gifts symbolize Jesus’ life, death, AND ministry on earth (of which healing was a major part).

King Herod

The Romans appointed Herod as King of Judea in 37 BC. He was actually partly known as a builder. He oversaw the building of fortresses, aqueducts, and amphitheaters throughout the land he governed. However, he had a paranoid and impulsive temperament, being a strong believer in conspiracies. He executed anyone who remotely seemed like a threat to his power, including his own family members.

The Romans called Herod the “King of the Jews,” because he ruled over the Jewish population. I thought it was interesting how this was the sign placed above Jesus’ head on the cross: “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” Consider the juxtaposition of Herod and Jesus as kings.

Israel hated the Romans, and thus would’ve hated Herod. But ironically, their vision of the coming Messiah was a type of Herod, but just one who was on their side. They wanted a man greater in power who’d overthrow Rome. Instead, where most of the population waited for the Messiah to make a grand entrance, Jesus quietly grew up among ordinary people in a small town. Many of his friends were poor and social outcasts.

I’ve lived in both big cities and small towns, and I know both cultures. In small towns, no one expects anyone to do anything noteworthy. People keep their heads down and go to work everyday. So naturally, when Jesus’ ministry began—with his miracles and claims of being a king—people got angry. They probably murmured things like, “Where does he come off saying he’s a king? I went to high school with him…” Jesus was the furthest from being what anyone expected from a Messiah.

And that’s the point. Herod is the prototypical earthly ruler, including the ones we support and vote for. Jesus will always be the subversive opposite of them. His ways are higher than ours. His kingdom is not of this world.

The Shepherds

The angel’s appearance to the shepherds is one of those symbolic moments right out of a well-written story. In first century Israel, shepherds were at one of the lowest classes of the social strata. And their job was thankless, being on guard for their flock’s wellbeing 24/7. Besides the sheep’s not-so-bright impulses, there were also predators lurking at every corner. It wouldn’t surprise me if they got very little sleep and were always cranky.

The shepherds were the first to know about Jesus’ birth besides Jesus’ family. I love that God chose to elevate them this way. And with David having started as a shepherd, I love that it was the town of David—which was Bethlehem—in which Jesus was born. And of course, these elements foreshadow Jesus’ role as the Good Shepherd for the Church.

The Christmas story consistently shows me how God sees and chooses the lowly. From Mary, a naive and innocent teenage girl, to these shepherds, who were among the least educated and esteemed social class. In the upside down economy of God, it’s the poor and lowly who get called first to witness the birth of the king.

Mary’s Song, The Magnificat

Reflecting on the Magnificat turned out to be extremely rich. For those who don’t know, the Magnificat is Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-56. The most surprising thing I found out was that it was banned from being recited in public in India, Guatemala, and Argentina. It’s THAT controversial.

I’d encourage you to go read it, but here’s the passage that made this song notorious:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

We enjoy freedom of speech in the US, so this probably doesn’t seem earth shattering to our western sensibilities. But understand the culture and political context of Mary’s time…

The Roman occupation of Israel created deep social tensions. They ruled with an iron fist. Even the census taken by Caesar Augustus was against Jewish law. These tensions reached a fever pitch by 66 AD, the year of the first Jewish revolt. Jesus was born decades before that, when there, in Israel, was a cultural undercurrent of anticipation of a coming Messiah. (Oppression will do that 🤷🏻‍♀️) They imagined a powerful man who’d wield political power to overthrow their oppressors.

We should also understand that women were the lowest social class, expected to be quiet and submissive. When I posted my first drawing of Mary a few weeks back, I saw a young girl who probably knew her place in society but naively agreed to the calling of being the Messiah’s mother. But the Magnificat actually illuminates another side of her.

Yes, she was likely naive, but she also seems to have a fire in her. That passage in her song where she prophesies of her Son bringing down rulers from their thrones and sending the rich away… was not at all socially acceptable speech for proper young ladies. ESPECIALLY ones who were pregnant out of wedlock. (No wonder she burst out with the song in the safe presence of her older female cousin!)

So I think back to when she first met Gabriel. Yes, she was afraid (he did say, “Don’t be afraid”). Her calling was extremely risky. Being single, young, and pregnant would’ve been grounds for people to have stoned her to death as an adulteress. So she didn’t agree to this lightly. And that makes me wonder if there was a fire in her that wanted to not just rise to the occasion… but to speak truth to power.

One last nugget I’ll leave you with. I learned that from any vantage point in Bethlehem, Herod’s luxurious palace, Herodium, would’ve been clearly visible, as it sits on a mountain 2,500 ft high. It was the largest palatial complex in the Roman world at the time. As Mary looked up from her humble stable, with her newborn son sleeping in a feeding trough, what do you think was going through her mind?