In the days of He-rod, the king of Ju-dah, there was a priest whose name was Zach-ari-us. His wife's name was E-liz-a-beth. They were both good and kept God's laws. They had no child, and this was a great trial to them. One day while the priest was at work in the House of God an an-gel came to him and said, "Thy wife shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John. He must drink no wine nor strong drink, for he shall be great in the sight of the Lord; he shall turn the hearts of men from their sins and shall tell them of the Sa-viour who is to come." The priest doubted this, and said, "How shall I know that what you tell me is true?"
Then the an-gel said, "My name is Ga-bri-el (which means Strong Man of God), and I stand near to God, who sent me to tell thee this good news; but since you doubt my word you shall be dumb till what I tell you comes to pass."
So Zach-a-ri-us lost his voice and for some months he could not speak a word. Then the babe was born, and when he was eight days old it was time to name him and give him to the Lord. The wife's friends said he ought to be named Zach-a-ri-us, but she said, "No, he shall be called John (which means The Lord is gracious)." Then they said as none of her kin bore that name it was not well to give it to the child, and they made signs to the priest who could not yet speak, and asked what he would have him called. And he wrote, "His name is John." And then his voice came back, and he spake out loud and blessed the Lord.
All the folks were full of awe and fear, and said, "What sort of child shall this be?" They did not know what the an-gel had told the priest in the temple; and that this babe was one day to be the great John the Bap-tist.
The same an-gel was sent to tell Ma-ry that she, too, should have a son. He said she must
name the child Je-sus, "And he shall be called the Son of God, for he was the One the Lord had told Ad-am and Eve of --- the One who was to come down to the world and save men from Sa-tan." And Ma-ry said, "Let the Lord's will be done to me as thou hast said!" Ma-ry was the wife of Jo-seph, and though they were poor they were of good birth, for they both sprang from the House of Da-vid. At this time the Jews were ruled by the Ro-mans, who made a law that all Jews should go to the town from which the head of their house sprang, so that they might be counted and pay a tax. Beth-le-hem was the town of Da-vid, so Jo-seph and Ma-ry went there; but as the town was crowded there was no room for them in the inn, and they had to sleep in an out house or barn where the farm beasts were kept. While they were there Mary's babe was born; and as there was no bed in the barn, she wrapped him in the bands which she had with her, and laid him in the trough in which hay was kept for the beasts.
That night some men who were with their flocks of sheep in the fields near Beth-le-hem saw a bright light in the sky, and an an-gel came down and said to them, "Fear not for I bring you good news. To you, is born this day, in the town of Da-vid, a Sa-viour, who is Christ the Lord. By this sign you shall know the babe; He is wrapped in long bands (swaddling clothes) and lies in the trough from which the beasts feed." Then a host of an-gels came and sang: "Praise be to God on high, and on earth peace, good will to men!"
The men were dazed by these strange sights and sounds; but their hearts were full of joy and, as soon as the an-gel host left they said, "Let us now go to Beth-le-hem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known to us." They went in haste and found Ma-ry, and Jo-seph, and the babe. They told Ma-ry what had been told them of her child, and they told the good news to all whom they met on their way back to their flocks and herds.
Four hun-dred years ere the babe of Bethlehem was born some of the seers had said that a child of the house of Da-vid should one day come to rule the world, and he will be the King of the Jews.
By these words the seers meant that this child should reign in the hearts of men, and, by his own life on earth, should teach them how they ought to live. But the Jews thought they meant that he would be a great king like Da-vid and Sol-o-mon, and would free them from all their foes and make them rich and great. For years they looked and longed for this child to come, and wise men in all lands watched for a new star which it was said would make known his birth.
Near the time that Ma-ry's babe was born, while he was still quite young, some wise and rich men from a far off land came to Je-ru-salem and said, "Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the East, and have come to see him and pay our vows to him."
He-rod was vexed when he heard these words, for he knew the Jews did not like him, and would be glad to have some one else rule them, and he feared this new king would one day take his crown from him. He made up his mind to get rid of the child at once, and to that end he asked his scribes and priests where it was that Christ should be born. They told him in the town of Beth-le-hem. He bade the wise men from the East to go and find him; and told them when they had seen the boy to come back and tell him where he was so that he, too, might go to see him and bring gifts, and give him praise.
So the wise men set out once more, and lo, the bright star they had seen in the East went in front of them till it came to the spot where the child was. Then it stood still, while they went in and bowed to Je-sus (that was the babe's name) and gave him the gold and myrrh they had brought for him. God warned them in a dream not to let He-rod know where Je-sus was; so they went home by a new way. When they were gone, an an-gel of the Lord came to Jo-seph, in a dream, and said, "Take the wife and babe and flee to Egypt, and stay there till I bring thee word; for He-rod will seek the young child to slay him." So Joseph fled to Egypt, and stayed there as long as He-rod lived.
For some time He-rod watched for the wise men to come back and tell him where to find the child; but they did not come, and when he found they had mocked him he was wroth and sent men to Beth-Ie-hem to kill all the boys who were less than two years old. He did not know that Je-sus was safe in Egypt.
When He-rod was dead, an an-gel came in a dream to Jo-seph, and said, "Rise and take thy wife and thy son and go back to the land of Is-ra-el; for they are dead who sought the young child's life." So they went back and made their home in the town of Naz-a-reth.
Each year Jo-seph and Ma-ry went to Jeru-sa-lem to a great feast which God said the Jews should hold once a year to keep them in mind of the time when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, where they had been slaves so long. When Je-sus was twelve years old they took him with them to this feast, and when it was at an end and they set out on their way back home, he stayed in Je-ru-sa-lem. But they did not know this, for there was a large crowd with them, and when they missed their son, they thought he was with some of their friends, but when night came on and they could not find him, their hearts grew sad and they turned back full of grief and fear.
At the end of three days they found him in the tem-ple where he sat with the priests and wise men and talked to them as if he were as old and as wise as they were. All who heard him thought it strange that a child should know so much, and Ma-ty said, "Son why hast thou thus dealt with us? We have sought thee with sad hearts." But Je-sus said, "How is it that ye sought me? Did ye not know that I must do my Fa-ther's work?" By these words he meant to show them that he knew he was the Son of God, and that it was right for him to be in God's house, and learn to do the work God sent him on earth to do. They did not know what he meant, but Ma-ry kept these words in her heart and thought of what the an-gel had told her ere her babe was born. Je-sus went home with Jo-seph and Ma-ry, and for near a score of years we hear no more of him, though we are told that he grew in grace as he grew in age, and that he was loved of God and man.
All this time no one knew that he was the Christ for whom all men watched, though John the Bap-tist told the Jews that the One they looked for would soon come to save them if they
would turn from their sins and put their whole trust in him. For a long time John lived in the wild woods, ate poor food, and wore clothes made of coarse hair. His work was to tell of the Christ who was to come, and to teach men how to make room for him in their hearts, as well as to bap-tize all who wished to give up their sins and lead a pure life. This is why he was called the Bap-tist.
One day as John walked on the banks of the Jor-dan, Je-sus came to him to be bap-tiz-ed, and as soon as this was done, a bright light shone in the sky in the shape of a dove and came down and rested on the head of Je-sus, and a voice from the sky was heard to say, "This is my dear Son, in whom I am well pleased."