On a warm, bright Christmas morning in early 16th-century Spain, Thomas of Villanova completed the gospel reading and advanced to the pulpit. The Augustinian friar was preaching on the nativity story found in Luke:

"The simple hasten eagerly to see the newborn king lying in a manger … they adore and rejoice and mingle their artless praises with the heavenly hymns. … How the Virgin rejoiced at the devotion of these simple folk! How delighted and gladdened she was by their praises! For by his own announcement God had begun to make known to human beings the mystery of divine condescension which had occurred in her womb for their salvation."

Throughout the Christian era, rich traditions have arisen surrounding the nativity of Jesus, and these traditions have given a prominent role to Mary. As the mother of the Christ, the "Word made flesh," Mary plays a special role in God's plan of salvation. Although Christians differ on this role, she has been honored throughout history for being the handmaiden of the Incarnation over 2,000 years ago.

Place of birth?

Matthew and Luke give few details about Jesus' actual birth. According to the Gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke, Mary was a young Jewish woman, possibly still a teenager, betrothed to a man named Joseph. Although the Gospels say nothing about his age, the church has traditionally viewed Joseph as much older than Mary, in part because of his apparent death before Jesus' ministry.

Whatever their ages (Luther boldly asserted Mary was 15; the early church thought 12), we do know that the couple traveled to Bethlehem, Joseph's ancestral hometown, for a census. Upon their arrival, it became clear that Mary would soon give birth, and yet they could not find a place to stay. The "inn" ...

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