The Nativity of Christ. The Gospel of the Firstborn

The dream of Joseph the Betrothed. The dream of Joseph the Betrothed.     

Whoever approaches the Lord Jesus Christ with obedience and humility will never want to be separated from Him.

The beginning exercises of the newly-recruited army of Christ are the exercises of obedience and humility.

With obedience begins a new world, a new creature, a new mankind. The old world trampled upon obedience to God and humility before God, and thus destroyed the bridge between earth and heaven. The spiritual building materials for restoring this bridge are first of all, obedience and humility.

As long as Adam was rich in obedience and humility, he could hardly introduce a difference between his own spirit and the Spirit of God, between his own will and the will of God, between his own thoughts and the thoughts of God. He could not feel, want, and think anything that could not have been in God and from God. Like the angels of God, so too did Adam stand in direct proximity to God, and because of this direct proximity he contemplated the Primary Source of light, wisdom, and love. Living within the sun itself, he had no need to light any candle of his own. His candle would not have burned or given off light within the sun.

But when Adam violated obedience and lost humility—and these are always lost or acquired at the same time—then his direct communion with God was broken, the bridge destroyed, and he fell into terrible darkness and rotten dankness, which he was forced to light up with his own candle given to him nevertheless by God’s mercy when God’s righteousness cast him out of Paradise. Then he not only began to feel the difference between himself and God, between his own will and God’s will, his own feeling and God’s feelings, his own thoughts and God’s thoughts—he not only began to be aware of the difference, but only in rare hours of enlightenment was just barely able to notice his own divine likeness.

Alas, into such an abyss was he cast down by his disobedience and pride who had been first created in the image and likeness of the Most Holy and Divine Trinity! (“In man, the incorrupt image of God was the source of blessedness, while in fallen man it was [only] the hope of blessedness” St. Philaret of Moscow. Homily on the Entrance.) Alas, all of us, descendants of Adam, all are low outgrowths from the stump of the felled cedar that once majestically towered and rose over all God’s creation in Paradise—low sprouts, smothered by the tall thistles of crude nature, which have come down like a veil between us and the First Source of immortal love.

Just look at how, as if at the wave of a magic wand, the disobedience and pride of mankind’s forefathers immediately changed all creation around him, and he was immediately surrounded by a whole army of the disobedient and proud!

As long as Adam was obedient to his Creator and humble before Him, everything around him breathed obedience and humility. But what a momentary change of decoration! In the moment of Adam’s fall, Adam was surrounded by nothing but disobedience. Next to him was the disobedient Eve. And there, the main bearer of disobedience and pride—the spirit of disobedience, satan. And there was all of nature, disobedient, rebellious, and mad. The fruits that were up to then sweet and melted in man’s mouth begin to torment him with bitterness. The grass that spread like a silken carpet under his feet begins to scratch him with prickles. The flowers that gladdened their king when he breathed in their fragrance begin to arm themselves with thorns in order to push him away from them. The beasts that nuzzled him affectionately like lambs begin to attack him with sharp claws and eyes blazing with anger. Everything takes a position toward Adam that is rebellious and threatening. Thus the richest of all created nature now felt himself to be the poorest. Dressed earlier in garments of archangelic glory, now he felt humiliated, lonely, and naked—so naked that he was forced to borrow clothing from nature for his nakedness both bodily and spiritual. For his body he began to borrow skins from the animals and leaves from the trees, and for his spirit he began to borrow from all things—from things!—knowledge and abilities. He who before drank from the abundant source of life now had to walk after the animals, bend down to the dirt and drink from the animal tracks in both his physical and spiritual thirst.

Take a look now at our Lord Jesus Christ and His those around Him. They are all obedience and humility themselves! Archangel Gabriel, a representative of angelic obedience and humility; the Virgin Mary—obedience and humility; Joseph—obedience and humility; the shepherds—obedience and humility; the Oriental Magi—obedience and humility; the stars of heaven—obedience and humility. Obedient storms, obedient winds, obedient earth and sun, obedient people, obedient animals, and even the tomb itself is obedient. All is obedient to the Son of God, the New Adam, and all humble themselves before Him, for He Himself is infinitely obedient to His Father and humble before Him.

We know that along with many earthly seeds that man sows and cultivates, certain other grasses and plants eagerly grow up that were not sown or cultivated. It is the same with the virtues: If you try hard to sow and cultivate obedience and humility in your soul, you will soon see that next to them grow up a whole bouquet of other virtues. One of the first is simplicity both inward and outward. The obedient and humble Virgin Mary is at the same time adorned with chaste simplicity. It is the same with righteous Joseph, the apostles and Evangelists. Only see with what inimitable simplicity the Evangelists describe the greatest events in the history of man’s salvation, in universal history! Can you imagine how broadly and theatrically a worldly author of literature would have described, for example, the resurrection of Lazarus should he have been the accidental witness to that event? Or what a high-sounding and pompous drama he would have written about all that happened in the soul of Joseph, an obedient, humble, and simple man, in the moment he found out that his ward and betrothed was pregnant? But the Evangelist in today’s [Nativity] Gospel reading describes all of this in but a few simple sentences:

St, Nikolai Velimirovic. St, Nikolai Velimirovic. Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost (Mt. 1:18). Before this the Evangelist described the genealogy of the Lord Jesus Christ, or more precisely, the genealogy of Righteous Joseph of the tribe of Judah, the seed of David. In this genealogy the Evangelist enumerates people born of people in the natural way and manner, as all mortals are born in the world. Then suddenly he begins to describe the Nativity of the Lord and says, Του δε Ιησου Χριστου η γεννησις ουτως ην…, wanting by this δε (“now,” “however”) to show the unusualness and supernaturalness of His Birth, which is completely different from the manner of birth of all the enumerated ancestors of Joseph. His mother, Mary, was betrothed to Joseph. In the eyes of people this betrothal could have been considered a certain preface to married life, but in the eyes of Maria and Joseph it could not have been considered as such. The Virgin Mary was the answer to her parents’ fervent, tearful prayer, and they had promised to dedicate her forever to God. She too had voluntarily accepted her parents’ vow, which can be seen by her many years of service in the Jerusalem temple. Had it been a matter of her own will, she would have undoubtedly remained in the temple to her very death, like Anna the daughter of Phanuel (Lk. 2:36–37). But the law prescribed something else, and something else had to be fulfilled. She was betrothed to Joseph not in order to live in marriage, but in order to avoid marriage. All the details of this betrothal and its significance are kept in Church Tradition. And if people were to value the Tradition connected with the Mother of God, with Righteous Joseph, and with all the personalities mentioned in the Gospel as much as they value traditions that are often very silly, connected with worldly kings, generals, and pundits, then the meaning of Mary and Joseph’s betrothal would be clear to anyone. (Holy Hieromartyr Ignatius says that the Virgin was betrothed “so that His Birth would be hidden from the devil and so that the devil would think of Him as born from a lawful wife, and not from a virgin.” Blessed Jerome in his Explanation of the Gospel of Matthew, and St. Gregory of Neoceasaria in his Two Homilies on the Annunciation say the same.)

Before they came together—these words do not mean that they later united as husband and wife; the Evangelist does not even think about this. The Evangelist is interested in this case in the Nativity itself of the Lord Jesus Christ, and nothing else. And he writes the words cited above in order to show that His Nativity happened without the unification of husband and wife. Therefore, you should understand the words of the Evangelist exactly as if he had written: and without their uniting it happened that She was with child in her womb from the Holy Spirit. Only from the Holy Spirit could be born He Who was to restore the Kingdom of the Spirit of light and love amidst the kingdom of darkness and wickedness. How could he have fulfilled His divine mission in the world if he had come into the world through earthly channels, enclosed in sin and the reeking rottenness of death? In that case the new wine would have smelled of old wineskins, and He Who came to save the world would Himself be in need of salvation. The world could only be saved by a miracle—a miracle of God; the whole race of man on earth believed in this. And when God’s miracle happened, it behooves us not to doubt it but to bow our heads before it and find medicine and salvation for ourselves in this miracle. What does Joseph do when he learns that Mary is with child?

Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily (Mt. 1:19). He wants to do this in accordance with the law of God. He is obedient to God’s will in the form and extent that God’s will had been proclaimed to the people of Israel up to that time. He acts also out of humility before God. Be righteous overmuch warns the wise Solomon (Eccl. 7:16). That is, do not be too severe towards those who have sinned, but remember your own infirmities and sins, and strive to dissolve severity with mercy in relation to sinners. Nurtured by this spirit, Joseph did not even think to commit the Virgin Mary to judgment for a suspected sin: and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. Joseph shows us this plan as an exemplary man, exemplary in both righteousness and mercy—the highest that the spirit of the Old Testament law could raise. Everything with him is simple and clear, as could only be in the heart of a man who fears God.

But no sooner did Joseph come up with a convenient way out of this uncomfortable situation, than heaven suddenly intervenes in his plans, giving him an unexpected command:

But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost (Mt. 1:20). The angel of God, who before had announced to the Most Pure Virgin the coming into the world of the God-Man, now goes to prepare the way for Him and make His paths straight. Joseph’s doubts are one of the obstacles on His path, and a very powerful and dangerous one at that. These obstacles must be removed. In order to show how easy it is for the powers of heaven to do what is very hard for people, the angel appears to Joseph not openly but in a dream. Calling Joseph the son of David, the angel wants at the same time to both show him honor and to bring him to reason. As the descendant of King David, you should rejoice at this divine mystery more than other people, and you should also understand it better than others. But how then does the angel call the Virgin his wife? Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife. In the same way that the Lord on the Cross said to His Mother: Woman! Behold thy son, and then to His disciple: behold, thy Mother (Jn. 19:26–27)! Truly, heaven is thrifty with words and says nothing superfluous. If it weren’t appropriate for the angel to say it, would he have said it? Although this naming of Mary as Joseph’s wife is a stumbling block for some unbelieving people, it is a shield of purity against unclean spirits. For not only people hear the word of God, but all the worlds both good and evil. Whoever would wish to penetrate all the mysteries of God should have divine vision for everything created, visible and invisible.

For that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. This is God’s business, and not man’s. Do not look at nature and do not fear the law. Here a Greater nature is at work, and a Stronger law, without Whom neither would nature have life, nor the law have force.

From the angel’s message to Joseph it is clear that the Virgin Mary never told the latter about the appearance of the great archangel to her earlier; it is likewise clear that now, when Joseph intended to put her away, she did not justify herself in the least. The archangel’s tidings, like all the heavenly mysteries that were gradually revealed to her, she kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart (Lk. 2:19; 2:51). In her faith in God and obedience to God, she didn’t fear any kind of humiliation before people. “If my sufferings are pleasing to God, then why shouldn’t I endure them?” certain martyrs of Christ would say later. Living in ceaseless prayer and divine contemplation, the Most Pure One could have said, “If my humiliation is pleasing to God, then why shouldn’t I endure it? If only I’m right before the Lord Who knows the hearts—but let people do with me as they please.” She also knew that the whole world cannot do anything with her if God does not allow it. What good-natured humility before the Living Lord, and what marvelous faithfulness to His will! And besides that—what heroism of spirit in a tender Virgin! The Lord is the strength to them that fear Him, and His covenant shall be manifested unto them (Ps. 24:14). If sinners now, as throughout all times, even seek false witnesses for themselves, the Virgin Mary, having as witness not a man but the Most High God, does not justify herself, is not disturbed but remains silent—she is silent and waits, that God Himself might justify her in His own time. And God soon hastened to justify His chosen one. The same angel who revealed to her the great mystery of her Conception now rushes to speak, instead of the silent Virgin. Thus, explaining to Joseph what has already happened, the angel of God now goes further and explains to him what things must come to pass:

And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). “He did not say, ‘She will bring you forth Son,’ but said simply, ‘bring forth”. For she will bring (Him) forth not to Joseph but to the whole world” (St. John Chrysostom). The angel instructs Joseph to treat the Newborn as would a real father, and therefore he says, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, which means, “Savior”. That is why the second sentence begins with for; which means: And you shall call Him Savior, for he shall save his people from their sins.

The Archangel is God’s messenger of truth. He speaks what he learns from God; he sees the truth in God. For him, nature with its laws literally don’t exist. He knows only about the omnipotence of the living God, as once Adam knew. Having said, he shall save his people from their sins, the archangel foretold Christ’s main work. Christ had to come in order to save people not from some secondary evil, but from the main evil, from sin, which is the source of all evil in the world. He must save the tree of mankind not from one swarm of caterpillars, which attacked it during a certain year with the desire to eat it bare, but from the worm at its root, from which the tree is withering. He comes not to save a man from another man, or a nation from another nation, but in order to save all people and all nations from satan—the sower and ruler of sin. He comes not like the Maccabees, or Barabbas, or Bar Kokhba to start a rebellion against the Romans, who just like a swarm of caterpillars had attacked the Israelite people, desiring to destroy it; but as the immortal and all-healing doctor, before Whom the Israelites, the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and all nations on the earth are sick, mortally sick, withering from the same germ, from sin. Christ later fulfilled the archangel’s prophecy completely. Thy sins are forgiven thee, were his victorious words throughout the course of His whole service on earth amidst people. In these words, there are both the diagnosis and the medicine. Sin is the diagnosis of the illness, and forgiveness of sins is the medicine. And Joseph was found worthy to be the first of mortals in the New Creation to learn of the true goal of the coming of the Messiah and the true nature of His service.

What the archangel spoke to Joseph was enough so that in obedience to the new and direct law of God, he would reject his own thoughts, as he did the plan to put Mary away. Heaven commands, and Joseph submits. But the usual method of heaven is to not give people a command without an appeal toward human understanding and self-determination. It was important for God from the beginning that man act as a free being. Without freedom, man would be no more than an artificial, mechanical tool of God, which God would maintain and set in motion exclusively according to His own will. God has enough of such mechanisms in nature—but He vouchsafed to man an exclusive position, giving him freedom to make his own decision to be before God or against God, for life, or for death. This position is of high honor, but at the same time very dangerous. Therefore, God does not simply command Adam. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat: But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it, and he immediately adds, for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die (Gen 2:16–17). By this last sentence God gives man an argument for his mind and a motivation for his will, so that he won’t eat of the forbidden tree. For the day that you taste of it, you will surely die. The archangel does the same now with Joseph. Having given him the command to accept Mary and not put her away, and explaining that the Fruit of her Virgin womb is from the Holy Spirit, the archangel reminds Joseph also about the clear prophecy of the great prophet: Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God is with us (Is. 7:14).

What was said earlier, and ye shall call his name Jesus, does not contradict what is said now, namely, and shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God is with us. In the first case, Joseph is commanded to call His name Jesus, which means Savior; but in the second case it is confirmed that the Child will be called by the people and nations, Immanuel, which means, God is with us. Both names, each in their own way, express the most important meaning of Christ’s coming to the world and His service in the world. Namely, He will come in order to forgive sins, in order to have mercy and save people from sin—and therefore He will be called the Savior—Jesus. But, Who can forgive sins, but God only? (Mk. 2:7)? No one in the world; no one in heaven, nor on earth has the authority or the power to forgive sins and save from sins—only God can do that. For sin is the main worm of the whole world’s sickness. And no one knows the bottomless horror of sin like God. And because Jesus forgave sins and through this made people healthy, then He is God amongst people. If we wanted to present the names in a cause-and-effect connection, then the name Immanuel should come before the name Jesus. For in order for the Newly Born to do the work of the Savior, he should be Immanuel—that is, He should come as God amongst us. But in this order the meaning also remains the same. It is all the same one way or another how we say it—the meaning doesn’t change if we say, “Immanuel and therefore Savior,” or “Savior, and therefore Immanuel”. (“But who shall call His name Immanuel? Here it is a matter of indifference. No one called Him Immanuel. In name, no one, but in essence, everyone. Those who believed agreed that God is with us, although He lives amongst us as a Man”—Monk Euthymios Zigabenos, Explanation of the Gospel of Matthew.). In any case, there is one thing that is clearer than anything in the world: That there is no salvation for this world if God does not come into it; and there is no medicine for us people if God is not with us. If God is not with us, and at that not as an idea or a beautiful dream but with us, like us: with a soul, like us; in the flesh, like us; in sorrows and suffering, like us; and finally, in what makes us most different of all from God—in death—like us. Because every faith is false that teaches that God did not come in the flesh and cannot come in the flesh, for it imagines God as powerless and unmerciful; it imagines Him as a stepmother and not a mother. It imagines Him as powerless, for it ever guards Him from the greatest field of battle—the field of battle with satan, sin, and death. Satan must be bound, the growths of sin must be torn up from the root of the human soul, the sting of death must be destroyed—ah, the greatest and hardest work must be done, as if the whole world needed to be held on His shoulders. Our God was able to endure this battle, and victoriously at that. People of other faiths are afraid even in their thoughts to allow their gods such a battle in which their opponents could win. And what sort of a mother would she be who wouldn’t lean down to the earth out of love for her child to comfort him, sing him lullabies, and coo at him? Especially if the child were in the flames or amongst wild animals! O Lord, forgive us for asking such questions! What sort of merciful Creator would You be if You wouldn’t come down to us in Your mercy, if You had only looked at our unhappiness from a misty and sorrowless distance, and never stretched out a single cold finger to our flame, or stepped a foot into the pit where the wild animals are tearing us? Truly, You came down to us, and even lower than earthly love would require. You were born in the flesh in order to live with the fleshly and save the fleshly. You partook of the suffering of Your whole creation. You did not share this cup of bitter communion with anyone, but drank it all Yourself to the dregs. Therefore, You are our Savior, for You were God amidst us; You were God amidst us, and therefore could You be our Savior. Glory to Thee, Jesus Immanuel!

As for Joseph, he with fear and trembling saw ever more clearly that next to him was being woven a cloth that is longer than the light of the sun and wider than the air; a cloth for which the Most High Himself is the warp, and the angels and all creation are the weft. The lot had not fallen to him of serving as the instrument of God in the very center of the cloth of the New Creation. Until man feels that God is doing His work through him, he will feel weak and infirm, undetermined, and have contempt for himself. But when a man feels that God has taken him in His hands like a smithy takes iron for smithing, he will feel at once both strong and humble, clear in his actions, glorifying his God.

And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS. When we read the Holy Gospel, we should bring the mind of the Gospel into ourselves, and not our minds into the Gospel. Himself marveling, the Evangelist tells about the miracle of the Nativity of the Savior. For him the most important thing is to show that this Nativity came about it a miraculous way. Here is now the fourth proof of this brought by the Evangelist Matthew in today’s Gospel reading. First, he said that the Virgin Mary is only betrothed to Joseph: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph... Second, he says: she was found with child, of the Holy Ghost. Third, Matthew informs us that the angel in the dream announces her pregnancy as miraculous and supernatural. And now, fourthly, the Evangelist repeats the same thought with the help of the words: And he knew her not till she brought forth her firstborn son. Thus it is clear as day that Matthew doesn’t even think of saying that after this Birth, Joseph joins with Mary. What did not happen till she brought forth her firstborn son did not happen later either, when she had given birth to her Son. If we say of a certain person that as long as services are going on in the church, he does not pay any attention to the priest’s words, then we don’t even think of saying that the man paid attention to the priest’s words at the end of the service. Or, if we say of a shepherd that he sings as long as the sheep are grazing, we don’t mean that the shepherd doesn’t sing when the sheep stop grazing. (“As it is said of the time of the Flood, that the crow did not return to the ark while the earth was not yet dry—it would mean that it didn’t return afterwards either. (Or) as Christ says, and lo, I am with you always, even till the end of the word—won’t He be with us afterwards also?”—Blessed Theophylact.) The words firstborn son relates exclusively to the Lord Jesus Christ (Ps. 88:28; compare 2 Kings 7:12–16; Heb. 1:5–6; Rom. 8:29), Who is the firstborn of all kings and the firstborn amongst many brethren (Rom. 8:29); that is, amongst the saved and adopted people. If the word firstborn were written with a capital F, like a personal name, there would be no ambiguity. Or if before the word firstborn were a comma, there would likewise be no ambiguity and no perplexity. Meanwhile, the word firstborn should be read as if it were a personal name and with a comma before it: She brought forth her Son, Firstborn. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Firstborn as the Creator of a new Kingdom, as the New Adam.

It is told of St. Ammon (Lives of the Saints, October 4) that he was lawfully married for eighteen years without having any physical union with his wife. Holy Great Martyr Anastasia (December 22) also lived several years in marriage with Publeus, the Roman senator, without having any physical contact with him. We give only two examples out of thousands. In her most pure virginity, before Childbirth, in Childbirth, and after Childbirth, the Virgin Mary throughout the history of the Church provided inspiration for virginal life to thousands and thousands of maidens and youths. Beholding her virginity, many lawful wives tore up their marriages and dedicated themselves to virginal purity. Beholding her, many inveterate harlots rejected their depraved lives, cleansing their defiled souls with tears and prayer. So then how could anyone think that the Most Pure Virgin, the pillar and inspiration of Christian purity and virginity over so many centuries, could be lower in virginity than Anastasia, Thecla, Barbara, Catherine, Parasceva, and numberless others? Or how could anyone think that she who bore in her body the passionless Lord could at any time have had even the shadow of bodily passion? She, who bore God and gave birth to God, “was a Virgin not only in body but also in spirit,” says Holy Hierarch Ambrose. St. Chrysostom, comparing the Holy Spirit with a bee, says, “As a bee will not fly into a foul-smelling vessel, do also the Spirit will not enter an impure soul.”

But let us interrupt our conversation on what should be given less talk and more admiration. Where there is obedience to the living God and humility before Him, there is also purity. God heals His obedient and humble servants from all earthly passions and lusts. Therefore, let us dedicate ourselves to cleansing our consciences, our souls, our hearts, and our minds, that we also might be counted worthy of the grace-filled power of the Holy Spirit; that the earth would finally cease to sow its seed in our inner man—and the Holy Spirit would conceive a new life and a new man within us, like unto our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be honor and glory, with the Father and the Holy Spirit—the Trinity One in Essence and Undivided, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

St. Nikolai (Velimirovic)
Translation from the Russian version by Nun Cornelia (Rees)

Pravoslavie.ru

1/10/2021

See also
God’s Justice God’s Justice
On the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ
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Homily on the Sunday after the Nativity of Christ, the commemoration of King David, Joseph the Betrothed, and Apostle James, brother of the Lord
Hieromonk Pavel (Shcherbachev)
The life of the Savior was from the very outset a valley of sorrows, filled more with injustice than with the triumph of the Divine Incarnation heralded by the angels. This also relates to the saints we have named.
Sunday after Nativity. Joseph the Betrothed Sunday after Nativity. Joseph the Betrothed
Archpriest David Moser
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Joseph became, at this moment, the very first convert to the Christian faith, for he abandoned his own fallen opinion and received with joy the revelation of God that this Child would be for the salvation of not only the people of Israel, but of all mankind.
An Orthodox Christian Understanding of the Immaculate Conception An Orthodox Christian Understanding of the Immaculate Conception
St. John Maximovitch
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St. John (Maximovich) of Shanghai and San Francisco
Such a “vain deceit” is the teaching of the Immaculate Conception by Anna of the Virgin Mary, which at first sight exalts, but in actual fact belittles Her.
The Lord’s Brethren The Lord’s Brethren
Sergei Khudiev
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Sergei Khudiev
First of all, what does the word “brethren” mean? In the Bible it can signify various degrees of relation: blood brother, half-brother, or cousin. Some Protestant Bible scholars consider that after giving birth to Jesus, Mary had children by Joseph, and it is these children who are mentioned here.
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