Christmas In Zarahemla

Written by Dr. Michael Wilcox

Perhaps the most spectacular city in the Maya world is that of Tikal, located in the Peten Jungle of Guatemala.  Dozens of pyramids and housing complexes spread over a vast area. The Temple of the Jaguars rises steeply to a small temple topped with a high roof comb.  From the summit of Temple IV you can see for miles in every direction. Piercing the jungle canopy, the peaks of decaying pyramids, like spent volcanoes, rise out of a panoramic sea of thick, green foliage. On every visit, I climb as many of these Mayan mountains I can, saving the oldest, the Lost World Pyramid, for last. It is not crowned with a temple, and is not as high as its brothers, but it dates to Book of Mormon times and its simplicity is compelling. From its summit the broad expanse of sky dominates the green world below.  Had I heard Samuel the Lamanite’s five-year prophecy from the walls of Zarahemla, I would have come to a place such as this on that night two thousand years ago, when this same sky was lit by a sun other than the one I see settling into the cebia trees in the west. On that night it was lit by the light of the son of God.

Sitting here in the warm sunlight, it is difficult to imagine the dark fears and faith-stretching test of the believing Nephites who waited for a prophet’s words to be verified.  “There shall be one day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night . . .and it shall be the night before he is born. And behold, there shall a new star arise, such an one as ye never have beheld” (Helaman 14:4-5).

I have often wondered if I would have accepted Samuel’s unbelievable utterance, I cannot think of a single prophetic proclamation in all of scripture so dramatically remarkable as this one. What boldness and courage it took to announce it! What faith and commitment were required to believe it!

When the arrows and stones of the people could not strike Samuel and they approached to bind him, Samuel jumped from the wall and “was never heard of more among the Nephites” (Helaman 16:8).  In the coming months and years, how frequently did the Nephites desire to hear Samuel assure them that his statement was inspired, that he did not leave them alone out of fear, that he knew the sign would come and Christ would be born?  I can imagine Nephite eyes looking longingly into the trees, wondering why Samuel had left them to face the mock and scorn alone; and would he ever return?

Would my faith have survived the decree of the unbelievers that all who held the Savior dear in their hearts would die if the sign did not appear? Would I have stood firm when the great prophet Nephi, like Samuel, disappeared into the forest silences at the closing of the five years’ wait, “and whither he went no man knoweth?” (3 Nephi 1:3).  As I looked into the anxious eyes of my wife and children would I have been able to calm them with the strength of my testimony?  Would I have maintained hope and joy to comfort them with bright assurances?

From this high vantage point you can see the sun descending in the west as the evening twilight begins to reveal the stars, one by one.  The words recorded two millennia ago become more poignant with each tiny illumination.  “But behold, they did WATCH STEADFASTLY for that day and that night and that day which should be as one day as if there were no night, that they might know that their faith had not been vain” (3 Nephi 1:8).  “How can there be light when there is no sun?”  they must have wondered.  How fervently they must have watched each successive setting sun and prayed, “Lord let it be tonight!”  But night after night their hopes would be raised and dashed and raised and dashed until their faith was numb with broken anticipations.

We are told that Nephi once lamented and prayed upon “the tower which was in his garden” (Helaman 7:10).  Perhaps, like his father before him, the new leader, Nephi III, climbed to the summit of his own garden “tower” to call upon his God “in behalf of his people, yea, those who were about to be destroyed because of their faith in the traditions of their fathers” (3 Nephi 1:11).  To him, after a day of pleading, the answer came, “On this night shall the sign be given, and on the morrow will I come into the world” (3 Nephi 1:13).  But Nephi could not spread those word of comfort before the night fell.  The people’s faith would be tested to the last orange glow of the setting sun.

Here from the top of the Lost World Pyramid it is easy to visualize that moment of joy when faith that had been stretched to the breaking point held and was released on a bright-as-noonday, sunless night.  If we can picture that moment, if we can transport ourselves past barriers of time, we will hear a sound.  It is the sound of solemn weeping, of deep-hearted song, of reverent gratitude; it is the sound of joy and lasting triumph and faith renewed and vindicated.  It is the sound of mankind receiving, with love beyond voicing, the incomparable gift of the Son of Man into the world.  Perhaps the Father, full of love for His Son, wanted all the world to know of His birth, and of the promise that the child born that night would one day chase darkness from the hearts of men, and in time bring healing light to all the world.  Perhaps He spread the veil’s secluding curtains open while his Son left His eternal abode, thus allowing the full glory of Celestial light to flood the world for a single night.

With what “wondering awe” would we have searched the sky as the hours passed and the light grew brighter.  Would we have gathered our children around us and reverently taught them the meaning of a night with no darkness?  What hymns of praise would we have sung, and with what emotion would we have greeted the rising sun after long hours of rejoicing?  I believe I would have sat at the top of my pyramid all night long and never descended until the sun set again and the darkness returned and the second witness of the birth of Christ appeared.  There in the night sky, among millions of its kind, a new, bright star would have shone, sending its light to the earth in promise of eternal truths that would soon be heard in faraway places like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, whose names the Nephites would have known only through the memory of treasured brass plates.

I carefully pick my way down the steep slopes of the pyramid, understanding anew the testimony of Abinadi who said, “He is the light and the life of the world; yea, a light that is endless, that can never be darkened” (Mosiah 16:9).  The sky is now diminished by the trees, reduced to a small circle of blue, but my mind is still afire with the glow of the night and the star that has forever elevated the night sky to a position of holiness. (73-75)

Wilcox, S. Michael. Land of Promise Images of Book of Mormon Lands. American Fork: Covenant Communications, Inc., 2003.