This remarkable collection features three coins issued by rulers associated with the Nativity, as well as Roman Emperors Aurelian and Constantine the Great. Rounding out the set is a small bronze coin struck during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus, one of the last Jewish kings before the Roman annexation of Palestine, known as “mites.”
The story of the Nativity begins with the unusual circumstances concerning the place of Jesus’ birth. “In those days,” according to Luke 2:1, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” A pregnant Mary thus went with her husband Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem to fulfill this civic obligation, and in that city of David gave birth to the Son of God.
Soon after the Nativity, Herod the Great, the Roman puppet king of Judaea, was visited by Magi, “wise men from the East” who came in search of the Messiah—the King of the Jews. Fearful of a coup, Herod divined from his priests that this Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, as prophesized in Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Herod tried to enlist the Magi to help him find the newborn king. The story continues in Matthew 2: 9-12:
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
As a precautionary measure, Herod ordered the so-called “Massacre of the Innocents,” in which all male children in the Bethlehem area under the age of two were put to death. This was both brutal and unsuccessful, as Mary and Joseph secreted the infant Jesus to Egypt for safety, only returning after Herod’s own death. While these events are well chronicled in the Gospels, one key detail is omitted; the actual date of the birth of Jesus. It was not until the third century that Christians decided on a fixed date for His feast day—the “Christ Mass.” In the year 274, the winter solstice fell on December 25th. Aurelian, then the Emperor of Rome, proclaimed that fixed date the Natalis Solis Invicti, the festival of the sun. Early Christians, who in those days worshiped in secret for fear of being fed to the lions, could not celebrate the birth of Jesus in the open. They appropriated the Natalis Solis Invicti for their own purposes, to avoid detection by Roman police. Christmas has been observed on December 25th ever since.
With the exception of St. Paul and Jesus Himself, no individual had more of an impact on the Christian faith than the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great. He legalized Christianity in the Empire, and worked with the Bishop of Rome to establish the Papacy in that city. He erected a number of important churches, including the old St. Peter’s Basilica and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. He convened the early church fathers at Nicaea to codify the Christian belief system; the resulting Nicene Creed is still a part of Catholic liturgy. Constantine decided to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, to honor the day when Jesus rose from the dead. The Catholic Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, because that’s when Constantine decided it should be celebrated. Constantine popularized the use of the cross as a symbol for Jesus, a stylized version of the chi-rho symbol he saw in his vision before the Battle of Milvian bridge. By establishing Christianity as the official state religion of the Empire, Constantine also certified the date of Christmas as December 25th.
Perhaps no story encapsulates the Christmas spirit more than the Parable of the Widow’s Mite. Jesus was preaching in the Temple, which represented both Jerusalem’s religious center and its business district. On the Temple grounds, goods were bought and sold, money was changed, taxes were paid. Jesus watched rich men in flowing gowns put pieces of silver into the treasury—generous offerings to the Temple. Then he saw an old woman, a certain widow, deposit two “mites” into the till. He observed that “this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44). The parable, repeated in Luke 21:1-4, is understood to both extol the virtues of charity and impugn the vices of avarice. As Jesus remarked in Matthew 19:24, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”