Lee Benson
Gaye Strathearn

PROVO — Two thousand eighteen years ago, a child was born in a stable at the edge of a backwater town on the forgotten side of the Roman Empire. The child grew up to be a preacher, perennially destitute, continually misunderstood and roundly despised, until at the age of 33, he was executed for saying he was who he said he was.

He left behind a band of just 120 followers.

Two thousand eighteen years later, his followers number 2.3 billion. Just about everywhere on Earth measures time according to the day he was born.

Every year to celebrate that birth, more stores close, more businesses and governments shut down, more people take the day off, in more places than on any other day of the year.

He's had more songs written about him, inspired more works of art, had more things done in his name, had his name spoken more often — in good and in vain — than all the kings and rulers of the Earth combined.

The book that tells his life story is the best-selling biography of all time.

A world that barely recognized him when he was here has never forgotten Jesus Christ since he left.

How did it happen? How did one solitary man whose time on Earth was so brief, so volatile, so violent and unpopular start a movement that would attract more devotees than any person in history and spread to every corner of the world?

Gaye Strathearn sums it up in one word:

Spirit.

* * *

Strathearn is a professor of religion at Brigham Young University. Her specialty is the New Testament. Every day she teaches college students about the phenomenon that is Jesus.

A painting of him is on her office wall, next to a little piece of embroidery encased in a frame that reads: "Wise Men Still Adore Him."

She pulls out her well-worn scriptures — the old kind, printed on paper — and turns to Acts 1, to the part in verse 15 that documents there were "about a hundred and twenty" people who held on after Jesus was crucified; all of them huddled in an upper room with Peter and the apostles, afraid of their own shadows, scared to show their faces in public.

They should have been wiped out in a week.

But then, the spirit Jesus had promised would come after his resurrection descended on them.

By the Day of Pentecost, fueled by that spirit, the numbers of believers had grown from 120 to 5,000, with more coming all the time.

"The point of Acts," explains the professor, "is to show that Jesus said to wait and don't do anything until you receive the spirit; then Luke here is showing the power that comes as the spirit is poured out on individuals and communities in terms of the exponential growth of the church."

In the two millennia since then, despite persecutions, despite the Dark Ages, despite wars and corruption and confusion and all else, that growth has continued unabated.

• • •

Four years ago, Professor Strathearn spent the year teaching at the BYU Jerusalem Center. On Dec. 24, 2014, she and some of her family managed to wrangle a pass, which wasn't easy to get, to make the short journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, she explains, is largely Muslim these days, barely more Christian now than the night Jesus was born.

She stood in a short line at Manger Square to file past the place where Jesus was born. Afterward, instead of getting back on the bus to go to a religious service held by the small Bethlehem congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she decided to walk.

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"I was on the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. This road is ancient; this is the road that was frequented by Abraham when he came to offer Isaac; this is the road Mary and Joseph would have walked as they came into Bethlehem," she recalled.

"That was such a wonderful experience for me, just walking that road and thinking about the history and how much my life — and not just mine, but the lives of so many, many others — has been blessed because that babe was born in Bethlehem."