Advent has been filled with beautiful readings, day by day, and each Sunday, the scene has progressively prepared us for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus who has come and yet comes again in 2020. We have meditated with John the Baptist many times over, and just a few days ago on the 4th Sunday of Advent, we pondered Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her simple assent to God’s plan. And now there is even more: if we add together the Vigil of Christmas and the three Christmas Masses (Midnight, Dawn, Day), we have at least a dozen of Bible, New Testament, and Gospel passages that are intended to get us to meditate in more depth on the meaning of this familiar feast, a feast we should never take for granted. You can find them here, by each time and day.
Yet the most familiar and powerful reading that stays with us most easily and perhaps most deeply is Luke 2.1-20: here we are drawn into the mystery of Christmas as a vividly experiential scene; by Luke's words we come to see the birth of Jesus as if occurring before our very eyes. This is so in part because it is only Luke who actually describes for us the night Christ was born. Yes, of course, Matthew knows of the birth of Jesus, but by comparison with Luke, what he tells us about the birth of Jesus is minimal: "Joseph did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Matthew 1.24-25) He does, in the next chapter, recount the visit of the magi, which will be Gospel for Epiphany, January 3. On the whole, Matthew’s account stands as a kind of supplement to Luke’s richly detailed narrative. Let’s put aside the notion that we know it perfectly even without reading it, and take it up step by step.
First, the birth of Jesus happens in a certain geo-political moment, and a bad one at that, as the Roman oppressors decide to count up their subjects:
"In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. Luke 2.1-3)
This oppressive situation requires arduous travel from one place to another, the approximately 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, all the worse because it is very late in Mary's pregnancy:
"Joseph too went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. (2.4-5)
The circumstances are dire — in an unfamiliar place, at night, no place to stay, and then Mary’s time of delivery inconveniently comes due:
"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn. (2.6-7)
And thus it was that Jesus was born, as it were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Our problem today is not an oppressive Caesar or a wicked Herod, but Covid and our pathetic response to this health crisis, plus an array of other evils that do not go away, ranging from systemic racism to an inadequate political class to the degradation of the climate, and disregard for the lives of the unborn and the living. And where are today’s Mary, Joseph, and the baby? Not in the safety of a church Nativity scene, nor in the best of hospitals nor among a caring, loving extended family, but somewhere else, amid hardship and poverty: perhaps a young couple finding themselves homeless because of jobs due to Covid? perhaps among persecuted minorities fleeing China or Myanmar or Guatemala? refugees at the border, or migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean and enter Europe? Pick a bad situation where people are in distress: Jesus will be born there.
Luke assumes that no one else was in that stable at the time of the birth of Jesus. They were alone. But immediately thereafter the word began to spread, first of all by heavenly messengers sent to shepherds:
"And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (2.8-14)
When the shepherds hear the good news, presumably they are both shocked at the appearing of angels, and full of joy at what seems to be good news, perhaps beyond anything they were expecting.
We too can listen to the same words spoken once by the angels, Christ born in Bethlehen and born in our midst on this Christmas Day, 2020, a great joy to those with no joy then and now. Today’s angels may include those people who bring us the Good News by their words of truth, of hope in the darkness, of comfort amid sorrow, and by the example of how they live out the love of God and love of neighbor in the things they do. We can listen to our sisters and brothers who speak with angelic voices; we can try at least to share in the simple prayer that is joy, glorifying this God who is greater than we can imagine, yet also just a baby in the manger.
The chapter might end there; whether anything more happens is up to the shepherds. They might have been content with the heavenly word they received, asking for nothing more, simply returning to their night watch. Anyway — what is this sign of which the angels spoke? One more poor infant born of homeless parents, in one more dirty stable? Leave the sheep unattended just to see that?
But they do decide to act:
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. (2.15-16)
The shepherds become, we can say, readers of ordinary signs that speak of divine realities. When they saw the baby, they saw the Messiah. Amid the ordinary and the dismal and the impoverished, they glimpsed the fulfillment of God’s promises.
An aside: It is here that another taken-for-granted part of the Christmas season comes into play, to help us in our journey to seeing Jesus. We have an 800 year tradition of representing and visualizing Christmas by the creche, the Christmas crib with its surrounding figures.
St. Francis of Assisi may be the one who had the first crib scene set up, with the clear purpose in mind, that people come to see and hear and taste this mystery central to our faith. The whole story is here, in summary form. See also the original here, told by Thomas of Celano. As the summary goes, Francis said,
"I want to enact the memory of the infant who was born at Bethlehem and how he was bedded in the manger on hay between a donkey and an ox. I want to see all of this with my own eyes."
Francis is said to have preached with deep sentiment and fervor to the crowd gathered around that first crib:
"The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love and filled with a wonderful happiness....He sang the Gospel in a sonorous voice, a clear and sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about and spoke charming words concerning the birth of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem....When he spoke the name ‘Child of Bethlehem’ or ‘Jesus,’ his tongue licked his lips, relishing and savoring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words."
The genius of Francis was to make the scene visible, palpable, right here to be visited by anybody.
When we visualize the Nativity today, helped along by paintings and sculptures, Christmas cards and crib scenes, we are awakening our spiritual senses, the eyes of our soul, ears and tongue, touch and scent able to encounter God in our own flesh and blood, and not by simply thinking about all this. This is what the shepherds did, and with our eyes open or closed, with them and St. Francis we can see the same reality today.
Indeed, Luke himself is gently urging upon us the same contemplative theme, a Christmas that is still, quiet, a matter of coming to see God here and now. After all, Mary herself, so central to the scene, shows us what to do, how to be quiet and to contemplate Christ born among us:
"Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. (2.19)
Here is an invitation, so appropriate to our enforced stay-at-home moment, to stop and be quiet, closing our eyes and pondering all of it in our hearts: 2020, Covid; the disruptions and losses rending our society; eruptions of violence in our cities; the shuttering of our parishes; the awakening that has been happening, we hope, in these weeks of Advent; John the Baptist, angels and shepherds; the angel Gabriel coming to visit Mary; and at the heart of it all, this homeless couple huddled in a barn, their new-born baby in a rough bin where sheep and cows are accustomed to eat. All this we can ponder in our hearts on this most quiet Christmas day.
Now all this may seem fanciful, even a bit too pious amid crises that demand action. But it is not so. By pondering deeply, savoring, being touched to the core, we become more fully alive, better able to stand up and speak and act. It is those who see, and ponder what they see, that will have something to say, compassion and love manifest in their deeds.
This after all is Luke’s final point. Ordinary men and women, the shepherds suddenly found their voice and their courage, and with great effectiveness spread the news, as the first preachers of the newborn Christ:
"When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them… The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (2.17-18, 20)
We are no less qualified for this than the shepherds, if for a moment we have put aside our doubts, getting up and finding our way to the Christ born in the world of 2020 — as it is, and not a better world somewhere else. We too can give our own simple witness in our own words to the Lord born this year, of all years.
(I will not post a homily for Sunday, December 27. But since that date is the Feast of the Holy Family, you can tell your own story of what it means for a family to be holy! My next one will be for Epiphany, January 3, 2021.)