After the four week preparation that is the season of Advent, the season of hope and expectation, we arrive upon the season of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the season of the birth of Jesus. As many of us will attend the evening Holy Mass of the Shepherds, we will hear the words of the Holy Gospel that is so familiar to all of us.
“In those days Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole world. This first census took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone went to register, each to his own town. And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem – because he was of the house and lineage of David – to register with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child.”
“While they were there the days of her confinement were completed. She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.”
“There were shepherds in the locality, living in the fields and keeping night watch by turns over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them, as the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were very much afraid. The angel said to them: ‘You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.’ Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in high heaven, peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests.’” (Luke 2:1-14)
This story is so familiar to us. We have certainly heard it many times in Church over the years and may also have encountered it in other ways as well. We see it in movies and shows on television during this season and also possibly at Church plays with the youth. And yet even with its familiarity, it is often good for us to focus in on the passage from time to time. There is so much that these few words of Scripture can tell us, that we sometimes miss these important lessons, only thinking that we have heard it all before.
As we move through the entire retelling of what happened that night in Bethlehem, we see that every part has some lesson for us today, if we only give a bit of time and thought to these holy words. The Gospel reading begins in grand style. With a census ordered by the most powerful man that anyone in the area could think of, even though most, if not all, had never met him, Caesar Augustus. The emperor had ordered a census and everyone had to listen. But here we see that God uses this situation to bring about an important aspect of the life of Jesus. Joseph and Mary go to the city of David, Bethlehem, since certainly Joseph, and most likely also Mary, are from the “house and linage” of David. Although Joseph and Mary are a contrast to Caesar Augustus, and may certainly not have been “kingly” in their style of living, we know that Jesus is to be “King of kings and Lord of lords” so we see that God is pointing out to us that important things will be happening for this small child who is to be born. We see that the work of God is beginning to “break into” the ordinary way of living for those around them.
When the time for Jesus to be born had finally arrived, we know that the family was not able to find a place where they could be comfortable. There was no place for them at the inn, the place where travelers lodged. Because of this the Holy Family had to find shelter, either at the house of a stranger or at best with some distant relative in Bethlehem. The houses were small, so to have a bit of privacy, the Holy Family would have to go to the section of the house where the animals were kept. There they could be warm and there Mary would give birth to her first-born son, Jesus, Our Lord and Savior. She would have placed him in a manger where the animals fed, as this was a place where he would be warm and safe.
This reminds us of what Jesus would later say to those seeking to follow Him: “As they were making their way along, someone said to Him, ‘I will be Your follower wherever You go.’ Jesus said to him, ‘The foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” (Luke 9:57-58) This is followed by Jesus saying, “Whoever puts his hand to the plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God.” (Luke 9:62). We are reminded that, while it is a beautiful sight to come to the manger and encounter the small and beautiful Christ Child, if we allow God to truly break into our world and into our lives, then this may bring not only times of beauty, but also times of hardship and difficulty. Jesus has nowhere to lay His head as a small child and He becomes beautifully wrapped in a manger, later He will also be rejected and treated as an outcast, but He will still be wrapped in the glory that is from God.
The scene suddenly shifts to the shepherds out in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks. These shepherds were also outcasts of society but God had a message for them, given through the words of an angel. The angel appeared to the shepherds and as can be expected, “they were very much afraid.” Now I have never personally had an encounter with an angel but I can surely see that “very much afraid” is the right response. The angel’s message to them begins with “You have nothing to fear!” Again, I’m not really sure that these words would have helped much, but I can also see that in retrospect the shepherds might have later said, “You know, the angel was right; we did have nothing to fear.” Even these small words remind us that in the places where we are in contact with God, we do have “nothing to fear.” We may not be able to muster up that courage or peace of mind at the moment, but that makes it no less true that, when we are with God, when He is breaking into our lives, we have nothing to fear.
The angel goes on to tell the shepherds, “I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord.” The shepherds receive this news but then also go to the city to witness this saving act of God. They desire to see the “breaking in” of God into our human world. When they do see the Christ Child, the promised Messiah and Lord, we also know that the shepherds then also began to spread the news to all who would listen.
This is an important lesson for us as well. We still go to church to hear the message of that good news proclaimed to us. And it is proclaimed not only for the few days of the Christmas season, but each and every Sunday when we gather to hear the Word of God. We go to church to encounter the living Christ who not only broke into the world on that first Christmas morning, but continues to break into the world every time we receive Him in Holy Communion. But do we take this a step further like the shepherds did? Are you proclaiming the message of Christ Jesus in your life today? Is every thought, word and action a proclamation that Jesus has “broken into” your life and changed it for the better?
So my brothers and sisters, I certainly desire to wish you all a truly joyous Christmas, as we gather, in our parish churches and in our homes, to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. I also extend to you my best wishes and prayers for a New Year that is filled with joy, peace and love. But as you experience the joy of the birth of the Christ Child, let us also all contemplate the challenge that God breaking into our world brings. It challenges us to share the message of the Good News; it challenges us to be people who are loving and kind and share this love with others; it challenges us to be more like the Christ Child that we behold at the manger. Let us all go to the manger to behold the Christ Child, but then also in His presence let us accept the challenge to let Him continue to break into our world to change us to be more loving, more peaceful and a stronger witness to Him.
A Joyous Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year.