NATIVITY OF THE LORD
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- First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-6
- Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14
- Gospel: Luke 2:1-14
Homily of Pope Francis
1. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).
This prophecy of Isaiah never ceases to touch us, especially when we hear it proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas Night. This is not simply an emotional or sentimental matter. It moves us because it states the deep reality of what we are: a people who walk, and all around us – and within us as well – there is darkness and light. In this night, as the spirit of darkness enfolds the world, there takes place anew the event which always amazes and surprises us: the people who walk see a great light. A light which makes us reflect on this mystery: the mystery of walking and seeing.
Walking. This verb makes us reflect on the course of history, that long journey which is the history of salvation, starting with Abraham, our father in faith, whom the Lord called one day to set out, to go forth from his country towards the land which he would show him. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land. This history has always been accompanied by the Lord! He is ever faithful to his covenant and to his promises. Because he is faithful, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). Yet on the part of the people there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience, and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people a drift.
In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. “Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11). A people who walk, but as a pilgrim people who do not want to go astray.
2. On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).
The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
3. The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. The pilrim is bound by duty to keep watch and the shepherds did just that. Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence. Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praises of his fidelity: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.
On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). As the angels said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”. And I also repeat to all of you: Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is mercy: our Father always forgives us. He is our peace. Amen.
Vatican Basilica, 24 December 2013
by Fernando Armellini
The darkness covered the abyss, when “God said, ‘Let there be light’” (Gen 1:2-3). Light is the first word that God speaks in the Bible. That word marks the beginning of creation (Gen 1:3). And since “God saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:4), the human being has never stopped loving her, to search for her, while remaining afraid of and shying away from the darkness. Darkness recalls death and from it, one wants to get out.
He who is born comes to the light, when he dies he goes toward the land of the deepest night (Job 10:21). Job says— “God uncovers the deepest recesses and brings the deep darkness into light” (Job 12:22). In the biblical conceptualization, darkness is only a temporary condition of light, destined to become light.
God is light and permeates his every creature with light: in the poetic image of Isaiah the dew becomes dew of light (Is 26:19); even the clouds, yet so dark and menacing, are laden with light that shines forth suddenly, when the lightning flashes (Job 37:15).
We celebrate the Christmas liturgy during the night to reproduce, perhaps meaningfully, the darkness won by the word of the Creator, the darkness of the human condition illumined by the coming of the Savior.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“On those who live in darkness, the light of a Child shines.”
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14
It is almost inevitable that we listen to the Gospel passage that is being proposed on this night, conditioned by the Christmas atmosphere around us: lighted trees, sounds of bagpipes, snow, shepherds. We will probably allow ourselves be taken by emotion. It’s not a bad thing, but this passage is not written to move or even to give information about the birth of Jesus. If that were the case, we would be right to complain about Luke being too sober in detail.
It was composed, probably, after the rest of the Gospel had already been written. It is a page of theology that, as a wonderful prelude to the rest of the work, wants to present what the Christians of the first generation, led by the Spirit, understand of the Lord Jesus, dead and risen.
The passage begins with a precise historic and geographic ambient. It is the time in which Caesar Augustus reigns in Rome. The prince is known throughout the empire for his “courage, gentleness, compassion and justice.” It is he who, after the endless horrors of civil war, has finally restored peace everywhere. It is the golden age of Roman history as recounted by the poet Virgil. In a famous inscription dated in the year 9 A.D. at Priene, in Asia Minor, it is written that the year begins on September 23, the birthday of Augustus so that “everyone can consider this event as the origin of his life and existence, as the time after which one no longer cries for his own birth. In giving us Augustus, Divine Providence has sent to us and to those who will come after us, a savior, the one who has to put an end to wars and rearrange everything. The birthday of the god (Augustus) is for the world, the beginning of the glad tidings received (lit. ‘Gospels’) through him.”
It is the time of the census of all the earth. The census, from the point of view of history, presents many difficulties, but for Luke, it takes a definite theological significance. It serves him to declare solemnly that the Son of God has entered into the universal history and has become a world citizen.
Then it indicates the place where Jesus is born: Bethlehem, a city (actually a village of shepherds) on the mountains of Judea. Luke emphasizes that “Joseph belonged to the house of David, being a descendant of his” and that “Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem” (v. 4). The reference to this site is important because it is from Bethlehem that the people were waiting for the Messiah (Jn 7:40-43). The prophet Micah had, in fact, announced: “But you, Bethlehem Ephratah … from you shall rise the one who is to rule over Israel” (Mic 5:1).
With these historical and geographical records, Luke also wants to say that the birth of the Savior is not a myth to be relegated to the world of the many fairy tales circulating at his time; but a real and concrete event.
“While they were in Bethlehem,” Mary gave birth to her “firstborn” son. Mary acts like all mothers and Luke mentions her caring and attentive gestures: she wraps the child and lays him in a manger. There is no miracle. The birth of Jesus is identical to that of any other child. Since his first appearance in this world, he has shared completely in our human condition.
“There was no place for them in the inn.” If one keeps in mind that hospitality is sacred in the Orient, it is unlikely that Mary and Joseph are forced to find shelter in a cave because they are rejected by all the families of the place. The term used in the original text does not refer to the hotel or to the caravanserai (a roadside inn), but to a room (probably the only one) of the house where Joseph and Mary were received. It was not fitting that the birth should happen in a room that did not offer a minimum of privacy (this is the meaning of the expression, “there was no place for them”). As what normally happened to the poor women in labor in all of Palestine, Mary was also taken to the inner and hidden portion of the dwelling, usually where animals were kept.
Although the Gospel text does not speak of the ox and the ass (which have been suggested in popular piety by a text from Isaiah: “The ox knows its master and the ass its owner’s manger” (Is 1:3), it is not unlikely that there were present.
Luke emphasizes these details to show that God—as he is wont to do—subverts the values and criteria of this world. The God that people, even today, expect to be strong and terrible, capable of spreading panic, and gaining respect. But this is not God; it is an idol. It is the projection of our petty dreams of greatness and power. The God manifested in Jesus is exactly the opposite: weak, helpless and trembling, and entrusts himself into the hands of a woman. This is not a passing moment of his revelation, an unhappy parenthesis waiting to resume his presence with all his dazzling splendor and all his might. In Jesus lying in the manger, the true, eternal God, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) is instead present.
In the second part of the Gospel (vv. 8-14), the scene changes completely. We are no longer in the privacy of a house, but outside, in the fields and there are other characters: the shepherds and angels.
“There were shepherds camping in the countryside, taking turns to watch over the flock by night” (v.8). If this is intended as information, then Jesus was not born in winter, because the flock was only kept in the open from March to October. But we do not care what month Jesus was born. What is more important is to identify who are the first people to recognize the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the Savior, the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David. These are the shepherds.
Why just them? It is not because they were better prepared spiritually. Quite the contrary. The shepherds were not simple, good, innocent, honest folks, respected by all. They were listed among the most impure of people, and there were good reasons to consider them as such. They led a life not very different from that of the beasts. They could not enter the temple to pray. They were not allowed to testify in a tribunal because they were considered unreliable, untruthful, dishonest, thieves, and violent. The Rabbis taught that the shepherds, tax collectors, and publicans would find salvation almost impossible. Their lives were so evil, they had done so much harm and robbed so many people that they could not keep count of what they stole and therefore could never return what they had stolen. So, they were destined to perdition.
The heavenly messenger is sent to them. “I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people. Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town. He is the Messiah and the Lord” (vv. 10-11).
The words of the angel echo the inscription of Priene. Luke seems to imply that the savior who was to flood the world with joy and establish peace was not Augustus. It’s not his birth, but that of Jesus which marked “the beginning of glad tidings received, thanks to him.”
Since his first appearance in the world, Jesus is placed among the last of people. It is they, not the “righteous”, who expect from God a word of love, liberation, and hope. Growing up, Jesus will continue to live next to these people. He will speak their simple language, use comparisons, parables, and images taken from their world, participate in their joys and sufferings, and will always be on their side against anyone who attempts to marginalize them.
The sign of recognition of the Savior given to the shepherds is surprising and paradoxical. It is not said that they will find a baby wrapped in light, with the face of an angel, with a halo above his head, surrounded by the heavenly host. None of these: the sign is a completely normal child, with a unique characteristic: He is poor and is among the poor.
The two groups we will find during Jesus’ life are already defined at the moment of his birth. On the one hand, the poor, the ignorant, and the despised who immediately recognize and welcome him with joy. On the other hand, the wise, the rich, the powerful, those who live isolated in their palaces, away from the people and their problems and convinced that they already possess all that makes them happy. They do not need a Savior, indeed, a Messiah who does not meet their expectations and their projects, a person they are uncomfortable dealing with, needs to be removed as soon as possible.
The women who helped Mary in Bethlehem during the birth observed that child. They certainly did not realize that the history of the world would be divided into two parts: before and after that birth.
READ: Mary and Joseph were simple, law-abiding people. They were poor, as were the shepherds, who came to share their company. In those times and in that place, they did not command much respect or even much notice.
REFLECT: The present-day struggle to achieve status is misconceived. God is not impressed by human prestige. How wasteful in our society is all the energy invested in climbing the social ladder. There are better things to which we could devote our time and effort.
PRAY: God, grant me the clarity of vision to see that all the exertion expended in achieving a high standing among my peers is, in the end, wasted effort. There are better, more worthwhile goals available to me.
ACT: Scrutinize your list of friends to see if it includes any people who are “just ordinary” in the eyes of the world.
MASS OF THE DAY
- First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10
- Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-6
- Gospel: John 1:1-18
CHRISTMAS – GOD’S YOUTH
by Timothy Radcliffe
This morning we are celebrating the birthday of God. This birthday is unlike our own. On our birthdays we celebrate — or lament — all the years that have passed since we were born. But at Christmas we do not celebrate that Jesus is (2014) years old, or however many years have passed. We rejoice in the birth of God as a baby. Every Christmas is a celebration that God came among us as a new-born child.
This is because God is always among us as one who is young. St Augustine wrote that God is younger than all else. We have become older than our God. This means that God always retains that fresh vigour of youth, the vitality and playfulness of one who is always ready to begin anew. We believe that God is eternal, and so God is often represented as immensely old. But if no time passes for God, then he is always also at the beginning, eternally youthful.
Youthfulness is said to be the characteristic of hope, because to hope is to be ready for a future which is always open and long, however old one may be. The French poet Charles Péguy wrote a poem on hope, which he saw symbolized by his nine-year old daughter. He writes that absolutely nothing at all holds except because of the young child Hope, because of she who continuously begins again, and who always promises, who guarantees everything, who assures tomorrow to today, and this afternoon to this morning, and life to life and even eternity to time.
So we celebrate Christmas by letting God renew your youth like the eagle. (Ps.103:5). And it is the evangelist whose symbol is the eagle who writes that to all who accept the Word of God, he gave power to become the children of God, to all who believe in the name of him who was born not out of human stock or the urge of the flesh or the will of man but of God himself.
Being a child of God means more than having God as one’s Father. It means sharing in the eternal youthfulness of the child whose birth we celebrate today. That does not mean pretending to look young, hiding the wrinkles, dying one’s hair, or fleeing from the signs of age. We do age and must not fear it. We must not be mutton dressed up as the Lamb of God! It does mean that we can shed the temptations of those who grow older, of thinking that nothing new can be dared, that safety is better than taking a risk, of fatalism and cynicism. We can let God renew hope in our hearts.
Let us also celebrate Christmas by giving a chance to those abiding images of God, the children and the young. I went back to Rwanda after the genocide. A Canadian Dominican who had worked there for twenty-five years took me to see the ruins of where he had lived. So many friends had died and all his life’s work seemed to be destroyed. But he gave me a photograph of himself holding two Rwandan babies. And on the back he wrote, Africa has a future. Because of the child whose birth we celebrate today, then we can also say Humanity has a future.
This last year has been painful for the Church in relation to the young. The headlines have so often been of stories of sexual or physical abuse. So let us work for a future in which the young may thrive. Let them truly be children. Let them not be seen as consumers in the market place, to be enthralled by designer labels, or as sexual objects to be used. Let them have the hopeful qualities of youth, the capacity for play, for experiment, and for daring.
Above all let them live. This day I think of the babies who are surely being born today in the Dominican hospital in Baghdad. Let them not be engulfed in war. May they live to celebrate another Christmas, the feast of the child who is always new-born. May we be moved by that fresh young hope for humanity’s future. Happy Christmas.
by Fernando Armellini
From the beginning of humankind’s history—the Bible tells us—is a series of sins. In Genesis, Chapter 6,the sacred author, with a bold anthropomorphism, says: “The Lord saw how great was the wickedness of man on the earth and that evil was always the only thought of his heart. The Lord regretted having created man on the earth and his heart grieved” (Gen 6:5-6).
In the fullness of time, God has intervened to bring about justice. The responsorial psalm proposed to us by the liturgy sets out to reveal his justice before the eyes of the people. We know of only one justice, the forensic one, the remunerative justice administered by judges in courts where punishment proportionate to the crime committed is applied. This is not God’s justice. “He is God and not man” (Hos 11:9). God does not respond to sin with retaliation and revenge, but by giving the greatest proof of his love, giving to the world his Son.
Some theology of the past recklessly applied to God our justice and presented him as an executioner. It resulted in a Christianity that was a dispenser of fear, not a herald of the Kingdom, which is “justice, peace, and joy” (Rom 14:17).
At Christmas, God reveals the immensity of His unconditional love. This is his justice. All people are invited to contemplate with wonder and allow themselves be free from fear, because “there is no fear in love. Perfect love drives away fear, for fear has to do with punishment: those who fear do not know perfect love” (1 Jn 4:18).
Gospel: John 1:1-18
Authors place emphasis on the first page of their books to give the reader a bird’s-eye view of their work. The page does not only say that it is pleasant and attractive material to read but it also sets the tone and prepares the reader to comprehend what is to come. The first page should highlight the key features of the book to whet the interest and curiosity of the reader.
To introduce his Gospel, John composes a sublime hymn, so high as to merit him, rightly, the title of ‘eagle’among the evangelists. In this prologue, as in the overture of a symphony, we will try to identify the reasons (to be further developed in subsequent chapters): Jesus—sent by the Father, source of life, light of the world, full of grace and truth, the only Son in whom the glory of the Father is revealed.
In the first stanza (vv. 1-5), John seems to take off into an image dear to Wisdom and Rabbinic literature: The ‘Wisdom of God’ depicted as a beautiful and delightful woman. Here’s how ‘Wisdom’ introduces herself in the book of Proverbs: “The Lord created me first at the beginning of his works … The abyss did not exist when I was born … The mountains were not yet set in their place, nor the hills when I was born … I was there when he made the skies … when he made the sea with its limits … when he laid the foundation of the earth, I was close beside him” (Pro 8:22-29). This is personified in the book of Sirach, which states that Wisdom embodiedherself in the Torah, the Law, and set up her tent in Israel (Sir 24:3-8,22).
John knew these texts well and—perhaps even with a little polemic against Judaism—adopts them and applies them to Jesus, who, according to him, is the ‘Wisdom of God’ who came to make his dwelling among us. It is Jesus, and not the Mosaic law, who reveals to the people the face of God and His will. He is the Word, the last and final Word of God. He is the same Word by which God, in the beginning, created the world.
Moreover, unlike the personified Wisdom (Sir 24:9), the Word of God—in that Jesus became flesh—has not been created, but ‘was’ with God, existed from eternity. For Israel, Wisdom is “a tree of life to those who claspit” (Pro 3:18). John makes it clear: The Wisdom of God manifested itself fully in the historical person of Jesus. He is no longer the law, but the source of life.
The coming of this Word into the world divides history into two eras—before and after Christ; darknessbefore (without him), light after (in his presence). The Word that, like a sword, penetrates deep into everyperson and separates within him the ‘son of light’ and the ‘child of darkness.’ The darkness will try tooverpower the light, but will not succeed. Even the negative human response will be suffocated and, eventually, the light will prevail in the hearts of each one of us.
The second stanza (vv. 6-8) is the first interlude introducing the figure of John the Baptist. It does not say that ‘he was with God.’ John is just a man raised up by God for a mission. He was to be a witness to the light.His role is so important that it is mentioned three times in just two verses. He was not that light, but was able to recognize the true light and to point out him to one and all.
The third stanza (vv. 9-13) develops the theme of Christ—the light and the people’s response to hisappearance in the world. The hymn opens with a cry of joy: “The true light was coming to the world.” Jesus is the true light, as opposed to the illusory glitters, wisps, mirages, and the misleading glow projected by the wisdom of the people.
A lament immediately contradicts this enthusiastic cry: “The world did not know him.” It is the rejection, opposition, and shutting out of the light. People love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil (Jn3:19). Not even the Israelites— “his own people”—welcome him. Yet they would have recognized in Jesus the ultimate manifestation, the embodiment of the ‘Wisdom of God’, the wisdom that “among all the people had sought a resting place in which to settle,” and in Israel, she had found her home. The Creator of the universehad given her this order: “Pitch your tent in Jacob; Israel will be your homeland” (Sir 24:7-8).
The rejection of light and life by people, even the most prepared and well-disposed, is surprising. Jesus, too, will one day be surprised by his own countrymen’s incredulity (Mk 6:6). This means the light that comes from above is not imposed, does no violence, leaves free but places people before an inescapable decision: they must choose between “blessing and curse” (Dt 11:27-28), between “life and death” (Dt 30:15).
The verse ends with the joyful vision of those who believed in the light. Believing does not mean giving one’s own intellectual approval to a package of truths, but accepting a person, the ‘Wisdom of God’, who identifies himself with Jesus. To those who trust in him shall be granted an unheard of ‘right’: to become the children of God. It is the rebirth from above, of which Jesus will speak to Nicodemus (Jn 3:3), a rebirth that has nothing to do with natural birth linked to sexuality, to the will of man. In a nutshell, the generation that comesfrom God is of another order; it is the work of the Spirit.
The fourth stanza (v. 14) “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” is the highlight of this prologue. This is the Gospel’s words we will listen to on our knees. The first Christians are still full of admiration about the mystery of God, who for love strips himself of His glory, empties Himself, and takes up His abode under our tent.
‘Flesh’, in biblical language, connotes the human in his appearance of being weak, fragile, and perishable. One senses here the dramatic contrast between “flesh” and “Word of God,” expressed so effectively in the famous passage from Isaiah: “All flesh is grassandall its beauty as the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will forever stand” (Is 40:6-8).
When John says that the “Word” became flesh, he does not simply state that Jesus took a mortal body, overlaid with muscles, but that he became one of us. It means becoming like us in everything, including feelings, passions, emotions, cultural conditioning, fatigue, ignorance—yes, also temptation, and inner conflicts, exactly like us in all things but sin.
“And we have seen his glory.” The Biblical man was aware that the human eye is unable to see God. One may only contemplate his ‘glory’—that is, the signs of his presence, his works, his acts of power in favor of his people. “I will have glory at the expense of Pharaoh, his army, his chariots, and horsemen” (Ex 14:18).
The expressions filled with intense emotion in the First Letter of John are echoed in this phrase of the prologue: “That which has been fromthe beginning, and what we have heard and haveseen with oureyes, whatwe have looked at and touched with ourhands, I mean the Word who islife … The Life made itself known, we have seen Eternal Life and we bear witness, and we are telling you of it. It was with the Father and made himself known to us. So, we tell you what we have seen and heard, that you may be in fellowship with us, and us, with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ. And we write this that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn1:1-4). Here, John speaks in the plural, because he intends to report the experience of the Christians of hiscommunity. With the eyes of faith, they are able to grasp—beyond the veil of the “flesh” of Jesus, humiliatedand crucified—the face of God.
The Lord has often manifested His glory with signs and wonders, but he never revealed himself so clearly as in his “only begotten Son, full of grace and truth.” “Grace and Truth” is a biblical expression to imply ‘faithful love’. We find it in the Old Testament, when the Lord appears to Moses as “the God full of pity and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in truth and loving kindness” (Ex 34:6). The fullness of God’s faithful love is present in Jesus. He is the irrefutable proof that nothing can overwhelm the goodness of God.
The fifth stanza (v. 15) is the second interlude. The Baptist reappears, and this time he speaks in the present. He ‘testifies’ on behalf of Jesus; he ‘shouts’ to people of all times that He is unique.
The sixth stanza (vv. 16-18) is a song of joy, representing the community’s overflowing gratitude to God for the incomparable gift received. The law of Moses was also a gift of God, but was not definitive. The external provisions it contained were not able to communicate the “grace and truth,” that is, the force that enables man to respond to the faithful love of God. “Grace and truth” are given through Jesus. His name appears here for the first time.
No one has ever seen God. It is a statement that John often recalled (5:37; 6:46; 1 Jn 4:12,20). It is already found in the Old Testament: “You cannot see my face—God says to Moses—because man cannot see me and live” (Ex 33:20). The events, apparitions, and visions of God, as told in the Old Testament, were not of materialvision. They were a humane way of describing the revelations of the thoughts, the will, and the plans of the Lord.
However, now looking at Jesus, one can actually and concretely see God. To know the Father, one need not indulge in philosophical reasoning, or lose oneself in elaborate discussion. It is enough to contemplate Christ, to observe what he does, what he says, what he teaches, how he behaves, how he loves, whom he prefers, people he frequently associates with, with whom he goes to dinner, and whom he chooses, rebukes and defends. It is enough, above all, to contemplate him in the height of his ‘glory’, when he was lifted up on the cross. In that highest manifestation of love, the Father has said it all.
READ: The prologue offers an overture to the entire Gospel. All of the major themes of the Gospel can be found in these verses, which begin in eternity and end with the Word becoming flesh and returning to the bosom of the Father. Because it is poetry, the prologue can be appreciated only through repeated readings.
REFLECT: The prologue speaks of the relationship between the Word and God. The Word functions in creation. The Word becomes flesh and dwells in the midst of the human family. John has a role to play in serving the Word.
PRAY: The Christian prays to God the Father, through the Son. Thank God the Father for the gift of the Word.
ACT: Study the various verses of the prologue and look for the major themes of the Gospel.
A sign to be deciphered
It must be said that it was not easy for his contemporaries to recognise Jesus. It is never easy for anyone, not even today, to recognise him for what he really is. Only God’s revelation can unveil his mystery (see for example Jn 5:37; 6:45). In the story of his birth, the aim of the angelic message is precisely that of revealing his mystery.
In fact, our text is made up of three parts. In vv. 1-7 we have the fact of the birth of Jesus in a clear context. It is the birth of a boy like so many other boys. Verses 8-14 tell us about the message by an angel and the vision of angels who sing. It is God’s revelation (see v.15) that allows us to discover in the “sign” of “a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (v. 12) “Christ the Lord” (v.11). In the last part (vv. 15-20), we come across various reactions to the revelation of the mystery. When the sign that God offers is received with humility, it marks the beginning of a journey of faith towards him who reveals himself.
How to decipher the sign and welcome Jesus? Our text presents three reactions to the mystery of Jesus.
First there are the shepherds. They are characterised by several verbs of expectation/seeking and discovery: “(they) watch… during the night” (v. 8); “let us go and see…” (v. 15); “they hurried away and found…” (v.16). The shepherds were open to the revelation of the mystery. They welcomed it in simplicity and believed it (see vv. 15 and 20) and they became witnesses of that which was revealed to them (see v. 17).
Then there are “those who heard” what the shepherds had to say about Jesus (v. 16). They are amazed, unable to see the real meaning of the event that took place among them.
Finally there is the report on Mary. The evangelist wants to contrast her reaction to that of “those who heard”. In fact, he introduces her with the words “as for Mary” (v. 19). Like them, Mary has not heard the message of the angel and has not seen the angelic choir, but has only heard the witness of the shepherds. Yet she accepts it. Certainly, she had an angelic message addressed to her alone at the beginning of this whole episode (1:26-38). The angel had spoken of a son who was to be born from her as the Son of the Most High who was to rule forever (see 1:32 and 35). But recent happenings, the birth under such circumstances, could have put doubts to these words. Now the shepherds come and again say great things about her son. Mary keeps everything in her heart, the words of the angel, the words of the shepherds, the events taking place and seeks to put them together in order to understand who is this son whom God has given her, what is his mission and what is her part in all this. Mary is a contemplative woman who keeps her eyes and ears open so as not to miss anything. She, then, keeps and meditates all in the silence of her contemplative heart. Mary is the attentive Virgin, capable of receiving the word that God speaks to her in the daily events of her life. Only they who wish to seek like the shepherds and who have the contemplative heart of Mary can decipher the signs of the presence and action of God in their lives and to welcome Jesus in the home of their being.