The Nativity – a reflection on the Sunday readings

by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“For today in the city of David a saviour has been born to you who is Christ and Lord.”   Luke 2: 1-14

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us.”   Luke 2: 15-20

On this day to which we all look forward, there are four gospel readings – one from Matthew (Matthew 1: 1-25) for the Vigil Mass, another from Luke (Luke 2: 1-14) for Mass at midnight, a third from Luke (Luke 2: 15-20) for the dawn Mass and a fourth from John (John 1: 1-18) for Mass during the day itself. This reflection is on Chapter 2 of Luke. Luke has written large his preference for the poor, the outcast and the lowly by the fact that he identifies despised shepherds as the first to learn of the birth of Jesus. The irony of the manger scene to which we have become accustomed is that there was nothing meek and mild about those shepherds who had come into Bethlehem from the nearby hills after they had experienced a visitation from angels. In reality, they were characters who had earned a reputation for being aggressive, tough and earthy. That reputation led to their being excluded from the temple. Religious authorities felt threatened by their reluctance to conform. Underneath Luke’s account is the clear message that nobody is excluded from the love and mercy of God.

Note, however, that the shepherds are not the only poor people in the outhouse in Bethlehem. We can easily miss Mary and Joseph who can only have been wrung-out after a perilous and exhausting 100-mile journey. They, like countless others, whose importance was little more than statistics on an electoral roll, were the victims of Roman bureaucracy, which pushed poor defenceless people around with not the slightest consideration for what they might have to endure. Even now, insensitive bureaucrats often reduce poor people to anonymity. The irony, of course, was that Mary, Joseph and their unborn child, like all their fellow travellers who were heading into Bethlehem to be counted, didn’t count at all. The painting below, entitled The Census in Bethlehem by the Dutch painter Pieter Bruegel, imagines Joseph and Mary, her pregnancy at full term, indistinguishable from everyone else clamouring for accommodation.

The only hope open to that vulnerable family at the centre of the manger scene which we know so well was their faith in the God of promise with whom they were on intimate terms. There was no hope to be found in the impersonal power that pushed them and others like them to go to Bethlehem. Moreover, the only security they had was the meagre store of food and personal belongings they were able to carry with them. Their hope lay in the trust they had in the God who had already intervened in their lives, despite the human struggle, suspicion and hardship that had eventuated in the wake of the divine intervention they had experienced. Neither had they anticipated visits from rough-clad shepherds and a group of well-off seekers who had come from the East with valuable gifts.

It is into this scene that Luke invites all who dare to read his Gospel. We are all invited to make a journey of the heart to Bethlehem, to reflect on what the shepherds encountered in that broken-down animal shelter, and what the Magi experienced after them. The Bethlehem where Jesus was born was a place of poverty, anonymity and oppression. Present-day citizens of Bethlehem, sisters and brothers of Jesus and of us, too, struggle for life, recognition and dignity under a different Caesar. And there are Bethlehems replicated all across our common home, planet earth. To what extent do the residents of those many Bethlehems feature in our celebration of the birth of Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us? How might we include them? And how might we go about bringing God-with-us to everyone we encounter, especially during this last week of our calendar year?

We, who do not live in want, can so easily become lulled into a false security that all is well in the world which we inhabit. But that common home of ours is groaning under the abuse and neglect we have all had a part in meting out to it. The Jesus we reverence in the crib at Bethlehem grew to bring hope into our world. The child in the manger, a feed-bin for domestic animals, grew to be the “bread of life”, nourishment for all who would come to him. Christmas reminds us who believe in him that we, too, are to be agents of hope and nourishment for others by the way in which we live and relate. Shouldering those responsibilities calls for more than just wishing for change and betterment, for more than hoping that our teenagers won’t dabble in drugs or hoping that there won’t be another Global Financial Crisis or another Covid pandemic or a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Being agents of hope and nourishment calls for rolling up our sleeves and committing ourselves to practical actions of caring for our earth, giving material support to our starving and refugee sisters and brothers, reaching out to actually talk to needy people begging in our streets, volunteering to assist those whose lives have been destroyed by floods and cyclones and rising ocean waters. Christmas is much more than sentiment!

In finishing this reflection, I remind myself and others of words to which I annually refer from the American poet, W. H. Auden, in his Christmas Oratorio: “It lies within your power of choosing to conceive the Child who chooses you!”

How different we and our world might be if we were to take the risk of bringing Jesus to birth within each of us. Remember, Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Let’s invite him to be God-in-us!

I take this opportunity to wish all regular and casual readers of this weekly reflection, a blessed and peace-filled Christmas and a graced and rewarding year ahead.