Although the Solemnity of Christmas does not necessarily occur on a Sunday, it is such an important and pivotal celebration in the life of the Church that it warrants inclusion in this series of Sunday Gospel reflections. This is true not only because of the prominent place Christmas holds in our society but also because of the profound nature of the infancy passages as recorded in the Gospel of Luke. Although there are optional Gospel passages which can be used at Christmas Masses (depending upon when those Masses are celebrated), the passage we will study for this reflection is taken from the Gospel of Luke 2:1–20.
The story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is a familiar one, and because of that we can easily miss the significance of the many important and meaningful details Luke mentions. These details tell us important information about who Jesus is, what our Lord’s mission will entail, how we can encounter Him, and what the proper response is to that encounter. Let’s study each of these aspects to see what insights we can gain and lessons we can learn to guide us in our discipleship.
The infancy narrative from Luke’s Gospel contains particular details which help us better understand the identity of Jesus. First, Jesus was born in the midst of vulnerable homelessness and inhospitable poverty. Our Lord’s identification with such circumstances at the moment of His birth prepares for His ministry later in the Gospel when He will demonstrate preferential compassion for those who suffer similar conditions. Francis of Assisi frequently meditated on the conditions of our Lord’s birth because he saw in that moment Jesus’ identification with the poor and the outcast.
Second, at the moment of Jesus’ birth the multitude of angels proclaimed Jesus as the source of peace (Lk 2:14) with the titles Savior, Christ, and Lord. All of these titles of implied majesty were direct challenges to the authority of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (Lk 2:11). Augustus was hailed as the “Savior” of the people and was given credit for bringing “Peace”. The famous Altar of Peace reconstructed on the banks of the Tiber River in Rome was originally built to celebrate the end of the civil war between Mark Anthony and Augustus following the death of Julius Caesar. This passage from Luke’s Gospel tells us that the true source of peace is lying in a manger in Bethlehem and not on a throne in Rome. It also tells us that the one who can truly save us is found in a small town of Judea and not the capital of the Roman Empire. The title Lord was equally as revolutionary and subversive. While it was a statement of Jesus’ divinity as God, it was also a title claimed by the Roman Emperor. For this reason, Luke goes out of his way in chapter 2, verse 1 to situate the birth of Jesus in the context of world events because what happens in the small town of Bethlehem will reach the farthest corners of the world. The title “Christ” is an identification of Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of the Jewish people.
Third, the most important revelation of Jesus’ identity occurs when we are told that He is the “Firstborn” who was “wrapped in swaddling clothes”. The proper way to translate the verse of Luke 2:7 would be as follows, “And she gave birth to her son the Firstborn and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths…” The term “Firstborn” (Greek prototokos) was a significant title first used in the Old Testament in reference to the people of Israel (Ex 4:22 and Jer 31:9) and then in the New Testament as a description of Jesus in reference to His eternal relationship with the Father (“Firstborn among many brothers” in Rom 8:29, “Firstborn of all creation” in Col 1:15, 18, “Firstborn from the Dead” in Rev 1:4–5, “The Firstborn” in Heb 1:5-6) . To call Jesus the “Firstborn” is a statement of our Lord’s divinity. We are then told that Jesus was “wrapped in swaddling clothes”. The Old Testament references to swaddling clothes (Job 3:8, Ez 16:4, Wis 7:1–6) all point to the ordinariness of an everyday human experience surrounding the birth of a baby. The point is that all people are wrapped in cloth at their birth; it is a statement of our common humanity. That’s why these two descriptions are so important when they are put together, because it is Luke’s way of describing the Incarnation of the Eternal Word who became Flesh. Or, as Luke would put it, the “Firstborn” was wrapped in “swaddling clothes”. It is the statement that God has become man. As disciples, we need to be clear about who Jesus is and where we find Him. To Him alone belong the Kingdom, power, and glory. From Him alone comes peace and salvation. In Him alone are heaven and earth united as God and man are joined in one person. Jesus will continue to identify Himself with the poor and the outcast. Through us, His disciples, He will reach the far corners of the world including the deepest recesses of our own world. Our encounter with Him is nothing less than an encounter with the eternal God.
Which of these revelations of Jesus’ identity most challenges you as a disciple, and why?
Why do you think Luke took such great care to tell us so many things about Jesus when our Lord was just an infant in the small town of Bethlehem?
If you were to tell someone who Jesus is, what descriptions would you use?
Where do you go to find salvation and peace?
Luke also includes a significant detail when he tells us in verse 7 that Mary, “…wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”. This identifying location of the manger is related again by the angels in Luke 2:12 when the multitude informs the shepherds where they will find the Savior. The word “manger” means a place of feeding, and it is where the food was offered so the flock could be nourished. Just as Jesus was “wrapped” and “laid” in a manger at His birth, so too the Lord will be “wrapped” and “laid” in a tomb at His death (Lk 23:53). Also, it should be noted that “inn” is not the best translation for the Greek term kataluma. Sometimes this term will be better translated by “the place where travelers lodged”. Although that is a lengthy translation it is actually more accurate and describes the accommodations normally provided to travelers as an expression of hospitality. This term becomes more important because in Luke 22:11 we are told that it is in a kataluma that Jesus celebrates the Last Supper with His disciples and institutes the Eucharist. With this final interpretive connection, we can now understand the profound meaning of what happened in Bethlehem: Jesus, the eternal Son of God became Man — who will give His life for us on Calvary and in the Eucharist at the Last Supper — is now being placed in the manger to become food for the flock. This is a very powerful and beautiful understanding of the Eucharist in Luke’s Gospel. When the shepherds receive the good news (Gospel) of Jesus’ birth, they are told that they will find Him “in a manger”. Luke wants all disciples to be able to recognize the Firstborn of God in the food of the Eucharistic banquet. It is for this reason that Luke later includes the important story of the journey to Emmaus and the two disciples who come to recognize the Risen Lord in “the breaking of the Bread” (Lk 24:30–35). If we want to meet the Lord this Christmas, then there really is no better place to find Him than in “Christ’s Mass”! The same God who assumed our human condition in the Incarnation freely chooses to give Himself to us as “food for the flock” in the Real Presence of the Eucharist. The word Bethlehem is a Hebrew term that means “House of Bread”. How appropriate it is that the Bread of Life is now born in the House of Bread! As disciples, this is good news for us. It challenges us to look beyond the physical elements of bread and wine and to see the Eucharistic presence of the Risen Lord. It also guides us in our search for Jesus so that we might know how and where the Lord offers Himself to us. Reflecting on this mystery Edith Stein said, “The child in the manger opens his arms and his smile already explains what he will later say, ‘come to me those who are labored and burdened’ (cf. Mt 11:28).”
How does this image of Jesus being laid in the manger help deepen your appreciation of the Eucharist?
Jesus was placed in the manger in the midst of an inhospitable and even hostile situation of rejection. Who do you think was most encouraged by our Lord’s presence in that setting, and who is most encouraged today by our Lord’s Eucharistic presence in similar circumstances?
What would your response have been to this event if you had been present at Bethlehem, and how does it inspire and challenge your response to similar situations today?
The next section of the infancy narrative goes on to relate how the shepherds received the good news of Jesus’ birth and of their response to that news. We are specifically told that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2:15). Later we are told that the shepherds returned glorifying God for all they had heard and seen (Lk 2:20). Both of these actions are important and offer guidance for us as to how we should respond to messages of faith in our lives. First, it is significant that the shepherds were not content to only hear about Jesus, but they were motivated to go and meet the Lord for themselves. This is an important dynamic that should be taking place in our lives as disciples as well. Every revelation of God, every truth of our faith, is meant to draw us to the divine encounter, and if we settle with mere knowledge, we have not fulfilled the intended purpose of the good news we receive by faith. The difference between learning about God and actually encountering God has been likened to the difference between reading a recipe and actually tasting the meal. Jesus wants to draw us to Himself, and anything we learn about the Lord is meant to motivate and facilitate such an encounter. The shepherds were told where to find Jesus, what He looked like, and who He was. With that knowledge they then put forth the effort to go and meet the Lord for themselves. Luke wants all of us as disciples to be motivated in the same way.
Second, it is important to note what the shepherds did after they met the Lord; they praised God and returned to their flocks. The image of the shepherds is an interesting one and can function on various levels. Some Scripture scholars see the shepherds as symbols of the poor and outcasts who become the first to receive the good news of Jesus’ birth. Other Scripture scholars think the shepherds more aptly represent the leaders of the Christian Church who care for the flock. This second interpretation would most certainly be in line with other New Testament writings that relate the ministry of Jesus, the apostles, and their successors to that of shepherding (1 Pt 5:2–4, Jn 21:15–17, Mk 6:34, Mt 9:36, Jn 10:11–18). This response of the shepherds should inspire us to act in the same way. They took the message of their encounter with Jesus back to their flocks. In a real sense, they had nothing to give their flocks until they themselves had experienced the Lord! It is because of their personal encounter with Jesus that they can now lead their flocks to the Lord as well. When we encounter the Lord, it is never meant to be an experience that we keep to ourselves. Rather, we are to praise God for that grace and share it with those entrusted to our care so that they too can experience the Lord and be transformed by God’s love.
For what experience of God in your life do you offer greatest praise and thanksgiving?
How can you lead others to that experience in their lives?
Why are people all too often content to just learn about God but not motivated to encounter God for themselves?
Why do you think Luke put such emphasis on the importance of personal encounter with Jesus for disciples?
Finally, in Luke 2:19 we are told that Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. The image of Mary is important because she embodies what it means to be a disciple. She was the first one to hear the Word of God and to do it (Lk 1:38 and Lk 11:28). In this moment, then, Mary is teaching us the importance of reflecting on the experience of God lest we fail to grasp the significance and meaning of the Lord’s action in our lives. It is only when we take time to prayerfully reflect on the events of our lives that we can come to understand those things from God’s perspective and see the presence of God with us. Such reflection requires periods of sacred silence in a person’s life. Silence is the door through which God enters our heart and soul. Without silence, we can’t have any meaningful awareness of God or bring into coherent meaningful focus the realities of our lives. That is why the English scholar, T.S. Eliot, claimed that a tragedy occurs when we have the experience but miss the meaning. The philosopher, Socrates, is credited with articulating the importance of such reflective contemplation when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living for a human being.” Mary reminds all disciples of the importance of faith-filled reflection on the events of God in our lives. Indeed, through the door of silence God can enter our hearts, minds, and souls and help us to understand deeply the meaning of the Lord’s action in our world.
How do you incorporate silence into your life of faith?
What are the challenges you face in fostering periods of reflective silence each day?
What spiritual insights have you gained through reflective contemplation?
St. Bonaventure, Vita di S. Francesco d’Assisi,
Assisi: Edizioni Porziuncola, 2008, Chap. 9, 5, p. 111.
In the Septuagint, the text of Ex. 4:22 is read, “σὺ δὲ ἐρεῖς τῷ Φαραώ· τάδε λέγει Κύριος· υἱὸς πρωτότοκός
μου ᾿Ισραήλ”; Jer 31:9 [38:9]: ἐν κλαυθμῷ ἐξῆλθον, καὶ ἐν παρακλήσει ἀνάξω αὐτοὺς αὐλίζων ἐπὶ διώρυγας ὑδάτων ἐν ὁδῷ ὀρθῇ, καὶ οὐ μὴ πλανηθῶσιν ἐν αὐτῇ· ὅτι ἐγενόμην τῷ ᾿Ισραὴλ εἰς πατέρα, καὶ ᾿Εφραὶμ πρωτότοκός
μού ἐστιν;” and Col 1:15, “ὅς ἐστιν εἰκὼν τοῦ Θεοῦ τοῦ ἀοράτου, πρωτότοκος
Edith Stein, “Le Mystère de Noël (Ger: Das Weihnachtsgeheimnis
)” in La Crèche et la Croix,
Paris: Ad Solem Editions S.A., 2007, p. 23.
T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages” in Four Quartets,
Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 1943, p. 35.
D. Leibowitz, The Ironic Defense of Socrates: Plato’s Apology,
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 38a, p. 161.