While they were there [Bethlehem],
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7
Some preliminary notes:
There are four different gospels for four different Christmas Masses today: Vigil Mass on the 24th, Night Mass (traditionally at midnight), the Dawn Mass (from which this gospel is drawn) then the Mass during the day.
I have put Jesus “the Christ” deliberately. The word Christ comes from Christus in Greek and Latin, translating the Hebrew word “Messiah”, all of which mean “Anointed”, signifying the One anointed by God’s Spirit to redeem the world. Christ is NOT a surname; Jesus is not the son of Mr. and Mrs. Christ. He is Jesus the Anointed (of God).
The western Christian churches celebrate this on December 25th, but some Orthodox churches adhere to the ancient Julian calendar and will celebrate it on January 7th next year (this is the result of those churches not accepting the otherwise universally adopted Gregorian calendar).
There is no statement in Scripture as to when this event took place. The passing mention of shepherds in their fields taking care of the sheep almost certainly means it was NOT in the middle of winter! December in the Holy Land can be quite brutally cold. Animals and humans tend both now and then to be huddled in shelter. The early Christian church chose this date as it was close to the winter solstice (December 22), a time in the Roman calendar when pagan festivities, often quite boisterous and boozy, celebrated the reincarnation of the sun which had been sinking into the horizon, and now began to rise once more. How much more appropriate to celebrate the birth of the Author of Life who will conquer the ultimate night, death itself.
Mary was instructed to call her child Jesus (Matthew 1:21). The New Testament is written in Greek, not the Aramaic that Jesus spoke. The closest Greek can come to the Aramaic name of Jesus, which is Y’shua (from which we get Joshua in English) is Iesus (Ιησούς) (pronounced Yaysous). There is no “sh” sound in Greek. So if you had called “Jesus” out to him, he would not have turned round. Call Y’shua and he would.
The prophecies concerning the Messiah stated that he would be born in the city of David, known as Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. This was the settlement to which God directed the prophet Samuel to find David, anoint him king and order him to proceed to conquer the enemies of God’s people and become their ruler. Mary and Joseph, however, could find no place to stay in the packed city of David. It seems that the House of David, namely all his descendants, including Joseph, was much bigger than the City of David. A summons to return to ancestral homes had been issued by the Roman emperor for a census to be taken. Everyone had to make sure they were in the right place at the right time. It should be noted that scholars have found no mention of such a census anywhere in the history of that time. Additionally, it is thought that Jesus’ birth took place around 4BCE, reckoning with various other clues to be found in Scripture. This was because of an early error by a monk called Dionysius Exiguus, who created the idea of Anno Domini (AD), now called by the politically correct CE (Common Era), dating our years from the birth of Christ.
Whew, that gets all that out of the way. All of it really has little to do with the event itself, the birth of our Savior. This child was clearly born into abject poverty, laid in a cattle feeding trough to keep him warm, and those who first acknowledged him to be Son of God were a bunch of penniless shepherds (called “thieves and robbers” in one dramatization of this scene), shaken by their witnessing a chorus of angels in the heavens proclaiming the birth of the Savior and who meekly followed their directions to the (traditional) stable. It could hardly be a more humble beginning. It might well have been a major element in the refusal of many to accept Jesus as the Messiah with such a background. The overwhelming expectation of the Messiah by the Jews at that time demanded that he be a new David who would conquer the Romans and restore the ancient Hebrew monarchy. This babe in a feeding trough was hardly that! Yet for us Christians this event remains the turning point in all history. Here was the One who would conquer sin and death, and indeed would proclaim not the restoration of the throne of David, but the ultimate revelation of the God of life and light, inviting us all into a divine life of eternal happiness and how to attain it.
Adoration of the Magi (detail), Ghirlandaio, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence, Italy.