Angels Garlanding the Infant Jesus, Ann Macbeth n.d., Private Collection.
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While they were there 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.
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And what follows, in the majestic language of the King James, Authorized, Version is this: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, “Fear not: for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord, And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will towards all.“ It is a scene so familiar to us all that we can all virtually quote that translation from heart. It occurs in countless Christmas carols and cards. It is almost in our DNA! And it springs from the greatest event in human history, when Almighty God, in the form of a helpless babe, entered our fractured, tortured, painful human history to lift us up, to give us dignity, hope, strength and direction, and to remain with us forever. That helpless child is the hope of the ages, the sign and power of God’s all-embracing love for all of us, without exception. We are all invited into that scene of both poverty and unlimited richness. Each of us is welcomed, sins, history, failures, greatness, love, all of us, for God’s love is limitless, infinite and ever welcoming. All of us, just as the angel said.
Shepherds were the first to hear this universal message. Shepherds were not considered to be the noblest members of society back then, In fact they were generally considered to be pretty well dregs of Hebrew society at that time. Yet it was to these that the news of Jesus’ birth was first given. Note that the second group to whom this news was delivered were the Wise Men, possibly three (the actual number is not given in the gospel) as told in Matthew’s gospel. They, on the other hand, would be considered to be near the top of the social ladder. So in the very first days of the Savior’s life, the top and bottom of society were summoned to the manger, one group by a chorus of angels, the other by a miraculous star. And it seems, just to make sure we understand what the situation was, this was the Savior for all people, rich, poor, educated and without, local and from far away. No exceptions, no-one given preference. Before God we are all equal, judged on what we have made of our lives with the gifts given us by the Almighty. And Jesus’ whole mission, once he came to the knowledge of who and what he was, was to show us how we might do that to the best of our ability, and how we might expect help from him throughout our lives. Then I wondered about the ox and ass, always assigned to the stable but not mentioned in any gospel. Well, look at this short passage from the prophet Isaiah:
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master’s crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand. Isaiah 1:3.
It comes from an insight made by the Christian teacher Origen in the second century, who knew, of course, how the story would end in Jesus’ rejection by the people of Israel, yet the humble animals of the farm recognized him without difficulty. But we do and the angelic Alleluia! should be, and is, our response.
The Mystical Nativity, Botticelli 1501, The National Gallery, London, UK.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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