Even in a country like Ireland where the story of the Nativity is well known, the humble narrative of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem still has the power to captivate the imagination.
All but the most jaded and cynical of post-Catholics surely cannot find themselves unmoved at the thought of the Virgin Mary hearing the message of the angel that she was to be the Mother of God. Or the bewildered Joseph finding out that the girl of his dreams was mysteriously pregnant.
And yet, the Holy Family set out with great trust from their own friends and neighbours in Nazareth, St Joseph leading his heavily pregnant wife and the unborn Jesus to the town of David – Bethlehem.
The Hebrew Scriptures had foretold that Bethlehem, although “the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel” (Micah 5:2).
Perhaps the reason why the poor and the vulnerable are historically the first to embrace the Gospel is because the seeming smallness of it resonates powerfully with the meek of the earth. Those who were expecting a Messiah to come down from Heaven in a chariot of gold with his armies at his side must’ve been disappointed by the Christ-child laid in a manger in a dingy stable.
And yet the earthy vulnerability of it speaks evocatively of the love of God made manifest in the Incarnation. God became man and wandered the earth gathering the people to himself.
St Augustine reflects it beautifully when he writes that “the Maker of man became Man that he, Ruler of the stars, might be nourished at the breast; that he, the Bread, might be hungry; that he, the Fountain, might thirst; that he, the Light, might sleep; that he, the Way, might be wearied by the journey; that he, the Truth, might be accused by false witnesses; that he, the Judge of the living and the dead, might be brought to trial by a mortal judge; that he, Justice, might be condemned by the unjust; that he, the Teacher, might be scourged with whips; that he, the Vine, might be crowned with thorns; that he, the Foundation, might be suspended upon a cross; that Strength might be weakened; that he who makes well might be wounded; that Life might die”.
Christmas, the Incarnation, is the feastday of a God who made himself small so that he might call all women and men to the greatness that is life in him. It is a season to reflect on this beautiful gift – a gift of salvation and eternal life brought through the vulnerability of a defenceless little baby. Whether in the corner of a supermarket, a country church or a Roman basilica – this is the call of the manger.