Alternate readings: Luke 2:15-20; John 1:1-5, 9-14

Luke 2:1-14

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!"

Meditation: Why was the Messiah, the long promised Savior from the royal house of David, born in obscurity and lowliness in a little town of Bethlehem? In the Roman empire censuses were taken every fourteen years for assessing taxation and ascertaining who were eligible for compulsory military service. Since Mary and Joseph were both from the line of King David, they had to travel eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the hometown of David and his ancestors. This was a most inconvenient time and a physical ordeal for Mary since her baby was due any day now! And as luck would have it, Bethlehem was overcrowded. They had to settle for the most primitive of accommodations - an cave in the hillside which was used as a stall for animals.

Why would the Messiah choose to be born in such pitiable conditions and in total obscurity? God's ways are different from our ways. He, the Most Exalted One, condescends for the sake of the lowly and the oppressed. The Lord descended not in pomp and majesty befitting a King, but in meekness and lowliness to show us the way of perfect love. The only room used as a throne for Jesus was the cross he came to bear for our sins. In Jesus lowly birth we see the foreshadowing of the greatest sacrifice God would make for our sake when his only begotten Son willingly embraced the crown of thorns and death on the cross for our salvation.

Jesus' birth in Bethlehem fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would descend from David and be born in David's city, Bethlehem (Isaiah 9:6-7, 11:1-2; Micah 5:2-4). Ambrose, the 4th century bishop of Milan, in his commentary on this passage from Luke explains why Christ became a humble child for our sake.

He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar. He was on earth that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. "He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you might be rich." Therefore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord's weakness is our virtue. He chose to lack for himself, that he may abound for all. The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins. Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to your sufferings because I was redeemed than I do to works for which I was created... You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven. You hear the cries of an infant, but you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master' crib. [Exposition of the Gospel of Luke]

Why did the angels announce the birth of the new-born King of Israel to shepherds, rather than to the Jewish populace at large, or to the leaders of Israel? God chose to come in lowliness to show his loving-kindness and power to those who were humble of heart and ready to receive him. Gregory the Great in his Christmas sermon explains the significance of the angels hymn of glory and message to the shepherds:

Before the Redeemer was born in the flesh, there was discord between us and the angels, from whose brightness and holy perfection we were separated, in punishment first of original sin and then because of our daily offenses. Because through sin we had become strangers to God, the angels as God's subjects cut us off from their fellowship. But since we have now acknowledged our King, the angels receive us as fellow citizens. Because the King of heaven has taken unto himself the flesh of our earth, the angels from their heavenly heights no longer look down upon our infirmity. Now they are at peace with us, putting away the remembrance of the ancient discord. Now they honor us as friends, whom before they considered to be weak and despised. [Homilies on the Gospels 8.2.60]

We also join with the angelic choirs of heaven when we glorify God and give him thanks for the gift of his Son who became our redeemer.

Why was it necessary that God's only begotten Son, the Word of God, become flesh (cf. John 1)? The Word became flesh for us in order to save us by reconciling us with God our Father. God loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). The Father sent his Son as the Savior of the world (1 John 4:14). The Word appeared to take away sins (1 John 3:5). The Word became flesh that we might know and experience the love of God. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9). For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

There is a great paradox in the mystery of the Incarnation, the Son of God taking on human flesh that we might be clothed in his divinity. Scripture says "he became poor that we might become rich" (2 Corinthians 8:9) - rich not in material things which pass away, but rich in the things that last - eternal life and happiness with the Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The Incarnation is the mystery of this wonderful exchange: "O marvelous exchange! Man's Creator has become man, born of the Virgin. We have been made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity." (Antiphon I of Evening Prayer for January 1st)

Lord our God, with the birth of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, your glory breaks on the world. As we celebrate his first coming, give us a foretaste of the joy that you will grant us when the fullness of his glory has filled the earth.

Psalm 96:1-3,11-13

1 O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth!
2 Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy
13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.

Daily Quote from the Early Church Fathers: All great feasts have their origin in Jesus' nativity, by John Chrysostom, 547-407 A.D.

"A feast day is about to arrive, and it is the most holy and awesome of all feasts. It would be no mistake to call it the chief and mother of all holy days. What feast is that? It is the day of Christ's birth in the flesh. It is from this day that the feasts of the Theophany, the sacred Pasch [Passover], the Ascension and Pentecost had their source and foundation. Had Christ not been born in the flesh, he would not have been baptized, which is the theophany or manifestation. Nor would he have been crucified, which is the Pasch [Passover]. Nor would he have sent down the Spirit, which is Pentecost. Therefore, just as different rivers arise from a single source, these other feasts have their beginnings in the birth of Christ." (excerpt from ON THE INCOMPREHENSIBLE NATURE OF GOD 6.23-24)