Luke’s Gospel has been described as the most beautiful book ever written. One reason for that description is its infancy narrative, with its familiar biblical language, attractive characters and subtle theology. Deliberately imitating the style of the Old Testament historical books, Luke portrays the birth of Jesus as the meeting of heaven and earth. This event fulfills Israel’s hopes for the Davidic Messiah and has lasting significance for all peoples.
The Lukan birth narrative read at Midnight Mass on Christmas explains how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem (the city of David), describes the humble circumstances of his birth and recounts the angelic proclamation to shepherds about the significance of Jesus’ birth. In narrating how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Luke shows how heaven met earth in the child Jesus.
On the surface Luke’s birth narrative can seem placid, charming and even romantic. But beneath the soothing surface we can glimpse some harsh political and social realities. The reason why Jesus came to born in Bethlehem was an imperial decree ordering a census of all the peoples subject to the Roman empire. Because there was no room in the usual lodging places, the child was born in a cave or perhaps part of a house reserved for animals. The newborn was placed in a trough from which animals ate. The first human witnesses to the child were shepherds, regarded in some religious circles as liars and social outcasts.
At the same time, Jesus is no ordinary child. He is a firstborn son, with traditional rights and privileges. Angels attend his birth, and one identifies him as the “Messiah and Lord” born in David’s own city. His birth is an occasion for joy on earth and for giving glory to God. The language in which the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth may reflect a parody on claims made about the emperor Augustus. The child Jesus (not Augustus) is Lord and Savior, and his birth is the real “good news” to be celebrated. In these circumstances heaven met earth when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
The messianic prophecy from Isaiah 9 looks forward with joy to the appearance of a descendant of David who will defeat the enemies of God’s people and rule them with justice. A new event in salvation history demands a “new song,” and Psalm 96 befits the celebration of Jesus’ birth especially with its call to “let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice.”
The reading from Titus 2 places the birth of Jesus in its wider theological context. It describes Jesus as the manifestation of God’s favor and saving power, insists that we reject godless ways and live “temperately, justly and devoutly,” looks forward to the even more glorious Second Coming of Christ and reminds us of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ passion and death in the story of our salvation. In Jesus the Word of God, heaven still meets earth.
• Imagine yourself as one of the shepherds. What do you see? What do you hear? How do you react?
• What elements in Jesus’ birth prepare for his ministry as an adult, according to Luke?
• Where do you find joy at Christmas? What constitutes a meaningful celebration of Christmas for you?