RETURN TO BETHLEHEM
In between greeting cards and gifts, dinners and noise, almost hidden by lights, trees and stars, it’s still possible to glimpse in the center of the Christmas festivities «a child laid in a manger». The same thing happens in the story of Bethlehem. There are lights, angels, and songs, but the heart of that grandiose scene is occupied by a child in a manger.
The Gospel writer tells of the birth of the Messiah with surprising restraint. For Mary «the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her son». Not one word more. What really seems interesting to the Gospel writer is how the child is welcomed. While in Bethlehem «there was no room» not even in the inn; in Mary he finds a touching welcome. The mother has no means, but she has heart: «She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger».
The reader can’t continue the story without expressing a first surprise: in this child God is incarnate? We would never have imagined it so. We think about a majestic and almighty God, and this God presents Self in the fragility of a weak and defenseless child.
We imagine God great and far away, and this God is offered to us in the tenderness of a newborn. How to be afraid of this God? Teresa of Liseux, declared a doctor of the church in 1997, says it thus: «I can’t fear a God who has been made so small for me… I love this God!».
The story offers a key to get close to the mystery of that God. Luke insists up to three times on the importance of the «manger». It’s like an obsession. Mary lays him in a manger. The shepherds are given no other sign: they’ll find him in a manger. Effectively, in the manger they meet him when they get to Bethlehem. The manger is the first place on earth where that God made child rests. That manger is the sign for recognizing him, the place where we must meet him. What’s hidden behind that enigma?
Luke is alluding to some words of the prophet Isaiah where God complains thus: «The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; Israel does not know me, my people do not understand» (Is 1,3). You don’t have to seek God in what’s admirable and marvelous, but in the ordinary and daily things. You don’t have to investigate the great, but comb the small.
The shepherds show us where to look for the mystery of Christmas: «Let us go to Bethlehem». Let’s change our idea of God. Let’s do a rereading of our Christianity. Let’s return to the beginning and discover a God who is near and poor. Let’s welcome God’s tenderness. For the Christian, to celebrate Christmas is to «return to Bethlehem».
Jose Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf