The final stage of the Ten Ten Year of Pilgrimage brings us to a quiet stable in Bethlehem and a manger, full of hay. In the mind of a child, this may be somewhat magical, but I wonder what Mary and Joseph’s thoughts were as they contemplated bringing a child into the world in such a place. Childbirth and manure aren’t such a happy combination!
Contemporary traditions, Santa Claus movies and supermarket Christmas advertisements sometimes cloud the true meaning of Christmas – but it might surprise you to know that a traditional Christmas carol or a depiction on a Christmas card might also not be the best place to find out the ‘truth’ about the first Christmas experience. Let’s take a closer look …
We know what happened during the first Christmas because the Gospels of St Matthew and St Luke tell the story. It’s interesting to note that, while the key details of the story – the Holy Family and the location of Bethlehem – are the same in both accounts, there are some significant differences. More than that, there are some things that we take as Gospel truth, that don’t appear in either.
The Nativity According to St Matthew
In St Matthew’s Gospel the visit of the Magi is recorded, including the three gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, but there is no mention of the number of wise men. Perhaps the writer of the carol ‘We Three Kings’ assumed there were three because of the number of gifts. They are actually referred to as ‘Magi’ and ‘wise men’, not ‘Kings’. However, the ‘star of wonder, star of night, star of royal beauty bright’ followed by the Magi did indicate that the King of the Jews had been born.
The Nativity According to St Luke
St Luke’s Gospel offers the reader the version of the story that includes a stable and a manger, shepherds and angels who sing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy His favour.”
St Luke doesn’t shed light on Mary and Joseph’s mode of transport to the stable in Bethlehem, nor is it included in St Matthew’s version. That poor little donkey on the dusty road is probably somebody’s best guess of how a heavily pregnant lady could get from Nazareth to Bethlehem in one piece!
The First Nativity Scene Replica
St Francis of Assisi saw both the importance and the appeal of the circumstances of Jesus’s birth. As recorded by the Franciscan Friar, Thomas of Celano, the first crib scene came about when St. Francis sent word to his friend Giovanni:
For St Francis, a woodland cave was the location of choice. The manger was hewn in the rock and the image of a child placed there. A real, live ox and ass accompanied the child, but no other figures were included. In the evening, villagers from the surrounding areas processed with torches, to encounter the scene. Imagine the impact this had on the onlookers as they contemplated the poverty and difficulty of the Christ-child’s first days on earth.
Away in a Manger
The lyrics from the children’s carol ‘Away in a Manger’, tell of a child who doesn’t make a fuss: ‘but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.’ Perhaps the composer felt that children should be seen and not heard and wanted to portray this as divine? Although Jesus was fully divine, we also believe that He was fully human, but without sin. Of course, crying isn’t a sin. We know that Jesus wept at the death of His friend Lazarus (John 11: 35), so the likelihood that He cried to communicate hunger or discomfort to His parents just like any other child is pretty certain. This is very much part of Catholic incarnational theology!
The Feeding Trough in the House of Bread
What do you like to eat at Christmas? The mince pies, wine and roast turkey dinner are certainly a feast fit for a King. So too, the arrival of Jesus into the world gives us something to chew on!
‘Bethlehem’ literally means ‘House of Bread’ and the manger that Jesus was laid in, was where the food for animals was placed. Jesus said of Himself,
The Gospels make it clear: He is food! Not only did Jesus come to be with us, but He also gave Himself completely so that we can have a share in His life now and forever.
It’s no accident that our crib scenes are often found under the altars of churches. Not simply a convenient place for easy viewing, but a reminder that the Christ child, who is bread for a hungry world, feeds us in the Eucharist. The child in the manger grew up to be the man who willingly surrendered to death on a cross and can today be received under the appearance of bread (and wine) in Catholic churches all over the world.
Encountering the Nativity Scene this Christmas
This Christmas, when you encounter a crib scene, whether it be in a Church, a shopping centre display or on a Christmas card, stop for a moment. Immerse yourself in the joyful hope of Christmas: that Christ can be found in the most disorganised, chaotic and painful places of our lives and that He chooses to be there. He is content with an imperfect, messy celebration of Christmas and He is full of love for tired teachers and a hurting world.
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Our Pilgrimage to the Manger: Be Ready!
Our Pilgrimage to the Manger is a final three week mini-series in our Ten Ten Year of Pilgrimage, an Advent time of getting ready for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas and in the future. This week, a true-life story inspires children to be ready by following Jesus’ teaching, looking out for others, and paying attention in prayer.
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