It’s Christmas, and today we hear one of the most familiar passages in the Gospel, the nativity scene in Bethlehem. Is there anything that we can learn out of such a familiar text? Yes, very much indeed. For example, have you ever wondered: what are swaddling clothes anyways? ‘Mary wrapped her Son in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.’
When I was young I thought swaddling clothes were just dirty pajamas, but in fact swaddling refers to an ancient custom. They would use tightly bound cloths to wrap-in an infants’ arms and legs to their bodies (they thought this was important for promoting proper posture.) This practice was called “swaddling.” Was it cruel to confine the babies like this? No, the babies liked this. It reminded them of their many months, warm and snug, within their mothers’ wombs. Another thing I’ve learned since the time I was a kid was what a manger really was. A manger is not a stable. It’s a feeding trough. Mary wrapped Jesus up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a feeding trough.
Even if you knew all that stuff before, there remains the question of why St. Luke included these details in his Gospel. Why is it important? Not only does it show the poverty and humility of the Christ, it also points to Jesus’ future. This is not the last time that His mother would wrap Him in tight cloths and lay His body down. And baby Jesus is laid in a feeding trough because when He is grown He will say to His disciples, as you will her Him say to you here, “Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you.” The swaddling cloths point to Jesus burial cloth, and laying in the manger points to His Eucharist, where which He offers us His whole self, His body, blood, soul, and divinity as food.
So you see, whether we are a talking about the Sacred Scriptures, prayer, the sacraments, the teachings of Christ’s Bride (our Mother, the Church,) our Catholic faith is not a half-cut orange whose richness you can drain out with one or two squeezes and then toss away. A lifetime of discovery will not exhaust what all that our Catholic Faith contains.
When I was a kid I might have looked at this manger scene and though that some people were missing. “Where are the Magi, the wise men (or astrologers) from the East?” They’re over there, hiding among the poinsettias. Maybe they are journeying through the forests, or maybe they haven’t even left home yet, but one thing we do know is that they were not there on Christmas night. When they arrive in Jerusalem they ask King Herod, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Days, weeks, or even months have passed since Christmas, and when they do arrive in Bethlehem they do not find Jesus, Mary and Joseph living in a stable or a cave, but in a house.
So who was there that first Christmas night? The shepherds were there. The angel said to them in the fields, ‘I declare to you news of great joy! A savior who is Christ and Lord is born for you in Bethlehem. You will find Him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” The shepherds look at each other and say, “Hey, we’ve gotta check this out.” Who wouldn’t turn out for that first Christmas after an angelic invitation like that?
The shepherds came to the stable and find the infant Christ just as the angel described. From there, Luke’s Gospel says, they returned rejoicing and spread the word about what had happened to all. The shepherds probably knew everybody from Bethlehem, since they were locals (“from that region”) and within walking distance from the stable.
Yet there is a question which I would like us to consider, a question which the Gospels do not answer, and it is this: After that first Christmas, did the shepherds ever come back to visit the Holy Family again? I doubt you could find two people more friendly and welcoming than Joseph and Mary, so I sure that any guest was welcome in their home, but did the shepherds ever take the opportunity to visit them again? The Magi had to travel hundreds of miles just to see Jesus once, but the shepherds were only a short distance away.
Did the shepherds ever get to know Mary and Joseph better, these two holy saints of God? Did they ever take time come back to adore Jesus, to consider what the birth of this Child meant for their lives, and to praise and thank God for all the blessings they had received? If they had merely spent a single hour each week in the Christ child’s presence, imagine what difference it would have made for their relationships, their work, and their lives in general? We don’t know whether the shepherds ever came back again after that first Christmas, but if they didn’t, then they were foolish and they really missed out.
This Christmas Jesus Christ invites you come back and see Him again, to visit this house of Joseph and Mary, where He is always present to be adored. He wants to bless you through His saints, His teachings, His sacraments, and His Real Presence here, the whole year round. You may be receiving many gifts this Christmas, but make sure that you do not return this one.