How can I find the deeper meaning of Christmas?

Photo: Shutterstock Photo: Shutterstock

Q: Now that my children are all grown, Christmas doesn’t mean that much to me. How can I find a new appreciation for the holidays?

A: Your question makes me think of the old Glen Campbell song “Christmas Is for Children.” But in reality, the birth of Jesus Christ is a mystery of faith that invites mature adult reflection. 

I invite you to pray over Luke 2:1–7, which is part of the Gospel reading for Christmas Mass During the Night. Pay attention to the subtle details, which communicate important and challenging realities, but which we often overlook. St. John Chrysostom described the Gospel as being like a magical pool in which a child can play or an elephant can swim. So let’s plumb the depths of Luke’s Nativity passage to reflect on just a few important messages for all of us who aspire to be mature disciples.

First, the birth of Jesus is not an isolated event in the Judean hills. It is a defining event for the whole world, affecting all levels of our society, not just our religious sentiments. This message is conveyed by situating the birth of Jesus in the context of Caesar Augustus’ reign. What happens in Bethlehem will reach Rome and everything in between. 

We cannot compartmentalize Jesus Christ. Our Lord desires his reign to extend to every part of our lives, including our social, political, cultural and economic interactions.

Second, we are told that there was no place for them in the inn. The Greek word kataluma actually doesn’t mean “inn,” but rather “place of hospitality.” Our Lord was born in the cold darkness of a stable, not because there were no available rooms, but because the people did not welcome the Holy Family with compassion and hospitality. This passage is more about rejection, disconnection and disinterest in the plight of others than it is about a lack of vacancy. 

This passage invites us to reflect on the many ways we are indifferent to the suffering of others in our world, closing our hearts and our doors to those in need, even as the people of Bethlehem did to the Holy Family that cold night.

Third, we are told that Mary gave birth to “her son the Firstborn” and “wrapped him in swaddling clothes.” It is important we not read this passage as saying “her firstborn son.” The grammatical structure in Greek is quite clear: “her son the Firstborn.” That’s because “Firstborn” was a title of faith used initially to describe the Hebrew people (see Exodus 4:22 and Jeremiah 31:9) and subsequently to assert Jesus’ divinity. (see Colossians 1:15, 18, Hebrews 1:5-6, Revelation 1:4-5) To call Jesus the “Firstborn” is to acknowledge his divinity. 

The swaddling clothes are important precisely because they are an everyday reality for all newborns. They are a statement of Jesus’ humanity. When put together, the “Firstborn” who is “wrapped in swaddling clothes” is Luke’s way of poetically communicating the incarnation of Jesus Christ, who is true God and true man. To gaze upon the face of Jesus is to see the fullness of God. We will gaze upon this face not only in Bethlehem, but on Calvary as well. 

In his birth, life, ministry, death and resurrection, Jesus reveals to us the true person of God. As disciples, we will follow his lead so that we are godly people who allow our Lord to continue his ministry through us in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Lastly, we are told that Mary laid him in a manger. This detail is crucial because it will be repeated by the angels when the good news of Jesus’ birth is announced to the shepherds. (see Luke 2:12) The manger is the place where the flocks are fed. Jesus offers himself as food for the flock. That’s us! Jesus offers himself to us at every Mass in the Eucharist, where the altar becomes our manger. Luke has told us where to find the Lord today — in the Eucharist. 

I hope these insights help you to experience Advent and Christmas as a mature disciple who encounters our Lord in every Christ’s Mass.

Read the Spanish version of this column.

Northwest Catholic - December 2019

Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg

Daniel Mueggenborg is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Seattle. Send your questions to editor@seattlearch.org.