Sunday, January 19, 2014

The birth of Christ - Stable and Signs,

We have all read many times that Our Lord was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, and we may have wondered exactly what these are. I post here an answer to some questions on the birth of Christ, which contains a number of very interesting observations from Pope Benedict.
I take advantage of the occasion to wish you and your loved ones a very happy and holy Christmas and a New Year filled with God’s blessings.


I have three questions on the birth of Christ.

1.    Why do we say he was born in a stable when the Bible doesn’t make any mention of this?


2.    What are swaddling clothes?


3.   And what exactly was the sign announced by the angel of a child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger?



The birth of Christ has a number of extraordinary aspects and your questions touch on some of these. The first is that the Son of God, the King of Kings, was born in such humble surroundings. Surely God in the flesh should have been born in a palace, a castle, or at least a dignified inn. And he should have been laid in a bed or a cot, not in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.


But God’s ways are not man’s ways, and God clearly wanted it to be that way in order to teach us something. From the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth we learn, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “To become a child in relation to God is the condition for entering the kingdom. For this, we must humble ourselves and become little” (CCC 526).
And from the poverty of the stable we learn that the possession of material wealth, with all its attending comforts, is not as important as the possession of God. Mary and Joseph, while poor in the material sense, were truly rich in having the very Son of God, the King of Kings, in their family.
A Stable?
Returning to your questions, why does Christian tradition, and even the Catechism, say that “Jesus was born in a humble stable” (CCC 525) when nowhere in the Scriptures do we find any explicit mention of it?
Indeed, St Matthew limits himself to saying that “Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea” and, significantly, when he tells of the arrival of the magi he says that “going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Mt 2:1, 10).
The reference to a house can be explained by the possibility that after the birth in a stable, Mary and Joseph were finally able to find a house in which they lived at least until the presentation of Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem forty days after his birth.
St Luke doesn’t mention a stable either but he does say that after Jesus’ birth Mary wrapped him in swaddling cloths “and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7).
Since a manger is a feeding trough for animals it has always been assumed that Jesus was born in some sort of stable.
The Manger
Pope Benedict XVI, in his book Jesus of Nazareth – The Infancy Narratives, comments on the significance of the manger:
“The manger is the place where animals find their food. But now, lying in the manger, is he who called himself the true bread come down from heaven, the true nourishment that we need in order to be fully ourselves. This is the food that gives us true life, eternal life. Thus the manger becomes a reference to the table of God, to which we are invited so as to receive the bread of God” (p. 68).
We might add that the name Bethlehem means precisely “house of bread”.
Presence of Animals
But why do we associate the birth of Christ with the actual presence of animals, in particular an ox and an ass?
Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledging that the Gospel makes no mention of animals, writes:
“But prayerful reflection, reading Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, filled this lacuna at a very early stage by pointing to Is 1:3: ‘The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people does not understand” (ibid., p. 69).
Swaddling Cloths
And what are swaddling cloths?
In ancient times, as often seen in icons of the nativity scene, the newborn child was customarily wrapped round and round with a narrow band of cloth like a mummy. It was thought this would help the limbs to grow straight.
Pope Benedict comments:
“The child stiffly wrapped in bandages is seen as prefiguring the hour of his death: from the outset, he is the sacrificial victim… The manger, then, was seen as a kind of altar” (ibid., p. 68).
The swaddling cloths can be seen too as a reference to Christ’s kingship and his descent from King Solomon, the son of King David. Solomon, in the book of Wisdom, writes: “I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all mankind one entrance into life, and a common departure” (Wis 7:4-6).
A Sign
Finally, why did the angel say to the shepherds, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12).
Certainly a baby lying in a manger would be a sign, since this was most uncommon.
But probably, since the angel mentioned the swaddling cloths specifically, this too must have been part of the sign.
So there is much symbolism and much to be learned from these simple aspects of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

Can You Spot Yourself at the Manger

 Scripture Luke 2:12

 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

Comment: Can You Spot Yourself at the Manger

Of all the scripture passages that resist interpretation, the infancy narratives must lead the charge.

Somehow we manage to sidestep addressing why the obligatory donkey, ox and camels creep into the scene while they remain obstinately absent from the Gospels accounts. 

As for the number of wise ones, the place of birth and questions of whether there was any flight to Egypt, these are all swept aside as we decide where to place the drummer boy.

Yet maybe there is an invitation here to embrace the beauty and simplicity of the nativity scene. 


Which of the characters depicts us as we prepare for Christmas?

Are you a Joseph, feeling the weight of responsibility? 
    Perhaps you are bewildered by the way events have changed so dramatically during the year. Are you looking for security for those you serve, yet experiencing knock backs and closed doors? Have you settled for something other than what you hoped for despite good planning?

Do you feel like the humble donkey? 
    Have you patiently carried the precious gift of God’s community on a long journey this year? Have you finally arrived, feeling worn out yet at the same time fulfilled, knowing that soon your efforts will be rewarded? Maybe you are a bit like the ox, and circumstances have been thrust upon you.

Suddenly your community has encountered something holy at a time and in a way you could never have anticipated. 

Has it been a year of asking searching questions of yourself and others?

Like the wise ones, have you found yourself on a journey of discovery, searching for enlightenment? 
    Perhaps, at times you have taken the wrong advice, as when the wise ones turned to King Herod. Are you eager to share your gifts with the Lord? The innkeeper and Herod are both notably absent from the nativity scene.

Like the innkeeper, have we needed to shut the door, overcome by the amount of need out there? 
    Or have we shunted new initiatives into some back room, only to have them blossom without any real effort from ourselves? Have we locked Jesus away fearful of what he is calling to birth in our own heart? With King Herod, have we felt threatened by something new? Have we been guilty of stifling a fledgling dream because we perceive it may undermine our own agenda?

Have we confused the truth seekers, the wise ones, giving them mixed messages out of our own insecurity?

Are we a shepherd, transfixed with the wonder of what is happening in our midst? 
    Do we feel unworthy of all the attention or clumsy in our efforts to serve?

Or perhaps we are an angel, confidently sharing the Good News to all that we meet.

And then there is the Mary in us, patiently awaiting the birth of Christ who has already found a home in our heart. 
    Are we eager to bring forth the Word to our needy world, despite the darkness of our surrounds, the perceived inappropriateness of the setting? Do we live in joyful expectation, quietly confident that God’s promise will be fulfilled?

Perhaps we are a little of all these characters.
The star beckons, what will we find on our arrival?

Source: 11 December 2012 | Adult Faith News - Fr John Frauenfelder