And yet, the birth of Christ is shrouded in secrecy, and hidden from view under the layers of history. The Gospels give many details regarding the date: who was Roman emperor, and who were the local rulers at the time; they also specify the village of Bethlehem, David’s ancestral hometown a few miles from Jerusalem. Nevertheless, historians are still not sure of the exact year, or month.
Jesus was born during the time of a census that required Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Even though he grew up in Nazareth, very few people knew or remembered that he wasn’t actually born in Nazareth.
And most importantly, throughout this time of moving back and forth, during the betrothal before they lived together, the mysterious details regarding Mary’s pregnancy were kept secret.
It would only be later, after his death and resurrection, as the Gospel was being proclaimed and written down, that the details surrounding his birth would be recalled by the few people left alive, who were there, most especially his mother Mary.
It is still to her that we must go, in order to find out about Christ’s birth. As we meditate on the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, it is Mary who reminds us of the Angel, who appeared not only to herself and Joseph, but also to Zechariah the father of John the Baptist, and the shepherds in the field. It is Mary who reminds us of the simple conditions of the stable, because there was no room at the inn. And Mary recounts how even in those circumstances, certain chosen people found out, and had to come see for themselves: not only shepherds from the nearby fields, but even wise men led from distant countries by a star.
Once they come to the place where he was placed in the manger, it is again Mary who shows them the child.
And even though these individuals were able to find and adore Christ, King Herod the Great could no locate him despite all the information at his disposal, and an intelligence service in his government. Christ is at once revealed to those who are humble, and hidden from those who are haughty.
What was true 2013 years ago, remains true today. Christmas, the “Mass of Christ’s birth,” remains a deeply hidden event, shrouded in secrecy except for those to whom it is revealed by an angel, or a star. We come to Bethlehem not merely by our own power or through our efforts, but rather in the revelation we have received through faith.
Christmas remains elusive, except for those who draw to Mary, and to the Church of which she is the perfect image. It is the Church, in imitation of Mary, which shows Christ to us, and presents him to the world. It is by means of the Church, that the memory of his birth is kept alive, and its meaning explained; and it is within the Church, that the joy of that event is truly celebrated.
St. Leo the Great, in one of his Christmas sermons from the 5th century, calls upon the Church to rejoice with spiritual joy, because in the fullness of time there has dawned for us this new day in which “the Son of God enters these lower parts of the world, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting His Father's glory, begotten in a new order, by a new nativity.
“Being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained. Abiding before all time, He began to be in time. Lord of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took upon Himself the form of a servant. Being God who cannot suffer, He did not disdain to be man that can suffer; and immortal as He is, to subject Himself to the laws of death.
“By a new nativity He was begotten, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, without paternal desire, without injury to the mother's chastity. For when God was born in the flesh, a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore, and a Virgin she remained.”
In adoring the birth of our Savior, we find we are celebrating also the beginning of our own life. For the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christians, who through baptism are reborn to his divine life.
Let us then keep ourselves pure for the celebration of this feast, having undertaken the penance and prayer of Advent. Let us keep ourselves firm in faith, humble of heart, undistracted by false sentimentality and ugly worldliness.
In the heart of the Church let us adore the Savior, professing with great reverence the words of the Creed. And in our hearts let us create the true and hidden beauty of Bethlehem, free of pretense, ready to welcome our Eucharistic Lord, who nourishes us even as he is nourished by the hospitality of our soul.
Fr. Glen Mullan