Seven hundred and ninety-three years ago, on the feast of Christmas 1223, Francis, the poor man of Assisi with the help of Giovanni Velita, Lord of Greccio and count of Celano, created the first crib outside the little town of Greccio, in Italy. Today, every church and many homes have a nativity scene. What is so fascinating about this nativity scene? Mary, Joseph and the infant are surrounded by the ox, the donkey, the sheep and the shepherds.
The figures in the crib were chosen carefully. The ox and the donkey come from the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows its master, the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” The sheep and shepherds come from Ezekiel, “they were scattered because there was no shepherd.” Popular legend augmented the scene over the centuries; it is said that at midnight on Christmas Eve the animals have the gift of speech bestowed, because they gave the infant Jesus His first shelter. Cattle are said to bow to the East on this night, and bees it is said hum the 100th Psalm in their hives, “Praise the Lord all the earth, serve the Lord with gladness, come into his presence singing for joy.” You can check that out on your way home!
There is something very special about the atmosphere of this holy night. No matter how busy we have been over the last few days preparing for Christmas, Midnight Mass always manages to calm our attitude and open our hearts in a unique moment of wonder and simplicity. There is no other moment in the year like this one. On this holy night the beautiful liturgy we celebrate announces the Saviour’s birth in these words from the Gospel. “An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds and the glory of the Lord shone around them.”
The shepherds were the first to see this Christmas mystery, because they were among the last, the outcast, the inconvenient. This is highly significant. These shepherds are part of the revelation of God in this mystery of the Nativity. They are not just there as a pretty background because a few sheep look good in the crib. Nothing is in the crib by accident. No, it was to them God first revealed his Christmas mystery, just as it was to Mary Magdalene that he first revealed his Resurrection. Why? Because God always sees to the heart. He sees things the way they really are and he sees us for who we really are. We cannot hide from God.
The nativity scene in St Luke and the legends which have grown up around it are deadly serious in their message to us this night. We live in a world where people drive trucks into Christmas markets, where an ambassador is gunned down in cold blood in front of his wife, where refugees and migrants are pulled out of the Mediterranean, sometimes living, sometimes not. How should we respond? By building walls and saying, not my problem? Well, the mystery we celebrate this night says very differently. In the words of Pope Francis, “In a world which all too often is merciless to the sinner and lenient to the sin, we are called to cultivate a strong sense of justice. In a world of indifference which not infrequently turns cruel, we are called instead to be people filled with empathy, compassion and mercy.”
Long before Pope Francis, Pope Leo the great wrote on this night “O Christian be aware of your nobility, it is God’s own nature that you share.” Where has our nobility gone? What you have in the Christmas story is a terrible desire on God’s part to be with us. Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply another philosopher or guru; he is not just another holy man with another set of teachings. He is the meaning of life and history who has pitched his tent in our midst and his flesh is the hinge of salvation. He is God and nothing can ever be the same after that.
The shepherds were the first to see this mystery because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, as we are keeping watch this night. As fellow pilgrims here this night let us pause before the Child of Bethlehem in silence and ponder the meaning of this mystery, for whatever language we speak as we contemplate the Christ child lying in the manger, God speaks only one language and that language is the language of love. Anyone who understands this language can understand this mystery we celebrate