Christmas Morning 2012 – The Gift That Keeps on Giving
As you probably know, Pope Benedict, in his new book, wrote that there were no animals in the Bethlehem stable when Jesus was born.  Well how did these animals end up in our nativity scenes? And what about the angels in the air, the magi or the shepherds in this Christmas morning gospel? What the pope did was prompt a question about the way we read scripture.
For example, the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke deal with the nativity in different ways. Luke’s gospel, the one we read this morning, refers to a census called by Caesar Augustus while Quirinius was governor in Syria. Scholars say Luke did this for two reasons. He believed Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth. So, he had to get them to Bethlehem somehow. The book of Micah said the savior would come from Bethlehem.
The problem is this: Quirinius was governor in Syria in the year 6 CE after Jesus was born. So, the census could not have taken place as Luke claims.  We also know this gospel was written between the years 85 and 95 after the destruction of the Temple. The census of Quirinius, which was held in the year 6 CE, resulted in the rebellion of Judas the Galilean which started the Zealot movement which led to the Jewish revolt against Rome which ended with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70. The people reading this gospel needed a good story to lift them up out of their despair and hopelessness.
Scripture scholarship has made it possible for us to read the bible through new lenses. The biblical texts are full of stories and testimonies of human beings like you and me. The bible is hardly an accurate book of Middle East history. So while these inconsistencies are interesting they are not a problem for us. The Vatican Two Council taught us that any interpretation of sacred scripture should carefully investigate what meaning the writers intended. (Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation 3, 12)
The manger, the crib, Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, magi and the star in the sky, and the animals are all part of the story we love to tell at this time of year. We tell it not only to counter what seems to be, more and more, a frenzied consumer oriented holiday but to remind ourselves of the often heard cliché “the real meaning of Christmas.”
There are different meanings. For some it is about redemption; that God sent God’s son to save us from damnation. For others, the incarnation is less about redemption and more about God’s gift of creation. The birth of Jesus breaks the barriers between heaven and earth and opens up for us the realization that we are part of a much larger, longer story. It is a story that starts with the Christ of the universe and continues with us as players, actors in God’s creative process. 
The shepherds knew they were in the right place when they found the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. And although not mentioned, the animals are important. We read in Isaiah 1:3 God’s complaint against Israel. “The ox knows its owner and the donkey knows the manger of the Lord but Israel has not known me nor understood me.” The manger then is a symbol. When the shepherds find the babe in it, and then praise God, it is a way of saying the people of God finally have recognized the One who is to come. 
Like the shepherds and the angels, like Mary and Joseph, like Elizabeth and her skeptical husband Zechariah — all those characters in the drama — we too have been summoned to adore the babe, to walk with him as he grows up, to deal with the inequities and difficulties in life as he did, to bring hope to those who despair and moments of joy for everyone. That is the gift you and I unwrap this Christmas morning. Peace on earth, good will to all.
1 Ratzinger, Joseph. Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (NY: Random House) 2012
2 Byrne, Brendan. The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke’s Gospel. (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 2000, 31-33.
3 Bacik, James. Excerpted from Reflections, December 2012
4 Brown, Raymond. An Adult Christ at Christmas (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press) 1978 pp 15-20.