We are so used to the Christmas accounts in the Bible, and portrayed in numerous other ways, that it is easy to forget how astonishing that first Christmas was and is to this day. One can only imagine what it was like when, on that first Christmas Day, humble shepherds went forth into the small town of Bethlehem (which probably had about 500 to 1000 people) and proclaimed the glorious message that the long-awaited Messiah had been born to them, in the most unexpected way, in a stable nearby to a young unknown couple supported by a carpenter’s salary. They would not have been surprised that God sent angels to announce this wondrous news; but the idea that angels gave this message, not to the prestigious classes, but to shepherds would have seemed almost beyond belief.
At about the same time, in Jerusalem, magi from the East arrived and told those who were rich and powerful that the long-awaited king had been born in their land. The people would not be surprised to have a message conveyed by the rulers and scholars. But these magi were foreigners and outside of the covenant; these were not the people who, according to popular opinion, should have received the commission to teach the citizens of Jerusalem; it should have been the other way around.
In Jerusalem, the reaction was largely either of hostility to a rival power, as with Herod, or apparent indifference, as with the scholars. One can imagine that in Bethlehem, some people were skeptical about the messages of the shepherds. But other villagers would have rejoiced at the wondrous occasion. Upon reflection, they may also have been repentant, knowing that their town had initially brushed aside the Messiah. And at least some people reached out to assist the new family, and thus (whether they knew it or not) were advancing the salvation of humanity.
Christ comes to us now, as He came to Bethlehem 2000 years ago. And we must choose whether we will recognize Him and celebrate His presence in ways the world does not understand, in the faith-filled home, at honorable and dedicated labor, in the quiet of reflection, in the poor and abandoned, under the appearance of bread and wine.
If we so welcome Christ, as Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi and the more holy citizens of Bethlehem did long ago, then we will make of our homes and communities new Bethlehems, places where the love of God dwells on earth.