By Jessica Lincoln, Benedictine College
When God entered the world as a human baby, He changed the world forever. On the day of His birth, the angels sang, and all the world rejoiced that its Savior had arrived. Those in different states of life, in places near and far, felt the change that this day brought and responded accordingly. For the first time, all of creation was invited to partake in the fullness of God’s covenant with His people and be united with Him in a unique way. God designed the joy of Christmas to be shared with everyone- the poor and outsiders, humans and angels- so that all might come to share in the glory of His salvation.
God chose to present Himself in the flesh firstly to two extraordinary, yet still ordinary, human beings. These were His parents: Mary and Joseph. While Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, as his adopted, earthly father, Joseph took on the same fatherhood he would have assumed had Jesus been his biological child. For “an adoptive father is as much a father as a natural father is,” and Joseph “live[d] his fatherhood fully and completely” because “to be a father means above all to be at the service of life and growth” (Joy to the World, 70, 81). Joseph raised, taught, and cared for Jesus, and he rejoiced in the incredible gift of his son, all alongside his wife, Mary. Mary played a unique role in salvation history. She had the honor of carrying God in her womb and giving birth to Him, and at every moment of her life she loved Him perfectly. She also praised Him perfectly and taught us how to do the same: “Mary of Nazareth gave the Church- and every Christian- the model prayer of praise and thanksgiving” in the Magnificat, in which she proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (63). From the beginning of Jesus’ time on earth, even while He was still in her womb, Mary found cause to rejoice and praise the Lord for the incredible gift with which He entrusted her. Together, she and her husband cooperated with God to raise the perfect Son. Mary and Joseph were both humble Jews who loved the Lord and wanted to serve Him. They were given an incredible role in salvation history, yet they remained humble and responded in faith by carrying out the task that God asked of them: to be His parents. In entering a family, Christ sacramentalized every family as a model of Trinitarian love. This is a source of immense joy for every Christian family who seeks to mirror the love of the Holy Family, an image of the Holy Trinity, as families are raised up into the glory of Heaven.
Although the angels, by nature, are higher than men, God becoming flesh raised humanity above the angels by grace. For those angels that loved God, though, this was no obstacle- they continued to worship Him with humble adoration. This act of God did, however, change the way humans relate to angels. In the Old Testament, those to whom angels appeared fell to the ground and remained there; while in the New Testament, the angels told those listening not to be afraid and became much more familiar companions. Angels were created to worship God, and because of this, “they [are] simultaneously worshipping” in all they do (87). Accordingly, it comes as no surprise that angels were present at the birth of Christ, for Christmas, along with Easter, is one of the greatest events of all time that could possibly be worshipped. The angels were filled with joy to be able to adore the eternal God in His great act of love and salvation. Angels also received the honor of announcing Christ’s birth to the world. A host of angels was sent to announce the Good News to the shepherds, and it is likely that the Star of Bethlehem was truly an angel sent to guide the Magi to the place where the Savior lay, announcing this joy to the Wise Men as well. Earlier still, it was the angel Gabriel who declared to Mary that she would have the joy of bearing the Son of God, as well as an angel who told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, and who instructed him to flee with his family to Egypt and later to return to Bethlehem. These important tasks that God entrusted to the angels were causes for joy, though their constant worship of God and His glory while delivering these messages remained the greatest joy of all.
Shepherds evidently held a special place in Jesus’ heart, because not only did He often describe Himself as one, shepherds were also some of the first guests to behold the joy-filled miracle of His birth. Although in the light of biblical history it may not seem surprising that God granted shepherds the privilege of honoring the baby Jesus, for the leaders of Jesus’ time, the shepherds were among the last people that would be expected to receive such an honor. The shepherds were poor, and they were outcasts, considered dirty and impure for their time spent among the sheep. However, in typical divine fashion, God chose these most unlikely candidates to receive His favor. In doing so, He signaled that He would be the Savior of the poor, the rejected, and all those cast aside. His joy is not merely for the rich and powerful; rather, it is extended to all- especially the poorest and lowliest of the world. “The outcasts are the first to receive the Gospel, and they are the first, in turn, to evangelize the world: ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.’ (125). The Shepherds are bestowed the honor of being the first evangelists of the Good News, news that still brings great joy into the hearts of those who hear and receive it. Through His Incarnation, God shares His glory with the poor and rejected.
To the Jews, the Magi were outsiders who were scorned and cast aside, yet Christ chose to reveal Himself to them. The Magi coming to see and honor Jesus signified God’s covenant being extended to include all nations and people. Accordingly, the joy of Christ’s salvific self-gift was also extended to all people, and the Magi recognized this, for “when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10). Those who encounter Christ and recognize Him for who He is- the object of their deepest longing- cannot help but find joy in Him and desire to return to Him in love what He has, in love, given. Thus, the Magi came bearing gifts: “gold, as to a king; myrrh, as to one who was mortal; and incense, as to a God” (Joy to the World, 112). These gifts were all commonly used in worship in the Jewish Temple, but they also had become tainted in their use in pagan worship to idols. So, in their gifts, the Magi gave back to God what He created after it had been poisoned by sin and idolatry. “The gold that had been worshipped / now worshipped you, when the magi offered it” (114). When God entered the world as man, He restored the world of sin-created chaos to the world of harmony, order, and cosmos. Foreshadowing the salvation Christ would offer on the Cross, even the objects that had become attached to a grave sin, that of idolatry, were able to be redeemed and restored by the Incarnate Christ. If joy was to be found in the redemption of the Magi’s gifts at the manger, how much more joy would be found in the redemption of souls at the Cross!
From its beginning, Christmas was an event of utmost joy for all who entered into it. The angels, shepherds, Magi, and Holy Family all responded in love to the Incarnate God who offered Himself to them. They showed the world that rich or poor, young or old, native or foreigner, no one who humbly receives the baby Jesus into his arms is an outsider to God. Today, Christ still offers us the same invitation He put forth over 2000 years ago: to tenderly and joyfully accept God into our arms and hearts as the little baby who brings joy to the world.