Pope John Paul II
General Audience, November 20, 1996
1. In the story of Jesus’ birth, the Evangelist Luke recounts several facts that help us better understand the meaning of the event.
He first mentions the census ordered by Caesar Augustus, which obliges Joseph, “of the house and lineage of David”, and Mary his wife to go “to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Lk 2:4).
In informing us about the circumstances in which the journey and birth take place, the Evangelist presents us with a situation of hardship and poverty, which lets us glimpse some basic characteristics of the messianic kingdom: a kingdom without earthly honours or powers, which belongs to him who, in his public life, will say of himself: “The Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58).
2. Luke’s account contains a few seemingly unimportant notes, which are meant to arouse in the reader a better understanding of the mystery of the Nativity and the sentiments of her who gave birth to the Son of God.
The description of the birth, recounted in simple fashion, presents Mary as intensely participating in what was taking place in her: “She gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger…” (Lk 2:7). The Virgin’s action is the result of her complete willingness to co-operate in God’s plan, already expressed at the Annunciation in her “let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
Mary shares in Son’s redeeming mission
Mary experiences childbirth in a condition of extreme poverty: she cannot give the Son of God even what mothers usually offer a newborn baby; instead, she has to lay him “in a manger”, an improvised cradle which contrasts with the dignity of the “Son of the Most High”.
3. The Gospel notes that “there was no place for them in the inn” (Lk 2:7). This statement, recalling the text in John’s Prologue: “His own people received him not” (Jn 1:11), foretells as it were the many refusals Jesus will meet with during his earthly life. The phrase “for them” joins the Son and the Mother in this rejection, and shows how Mary is already associated with her Son’s destiny of suffering and shares in his redeeming mission.
Rejected by “his own”, Jesus is welcomed by the shepherds, rough men of ill repute, but chosen by God as the first to receive the good news of the Saviour’s birth. The message the Angel gives them is an invitation to rejoice: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people” (Lk 2:10), along with a request to overcome all fear: “Be not afraid”.
Indeed, as it was for Mary at the time of the Annunciation, so too for them the news of Jesus’ birth represents the great sign of God’s goodwill towards men. In the divine Redeemer, contemplated in the poverty of a Bethlehem cave, we can see an invitation to approach with confidence the One who is the hope of humanity.
The angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”, which can also be translated as “men of goodwill” (Lk 2:14), reveals to the shepherds what Mary had expressed in her Magnificat: Jesus’ birth is the sign of God’s merciful love, which is especially shown towards the poor and humble.
4. The shepherds respond enthusiastically and promptly to the angel’s invitation: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us” (Lk 2: 15).
They did not search in vain: “And they … found Mary and Joseph, and the babe” (Lk 2:16). To them, as the Council recalls, “the Mother of God joyfully showed her first-born Son” (Lumen gentium, n. 57). It was the defining moment of their lives.
Mary pondered these events in her heart
The shepherds’ spontaneous desire to make known what “had been told them concerning this child” (Lk 2:17), after the wondrous experience of meeting the Mother and her Son, suggests to evangelizers in every age the importance and, even more, the necessity of a deep spiritual relationship with Mary, in order to know Jesus better and to become the joyful proclaimers of his Gospel of salvation.
With regard to these extraordinary events, Luke tells us that Mary “kept all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19). While the shepherds passed from fear to wonder and praise, the Virgin, because of her faith, kept alive the memory of the events involving her Son, and deepened her understanding of them by reflecting on them in her heart, that is, in the inmost core of her person. In this way she suggests that another mother, the Church, should foster the gift and task of contemplation and theological reflection, in order better to accept the mystery of salvation, to understand it more thoroughly and to proclaim it with renewed effort to the people of every age.