|Adoration of the Shepherds (1622), by Gerard van Honthorst (1592-1656)|
First, a visual meditation. This is one of my favorite pictures of the Nativity. There are the rough, weather-beaten faces of the shepherds with their childlike simplicity and joy: one can well believe that these were worthy to be the first to receive news about the birth of the Savior. There is the Virgin Mother, looking like the teenager she is believed to have been at this time, still retaining the slight plumpness of childhood. Best of all is the smiling St. Joseph, so lost in contentment he seems hardly to realize that he is using a cow's head as a hand rest.
Now, some verbal meditations on the Birth of Christ for the Octave of Christmas from The Incarnation, Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ by St. Alphonsus Liguori:
Behold the Lamb of God, Who came to sacrifice Himself, to obtain for us the divine favor, and to become our deliver, our life, our light and even our food in the Most Holy Sacrament!
St. Maximus says that for this reason, amongst others, Christ chose to be laid in the manger where the animals were fed, to make us understand that He has become man also to make Himself our food: "In the manger, where the food of animals is placed, He allowed His limbs to be laid, thereby showing that His own Body would be the eternal food of men." Besides this, He is born every day in the Sacrament by means of the priests and the words of consecration; the altar is the crib, and there we go to feed ourselves on His Flesh.
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Adam came into the world at a full age; but the Eternal Word chose to appear as an infant -- a child is born to us -- that He might thus attract our hearts to Himself with greater force: "so would Who willed to be loved." He came not into the world to inspire terror, but to be loved; and for this reason He preferred to show Himself, at His first appearance, as a tender, weak infant.
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Jesus is born in the stable at Bethlehem. His poor Mother has neither wool nor down to make a bed for the tender Infant. What does she do, then? She gathers together a small handful of straw into the manger, and puts it there for Him to lie on: and she laid Him in the manger. [Luke 2:7.] But, O my God, how hard and painful is this bed for an infant just born; the limbs of a babe are so delicate, and especially the limbs of Jesus, which were formed by the Holy Spirit with a special delicacy, in order that they might be the more sensible to suffering: A body Thou hast fitted to Me. [Heb. 10:5.]
Wherefore the hardness of such a bed must have caused him excessive pain -- pain and shame; for what child, even of the lowest of the people, is ever laid on straw as soon as he is born? Straw is only a fit bed for beasts; and yet the Son of God had none other on earth than a bed of miserable straw!...
But why did Mary, who had so earnestly desired the birth of this Son -- why did she, who loved Him so much, allow Him to lie and suffer on this hard bed, instead of keeping Him in her arms? This is a mystery....This great mystery has been explained by many in different ways, but the most pleasing explanation to me is that of St. Peter Damian: Jesus wished as soon as He was born to be placed on the straw, in order to teach us the mortification of our senses: "He laid down the law of martyrdom." The world had been lost by sensual pleasures; through them had Adam and multitudes of his descendants till then been lost. The Eternal Word came from heaven to teach us the love of suffering; and He began as a child to teach it to us by choosing for Himself the most acute sufferings that an infant can endure. It was, therefore, He Himself Who inspired His Mother to cease from holding Him in her tender arms, and to replace Him on the hard bed, that He might feel the more the cold of the cave and the pricking of this rough straw.