The Childhood of Christ
The birth of Christ was announced by the archangel Gabriel to the Blessed Virgin Mary at Nazareth (Luke i. 28).
This event is commemorated by the feast of the Annunciation, which is kept on the twenty-fifth of March, by the Angelus, and in the first words of the Hail Mary. After the angel’s salutation Our Lady set out to visit her cousin, St. Elizabeth, who greeted her with the words contained in the second part of the Hail Mary, and Our Lady replied in the solemn words of the Magnificat (Luke i.). The visitation is kept on the second of July, immediately after the octave of the nativity of St. John Baptist. St. Joseph also was warned of the birth of Christ by an angel (Matt. i. 18-25), when debating on the advisability of putting away Our Lady.
1. Christ was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary in a stable at Bethlehem,
Mary and Joseph had to repair to their native place of Bethlehem to be enrolled in the census which was being held by command of the Emperor Augustus. They were obliged to seek refuge in a stable, because there was no room for them in Bethlehem (Luke ii. 7). As in the conception, so in the birth of Christ, was exception made to the ordinary course of nature. Mary was free from the penalties described in Gen. iii. 16, because, as St. Bernard says, she alone had conceived without carnal pleasure. St. Augustine exclaims: “Behold He Who rules the world lies in a manger. He Who feeds the angels is suckled by His Mother. Strength becomes weak, that weakness may be made strong;” and again, “A great Physician came down from heaven to heal a great disease on earth; He healed in a way hitherto unheard of, for He took our ills on Himself.” “Being rich He became poor, that through His poverty we might be made rich” (2 Cor. viii. 9). Every circumstance attending the birth of Christ has a deep meaning. Christ was born at Bethlehem (the house of bread) because, as St. Jerome says, Pie is the living bread. He is born far away from His home in Nazareth because He descended from heaven, His true home, and is a stranger among men. He is born amid the shepherds and their flocks, because He is to be the “Good Shepherd” (John x. 11) of a great flock. He is born in a stable, because the earth in comparison of heaven is but a stable.
He is born not in a house, but in a stable, that all might have confidence and approach Him, says St. Peter Chrysologus. He is born in obscurity, because He is the “hidden God” (Is. xlv. 15), Whom we cannot see in this life, and Who loves good deeds done in secret. He is laid in a manger, where cattle feed, because He was to be the food of man; and He is laid on the wood to recall to us that He came down from heaven to die on the cross. So too He dwells in our tabernacles. He is born at midnight, because the greater portion of man kind was buried in darkness, and knew nothing of the true God. He is born in the winter season, and at night (notice that the nights in Palestine are particularly cold), because the hearts of men were cold, unwarmed yet with the fire of charity. Christ drops from heaven in the night time like the dew (Cf. Is. xlv. 8), to refresh the hearts of men. At the time of His birth the temple of Janus in Rome was closed, and there was peace over all the earth, because Christ was the Prince of peace (Is. ix. 6); and the God of peace (1 Cor. xiv. 33), i.e., Our Lord, came as a little child that man might approach Him with more confidence; had He come as a great king, men would have shrunk away, while as a child He invited, not awe, but sympathy. Christ comes in poverty and renunciation to teach us that the road to heaven is the way of suffering and self-conquest, not of pleasure and self-indulgence. Besides this He would show that He is the Friend of the poor to whom He is appointed to preach the Gospel (Luke iv. 18). A light appeared to the shepherds to remind us that the Light of the world is come (John viii. 12), Who is to shine in the midst of the darkness (John i. 5). The hymn of the angels is the keynote of His mission, to glorify God (John xiii. 32), and to give peace to men (John xiv. 27), especially peace with God, reconciling man to God by His death on the cross, peace with self, the true peace which comes from the knowledge and practice of the Gospel, and peace with the neighbor by the virtues of brotherly love, love of one’s enemy, and meekness. He announced His birth by the voice of an angel to the shepherds, and not to the proud Pharisees and Scribes, because He would hide His mysteries from the wise and prudent and reveal them to the little ones (Matt. xi. 25); because He gives His graces to the humble and resists the proud (1 Pet. v. 5). Such, too, is the disposition of God’s providence in all time; to the proud, whatever their learning, the teachings of Christ are a sealed book, while the lowly and humble receive God’s light. The first to receive the call to the crib were the Jews in the person of the shepherds, and after them the Gentiles, in the persons of the three kings; all to signify that Christ would first call into His Church the Jews (Matt. xv. 24), and afterwards the Gentiles by means of His apostles. The wonderful star in the East was to announce that Christ “the wonderful” (Is. ix. 6) had come down from heaven. The census of the people at the time of His birth reminds us of the great enrollment which will take place at His second coming. “Christ begins to teach us in His birth even before uttering a word.” “The deeds of the Lord are commands; if He does anything in silence, He means that we should imi tate Him,” is the comment of St. Gregory the Great.
In the liturgy of the Church we celebrate Our Lord’s birth on the twenty-fifth of December (Christmas Day). On that day every priest has the privilege of saying three Masses, which recall the threefold birth of Christ: the eternal birth from God the Father, the birth in time from the womb of Mary, and His spiritual birth in our hearts. A crib is generally erected in most churches, a practice originated by St. Francis of Assisi. In many households there is kept up the custom of the Christmas-tree, a reminder of the fatal tree of paradise, and also of the tree of the cross. The Christmas-boxes recall to our minds the gifts of God the Father to mankind on this day. Immediately following Christmas are the feasts of St. Stephen, St. John, and the Holy Innocents, as though the Church would say: “If you would follow Christ, you must become a martyr like St. Stephen, if not to the shedding of blood, at least to the denial of self and the bearing of suffering. You must love God and your neighbor like St. John, and do works of mercy; and finally you must be like a child with God.”
The new-born Child is adored first by the shepherds and then by the Magi.
The shepherds were told by an angel of the birth of the Saviour (Luke ii. 9); the three kings were led to Him by a star (Matt. ii. 9). This star was something exceptional, for it had a proper motion of its own in the heavens; according to St. John Chrysostom, it may have been an angel, under the appearance of a star. Catherine Emmerich, in her revelations, says that this star had various aspects; at times it appeared as a child carrying a cross, or a woman with a child; again as a chalice with grapes and wheat ornamenting it, as a church, or forming the word Judea, etc. St. Irenaaus remarks that the presents indicated their esteem of Him to Whom the three kings offered them. Gold, the symbol of homage, is offered to Him as King; incense, the symbol of prayer, because He is God; and myrrh, the symbol of mortification, because as Our Redeemer, He was to suffer. The Magi returned to their homes by another way, “to show us,” says St. Gregory the Great, “that if we wish to reach our true home in paradise we must forsake the path in which we have hitherto walked, and tread in the way of penance, obedience, and self-denial.” The shepherds represented the Jews and the poor; the three kings the Gentiles and the rich. The relics of the three kings were taken from the East to Cologne in 1162 by Barbarossa, and now repose in the Cathedral there. The feast of the three kings is held on the sixth of January. In many countries there still exists the custom of blessing on this day the water of the three kings, and the blessing of chalk and salt is not unusual. The initials of the names of the three kings are sometimes marked on the doors of houses to claim their patronage. This feast is called also the Epiphany, because in former times the birth of Christ, or appearance of Christ to mankind, was celebrated on this day. Hence in the Greek Church the season of Advent is prolonged till the Epiphany. This day is also celebrated as the one on which Christ was baptized in the Jordan, and performed His first miracle at Cana.
When the Child was eight days old He was circumcised, and received the name Jesus (Luke ii. 21).
Jesus (in Hebrew Joshua or Josue) means Saviour. This name is, as St. Paul says, above all names (Phil. ii. 9), for it was chosen by God Himself and revealed to the Virgin Mary (Matt. i. 21). More over the holy name has great virtue; its invocation brings help in temptation and affliction; the powers of hell shrink from it (Mark xvi. 17). The name usually given by the prophets was Emmanuel, i.e., “God with us” (Is. vii. 14). The feast of the Circumcision on the first of January is also New Year’s Day. The Church would thus teach us to begin everything in the name of Jesus. Innocent XII., in 1691, was the first to order the practice of beginning the New Year on the first of January; previously it had been Christmas Day. It is a pious custom in many places to have a solemn thanksgiving service and to sing the Te Deum on the last day of the year, in thanksgiving for past favors.
When the Child was forty days old, He was presented in the Temple (Luke ii. 39).
Mary complied with the law of Moses (Lev. xii.), though, being free from sin, she needed no purification. The feast of the Purification is called also Candlemas; on that day candles are blessed, and carried in procession in memory of these words of holy Simeon calling Our Lord the “light for the revelation of the Gentiles” (Luke ii. 32).
2. Christ spent the first years of His childhood in Egypt, and after that lived at Nazareth till He was thirty.
An angel told Joseph to fly because Herod was seeking to kill the Child (Matt. ii. 13). After the escape of Our Lord Herod put to death all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age. This was a judgment on the people of Bethlehem for their refusal of hospitality to the Holy Family; the little children themselves gained by their death the joys of heaven. In Egypt there is still to be seen the dwelling-place of the Holy Family in a suburb of Cairo, the ancient Heliopolis. The land so sanctified by the presence of Our Lord became later the abode of thousands of monks, who led lives like to those of the angels; men such as, for instance, St. Anthony and St. Paul of Thebes; here St. Pachomius founded the first monastery, on an island of the Nile. After His return from Egypt Christ went to live in Nazareth, a place of little esteem among the Jews, therefore useful in teaching us the lesson of humility; and for thirty years He stayed there that we might learn from Him the lesson of detachment from the world.
When Christ was twelve years old He went up to the Temple in Jerusalem.
It was on this occasion that He made the doctors of the law marvel at His wisdom (Luke ii. 47).
When Christ was grown up, John the Baptist began to preach His coming in the desert.
We have the following facts about John the Baptist. The archangel Gabriel announced his approaching birth to Zachary at the hour of sacrifice in the Temple; and when the latter was incredulous he was struck dumb (Luke i.), regaining his speech at the birth of St. John and using it to proclaim the noble canticle of the Benedictus (Luke i. 68-79). St. John spent his life in the desert in penance and preparation for his office as forerunner of the Redeemer. When Christ had reached His twenty-eighth year (Luke iii. 1), the Baptist came from his solitude, and preached to the Jews who flocked to him on the banks of the Jordan, the doctrine of penance and baptism (Matt. iii.). It was he who pointed out Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world” (John i. 29). His courageous rebuke to Herod caused him to be cast into prison (Matt. xiv. 4), and later to be beheaded (Matt. xiv. 10). He, like Elias, is the forerunner and the type of hermit life.
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