The Birth of Jesus

Dec 20, 2023

As we prepare for Christmas, Fr Malachy Hanratty invites readers to ponder the birth of our Saviour by reading Luke’s Gospel.

Joseph and Mary set out in trust
Let us increase our thanks and pray for courage as we think about Joseph and Mary setting out in trust into the unfamiliar and unknown. I pause at, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” I ponder the implications. Augustus, a peace-leaning Emperor controlled so many diverse and distant countries and peoples.

Thus communications, travel, interaction were advanced. But seeing, “All went to their own towns to be registered” makes me realise it causes hardship for Joseph and Mary. They “went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David, called Bethlehem”. Joseph will not leave Mary’s side. But I imagine hardships on that difficult journey, especially for a pregnant woman away from family, friends and surroundings. Yet here we see them journeying on doggedly in trust.

Next, finding the shock of “no place for them in the inn”, I see them with trustful prayer and stamina searching for a place to stay. And finally they find a stable they are allowed to use. In it Mary gives birth to Jesus the Saviour of the World. With loving care she “wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”

God inviting ‘unsuitables’ to share the Good News
Next I ponder God again doing the unthinkable. He does not show special signs of His power and presence. The chosen messengers of this ‘Good News’ are Shepherds who ‘lived rough’ – in the fields. In their ragged, smelly, grubby clothes, they were always treated with suspicion and unwelcome in towns. They were even forbidden to enter synagogues. However here we see them as attentive, reliable workers “keeping watch over their flock by night”.

But they lacked every other quality for an ideal messenger. An “angel of the Lord stood before them”, and “the glory of the Lord shone around them” and “they were terrified.” The angel gives them this message: “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

A shepherd and his sheep. Image: Shutterstock.

Meeting the Baby
So with trust and courage they step out; “Let us go and see.” They go searching. I imagine them quietly looking here and there and then cautiously approaching a possible place – a stable. I hear a shepherd diffidently, politely calling out, “Excuse us but we have been sent.” Mary and Joseph with awe, gratitude, trust and happiness are prayerfully trying to face the mystery this special Child brings. Now they are surprised by the shepherds’ arrival. But they welcome them.

They listen with wonder to the shepherds’ story and usher them up close around the Baby. I notice the shepherds’ awkward shyness and embarrassment at their own unkempt appearance disappearing. They are so reverent in their approach to the baby. This also increases the wonder, gratitude and joy in Mary and Joseph. The shepherds’ presence is a sign of God’s mysterious working in hearts quietly behind the scenes.

As the shepherds gaze at the baby, Mary and Joseph see the change that is taking place in these rough, awkward men – a new softness, a deepening gratitude and a desire to help. I see them gradually filling with excitement, thankfulness and the desire to run out and spread the news.

This reminds me of a memorable experience. In Japan I had a ‘praying-Scripture’ group of mostly newly baptised Christians. For fifteen minutes I would tell them of the awareness I got from pondering and praying a section of Scripture. Then we would all, in silence ponder and reflect on it for another fifteen minutes.

Then in groups of about three they would share for fifteen minutes on ‘discoveries’ each had experienced. Finally, the whole group was invited to recount an unusually impressive experience or discovery that pondering this Scripture had generated. I remember one rather shy and quiet lady excitedly exclaiming, “But He had to be born in a stable. How else could the shepherds visit Him; they would not have been allowed into the Inn.”

I had never myself thought or even heard it expressed like that before. Pondering and sharing with others always helps. This is what this Scripture said to me; but what is it saying to you?

Fr Malachy Hanratty was ordained in 1955. He served on mission in Japan and is the author of Discoveries in Prayer Vol I & II; Praying Scripture Vols I & II; and Resurrection Gifts. These can be downloaded for free from the Columban website. See:

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