There were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping night watch over their flock. An angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the lord shown around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today, in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger…”
When the angels went away from them to heaven the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go then to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So, they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in a manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. And Mary kept all these things in her heart. (Luke 2:8-12, 15-19)
In this portion of the account of the birth of Jesus, Luke doesn’t relate this story as one would relate the stories on the 6 o’clock news. He’s creating a sacred narrative meant to teach the generations after him the essence of the good news of Jesus Christ.
In the narrative, the blinding light of God’s glory appears in the dead of night to simple shepherds. From within the light angels proclaim the good news of the birth of a Messiah who is Lord. They speak to them of a sign, an image, that will teach them all they need to know about this child. “You will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” Luke mentions this twice in this short account. The angels tell the shepherds of the sign. Then Luke tells us that the shepherds went to Bethlehem to see the sign for themselves. Let’s look into the meaning of this sign.
The two images, the swaddling clothes and the manger, speak volumes about this child. The
clothes used to wrap the baby are long strips of cloth. They’re wrapped around an infant to keep it secure and warm. But these long strips are reminiscent of another long strip of cloth that would wrap this child at the end of his adult life. The swaddling clothes are an image of Jesus’ shroud. His destiny was marked from the first moment of his life. Luke is telling us that Jesus’ death is an essential part of the good news.
The second image is of the child lying in a manger. By placing the child in a manger, a feeding trough, Luke is telling us that the good news is that this child will be, in some mysterious way, food for all people. John the evangelist makes the same point in a title he gives to Jesus, the Bread of Life. The image of the manger evokes the eucharistic meal where Jesus breaks the bread, where Jesus says, “This is my body which will be given for you.” Where Jesus says, “Do this in memory of me.”
These two images stir up rich theological reflection. Throughout his gospel Luke will expand the image of the manger through his depiction of many meals Jesus ate with his disciples. Each meal presents an aspect of the eucharist. The meaning of the manger and the swaddling clothes become clear when they again come together at the Passover meal Jesus eats with his disciples, his last supper with them before sacrificing himself on the cross.
At the end of his nativity narrative Luke adds an essential note. “And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” Mary is the Church, you and I, and all those who, throughout the centuries heard of the child that was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Mary is all who gathered and who continue to gather to reflect on the meaning of his death when they come together to break the bread. Mary is all of us who recognize him. Recognize him when we pass on his story. Recognize him when we ponder the meaning of his death. Recognize him when we break the bread and share it.