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The Most Overlooked Images of the Nativity

The normalcy of Christmas iconography tends to blind us to the deeper meaning of some familiar images

Apart from the Resurrection, the Nativity of Our Lord is the most important event in the history of salvation—which is to say, the world. Accordingly, yearly Christmastime representations of the Nativity take their place among the most hallowed of all Christian images. And yet some of the most meaning-laden images from the Nativity are overlooked by the eyes of the faithful—and understandably so, given all that goes on each Christmas season. Such images not only deepen our appreciation of the inscrutable mystery of the Incarnation, they prove to be powerful apologetical icons as well.

Matthew’s account of the Nativity focuses on Jesus’s Judaism and Davidic pedigree, weaving together bits of messianic evidence for his Jewish audience. (Mark’s and John’s “narratives of omission” do not mention the Nativity.). Luke’s account is the lengthier, focusing on social elements left out by Matthew: for instance, the angels appear not to the learned or the aristocratic but to humble shepherds of the field. Together, these two accounts give us more than enough imagery from which to draw extra Christmastide wisdom.

The Star of Bethlehem: friendly reminder to the Jews

In both Scripture and Tradition, the Star of Bethlehem constitutes a guiding light for the three Magi on their path to the Nativity. More interestingly, it features as the primary item of the so-called “star prophecy.” Matthew is the evangelist most keen to connect elements of the Jewish Bible to Jesus. Accordingly, of the four evangelists, he is the only one to mention the Star of Bethlehem:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East and have come to worship him (Matt. 2:1).

The connection between the Star of Bethlehem and Christian worship is evident. Even Herod understood its import, enough so to manage a cunning disposition with respect to the sojourners from the East:

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him” (Matt. 2:7-8).

It shouldn’t surprise us that “when the three Magi saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding joy” (Matt. 2:11). It meant something sublime. Even foreign travelers from the East knew what to look for: the star meant the eventual end of their long journey and the culmination of their hopes. Being not only a navigational “polestar” of sorts, the star was and is also a signal to oriental disciples of the one true God: “After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (Matt. 2:9).

As to the Wise Men of the Orient, more so to Jews, the star prophecy should be an article of typology. Here is some of the Judaica to which the Star acts as typological bridge:

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth (Num. 24:17).

A bright light will shine to all parts of the earth; many nations shall come to you from afar, And the inhabitants of all the limits of the earth, drawn to you by the name of the Lord God, bearing in their hands their gifts for the King of heaven. Every generation shall give joyful praise in you, and shall call you the chosen one, through all ages forever (Tob. 13:11).

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to me the one to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting (Micah 5:2).

The starless reference in Micah to Ephrathah (Bethlehem) itself constitutes a glancing Davidic allusion to the sacred town previously mentioned in Genesis 35:16. The messiah was to hail from the town of David, of course, which is more or less the only reason that the town receives mention in the later books of the Old Testament.

We must recall that, to the Jews, messianic imagery is most valuable as evidence. While the Star prophecy is not by itself proof of Jesus’ role as the Jewish messiah, it makes for a strong beginning to the claim. The Star proves not only a sublime graphic of Jesus’ connection to Bethlehem in ways that are essential—or non-accidental—it also informs the typological evidence necessary for calling Jews out of their wandering messianism, then and now. To our fellow sons of Father Abraham, I ask: what is a more opportune time for making vital connections than during the wintry cold? When more than Christmas?

The manger: stark reminder of the Real Presence

The first tabernacle in history was the Christ Child’s manger. The Nativity itself, for that matter, was the first session of Adoration of the body of Jesus.

It was not until a homily at a midnight Christmas Mass in 2014 that a faithful priest pointed out to me the obvious: Baby Jesus’ makeshift bedding sharply prefigures the “Bread of Life” discourse in John’s Gospel. Strange as it may be to conceive, Christ’s neonatal manger prefigures his Real Presence as the Eucharist to be consumed.

Without exaggeration, we can say the infant Jesus is presented to us in Luke 2:7 as laid up in little better than a food trough: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Since we are not frequently reminded of the eucharistic meaning of this Christological image, we tend to forget it or never to notice it at all. And most of our separated brethren, the Protestants, are altogether robbed of the opportunity to know it: the Christ Child’s being laid out on a food trough is as undeniable in prefigurative value as it is unsettling. It tees up the “hard saying” Jesus pronounced more than thirty years later.

The Lamb of God laid his body to rest in a feeding trough for those of his kind. This tells us what we need to know.

The shepherds: humble reminder to the wealthy

In Luke’s account, the angels appear to lowly shepherds, not to important or high-ranking Jews, which reflects several important elements at once: Christ’s call to all the world, his love of the humble and the poor in spirit, his cautions against wealth acquisition, etc. There is a heavenly proscription against the fixation with power and comfort, in cities and in the ‘burbs. Equally real, there exists a coextensive Gospel warning against the soteriological difficulty presented by the possession of great wealth.

The reminder of the shepherds doesn’t render inherently immoral the acquisition of material goods. However, Luke’s imagery does invoke a vigilant sort of strict self-governance, conforming to Christ’s teaching on the greatness of smallness, the strength in weakness: one does not need to give his children or wife “all the world,” as people like to say in the suburbs. A man’s duty as provider does not involve a duty to earn the absolute maximum available—which is simply the “prosperity gospel.”

All children truly need is the modicum of material comfort such as to set the conditions for the possibility of the inculcation of the Gospels, the sacraments, and the virtues. The Nativity shepherds possessed this great gift, and we re-possess it when we read Luke’s Nativity account.

The shepherd’s crook: stern reminder to the bishops

Last but not least, the crooks of the Nativity shepherds are episcopal in nature because they assist in snatching lambs from the errant path. This is a more-than-subtle clue as to what a goodly bishop exists to accomplish: facilitate reconciliation between his flock and his God, which involves the direct, abrupt, and unpleasant confrontation of hardened sin.

The bishops must call their flocks from sin. But this involves an invitation—by the bishop to his flock—to self-accusation. In the confessional, we accuse ourselves so that the Accuser will not at the end of time be the first one to recount our sins before God.

If God is to “reconcile all the world to himself, not counting people’s sins against them and committing to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5: 19), it involves everyone in the world learning to apologize—rather than make an apologia—for his sins. We must say we’re sorry routinely to both God and to one another. Only pagans believe that “love means never having to say you’re sorry.” This couldn’t be more errant. Love entails frequent apology in the name of Christ.

Within too many modern congregations, sin is confirmed, and apologizing is discouraged. “Come as you are,” we are told, as if the Lord does not love contrition. One notes this everywhere today as the world increasingly returns to paganism. Honest, hearty apologies appear as rarely as honest, hearty men do.

Both the sacramental (confession) and the non-sacramental (begging pardon from our opponents) acts of apologizing have been all but forgotten. “Just forgive them although your pardon has never been begged,” we are told. Instead, we consult Scripture and the Fathers. St. Augustine said: “Forgiveness happens when you surrender your natural desire for revenge. But true reconciliation is the tranquility that results only from restoration [via apology] of the right order.” Elsewhere, he continues the theme:

That is why humility is highly prized in the City of God and especially enjoined on the City of God during the time of its pilgrimage in this world; and it receives particular emphasis in the character of Christ, the king of that City. We are also taught by the sacred Scriptures that the fault of exaltation [pride in sin], the contrary of humility, exercises supreme dominion in Christ’s adversary, the devil. This is assuredly the great difference that sunders the two cities of which we are speaking: the one is a community of devout men, the other a company of the irreligious, and each has its own angels attached to it. In one city, love of God has been given first place, in the other, love of self (City of God XIV, 13, 573).

The shepherd’s crook represents the truth about mercy: it comes at a cost. The shepherd’s crook instantiates the Church’s teaching on genuine reconciliation, the need to apologize directly to God in order to be restored to him (which is the very purpose of the Incarnation!). Our infinitely merciful Lord is unwilling to forgive us if we remain, like Lucifer, recalcitrant in our sin. Within and among the flock, the guilty must ask the innocent for pardon, just as the guilty (humans) must ask the innocent (God) for pardon.

Bishops must restore the emphasis in their dioceses the central importance of the shepherd’s crook.

Conclusion

Receive the foregoing Christmas images in a chronologically reversed way with respect to those of Easter: at Eastertide, one understands the sequential priority of the Passion of Our Lord; the ugliness, pain, and humiliation of the Passion precede the beauty and solace of the Resurrection.

At Christmas, we celebrate the mission of Our Lord in its beautiful aspects first. As the ultimate culture of life, Catholicism celebrates the birth of all persons, especially that of God made Man.

But in our eager reception of Our Lord’s birthday, we must remember the serious aspects of the Incarnation: a mortal life ending in death and even a special sort of torture and pain reserved for the Jewish messiah (even one largely surprising in form to many of Matthew’s early readers).

These Nativity images certainly count on the solemn (or at least shocking) side of things: the messiah came for the Jews but for everyone else as well, which involved divine martyrdom not foreseen by the Jews; grace comes through Jesus, Son of God, but it comes most plentifully through the difficult and startling teaching of the Bread of Life; forgiveness is divinely sweet, but it does not feel that way when it is we who must make amends to our enemies; smallness is beautiful, but this is a charge rather than a relief to Christians who have habitually over-focused on wealth, power, or comfort.

May these four overlooked images of the Nativity chasten our hearts this Christmastide.

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