The Gospel passage for Christmas Mass during the day is the sublime introduction to St. John’s Gospel account. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” the beloved disciple penned loftily. In earlier times this Gospel passage was recited as an act of thanksgiving as a celebrant left the altar on his way to the sacristy. It was later incorporated into the liturgy itself as the “Last Gospel” murmured silently by the priest who, with the congregation, genuflected when he reached the solemn words “et Verbum caro factum est,” which is “and the Word became flesh.” The Word’s becoming flesh, that is, the Son of God becoming incarnate as a human being, is underlined by St. John’s further notation that Christ “made his dwelling among us.” In Greek these words actually come across as he “tabernacled among us,” or better he “pitched his tent among us.” One couldn’t get more “down and dirty” than to join an encampment with its primitive shelters, rustic fireplaces, and simple camaraderie. And this is precisely St. John’s point. Jesus Christ as Son of God and Second Person of the Blessed Trinity certainly knew what it is to be fully divine, but through his incarnation came to know what it is to be fully human. Jesus indeed was a man like us in all things but sin. In Christ, God and man meet. Through Christ, God is made readily available, readily accessible, to all mankind. God himself is in the next tent over.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God made flesh, now dwelling among mankind, bettered Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem in which the ancient Jews firmly believed the Glory of God dwelt. The Jerusalem temple in turn had replaced the tabernacle or tent which the Jews understood housed God’s Presence as they journeyed through the desert. The wilderness tent, the Jerusalem temple and now the man Jesus Christ were all truly the dwelling places of God with man. God Almighty had pitched his tent among us and could not be closer to the human race. The poet Emerson nicely phrased the mystery, “So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man…” Indeed through Christ, God is one with us.
The evangelists St. Matthew and St. Luke underline the humanity of Christ by carefully noting the company the infant Christ kept during his initial days on earth. The shepherds that hurried from the hillsides of Judea to the manger at Bethlehem were not simply a random group of well-wishers. Nor were the Magi who journeyed long from the East merely casual tourists. The shepherds and the Wise Men were deliberately selected in God’s plan to illustrate exactly how close God came to humankind through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
Biblical commentators report that since shepherds were in daily contact with dirty, smelly sheep, sheep’s manure, sheep’s blood from cuts and scrapes, and insects that buzzed around them, they were often considered “unclean” among Jewish community. This meant that shepherds were often considered not ritually pure enough to worship with God’s people in the Divine presence. Shepherds were generally treated as outsiders. Nonetheless, as St. Luke reports, shepherds were the first ones to be invited to view the Savior who had been born to them! Again, the Lukan Gospel account highlights the nearness of God to man through Christ. “…so nigh is grandeur to out dust…” Jesus has indeed pitched his tent among the outcasts of society.
To this day the Jews of the Holy Land are frequently at odds with their neighbors in the Arab world and with much of Asia Minor in general. The situation was quite similar in the ancient world. The Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, et al., were no friends to the Jewish community. And the feeling was mutual. As Psalm II sadly inquires, “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the LORD and against his anointed…”
Surely St. Matthew had this enmity in mind when he included the visit of the “magi from the east,” as among those who were first to encounter and worship the newborn Savior. They were not well received in Jerusalem. Hence, after reverencing Christ “they departed for their country by another way.” Again, those outside the main stream of Jewish life, foreigners, are granted initial access to Christ.
St. John’s pitched tent, St. Luke’s shepherds, and St. Matthew’s Magi are all cultural, political, and religious statements about the nearness of God in Christ. Emmanuel! God is with us!