We are all familiar with the manger scene. Mary and Joseph kneel by the baby Jesus in the manger with the ox and ass in the stable. They are surrounded by shepherds below and angels above with magi approaching and the star shining in the sky. It is the scene sketched for us in the gospels of Matthew and Luke in which the Christ child is adored by the greatest and the least, with angelic sounds and animal smells, lying in a trough and lavished with treasures. Heaven and earth, sages and simpletons, behold and worship. The gospels emphasize the beholding – the seeing.
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 the manger. When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about the child . . . Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. (Luke 2:15-20)
[The magi] saw the child with Mary his mother. They prostrated themselves and did him homage. (Matthew 2:11)
What did they see? A child with his parents. Why did that cause them to glorify God and fall prostrate in homage? Clearly, they saw more than what met their eyes. With the help of the angels and the star, they saw “a savior . . . who is Messiah and Lord” (Luke 2:11), “the newborn king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2).
The other “Christmas gospel” also emphasizes seeing. Saint John writes, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory” (John 1:14). Again, this “seeing” is something beyond sensory perception. The glory of the eternal Word of God is not something visible to the human eye. This gospel passage ends by saying just that: “No one has ever seen God.” But the continuation of this verse is paradoxical: “The only Son, God, who is at the Fathers side, has revealed him” (John 1:18).
Saint John begins his “First Letter” in much the same way as his gospel:
What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life – for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us – what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:1-3)
The words “seen,” “looked,” and “visible” occur six times in these three verses. Saint John uses these words to emphasize the bodily humanity of “the Word of life” who “was with the Father and was made visible to us.” Jesus, the Word made flesh, has a truly human body that could be seen and touched. But it wasn’t just his body that Saint John saw. He saw the Word of life that was made visible through his flesh. Jesus’ bodily humanity is like a sign – or better, a sacrament – through which we can see and know the eternal Son of God and in him have fellowship with the Father.
The angels used that language. After proclaiming to the shepherds the good news that “today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord,” they said, “This will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12). The sight of the Christ child is a sign to the shepherds. It is a sign that what they see is more than what they see. The visible body of the infant Jesus is a sacrament that manifests and realizes the invisible presence God, newly alive and at work in their world.
That “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) is also proclaimed to us. Christmas is not just a past event. In Jesus’ birth, God came to be with us, and, in Jesus, God is still with us (see Matthew 1:23; 28:20). “Let us go then to Bethlehem to see.”