EVEN BEFORE the birth of the child in the manger, the story of the Nativity is marked by promises. During the dream of Joseph, when he was tempted to doubts about Mary and thought "to put her away privately," an angel promised him that his wife would "bring forth a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." When the Magi from the East passed through Jerusalem, they were asked by King Herod where the child was to be born. They answered the king: "In Bethlehem of Judea; for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Juda, are by no means least among the princes of Juda; For from thee shall come forth a leader who shall rule my people in Israel." In the narrative of Luke, the visiting shepherds are told: And this shall be a sign to you: You will find an infant wrapped in swadding clothes and lying in a manger.
The promises were necessary because almost all of those involved in the Nativity needed either reassurance that this event was truly momentous significance guidance on what role they were ecpected to play. Zachary was troubled by the prospect of becoming a father in his old age; when he left the temple following a vision, he was speechless and could do nothing but makes signs to those who feared for him. Elizabeth, Zachary's wife, chose seclusion after learning she had conceived a child. Only when her "kinswoman," Mary, came to visit did she respond to the demands of her new role: "And it came to pass, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe in her womb leapt. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and cried out with a loud voice, saying, Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how have I deserved that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, the moment that the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who has believed, because the things promised her by the Lord shall be accomplished."
Gradually, the players in this drama bean to understand that if their lives were being interrupted for reasons not yet clear, the interruption was a risk worth accepting. A moment of hope was about to be given to men in the person of a child born in Bethlehem. He would fulfill the prophet's promise that a son would be born to a virgin and his name would be Immanuel - "God with us." Elizabeth, Mary, Zachary, the Magi and the shepherds may have wondered what God has in mind for the child, and why this unlikely place and this unspecial time was chosen (the census of the whole world by Caesar Augustus was distraction enough). But in the presence of mystery, they were overcome by the only force that could overcome it: faith.
Neither Matthew nor Luke tells of what spiritual riches came into the lives of those at the infant's birth, but both report the joyfulness of the occasion that became an enrichment in itself. Matthew says of the Magi: "And when they saw the sate they rejoiced exceedingly. And entering the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they worshipped him." In Luke, the visiting shepherds were told by the angel: "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people; for today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord."
Thomas Merton wrote in his essay "The Nativity Kerygma" that in the human nature of the child in the manger, "He wills to the helpless that we may take Him into our care. For here is no mere matter of appearances. The poverty of the Child and of His mother, their loneliness and dereliction at Bethlehem, their need for food and clothing and support, these are all as real as our own needs and our own limitations. And why? Above all, because of the reality of His love. He has embraced our poverty and our sorrow out of love for us, in order to give us His riches and his joy."