Sacrament Matters-The shadow of the cross over Bethlehem

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Home > Media > News > Sacrament Matters-The shadow of the cross over Bethlehem
Sacrament Matters-The shadow of the cross over Bethlehem

By Dr Christine Wood, Director of the Office of Evangelisation & Catechesis

All our familiar Christmas carols declare this to be a time of great joy. It’s a time where families and friends gather, gifts are given, and a banquet eaten. The central event of Christmas, of course, is the birth of Christ the Lord, our King.

But as we dig into the Christian tradition we discover a deeper reality to Christmas. The shadow of the Cross lies over this idyllic scene of Bethlehem: Christ was born to die that we might live.

Mary and Joseph faced many difficulties in the birth of Jesus. They journeyed the arduous path of more than 150 km from Galilee to Bethlehem, through rough terrain, while Mary was heavily pregnant. Upon their arrival there was no room in the usual lodgings. They were grateful to receive a humble stable in which the Christ-child was born.

The baby Jesus was wrapped in “swaddling cloths”, or common rags, and placed in a manger, which is a feeding trough for animals. All of this occurred in the city of Bethlehem, which means “house of bread”, thus foreshadowing his self-gift to us in the Eucharist. Jesus’ entry into the world could not have been humbler.

When the Magi paid Christ homage they offered gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In the familiar carol, “We Three Kings”, one of the kings, Melchior, bestows his gift of myrrh while singing, “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes, a life of gathering gloom: sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying; sealed in the stone-cold tomb.”

The carol makes a clear connection between Bethlehem and Calvary. In the Christian tradition, the gift of myrrh symbolised the death and burial of Jesus because myrrh was used extensively in the ancient near east for burial rituals.

The connection with the Cross appears again in the carol, “The First Noël”, when we sing, “and with his blood mankind has bought”. This precious, little child is destined to shed his blood for the life of the world.

Finally, we discover the reason for our Christmas joy in the opening verse of ‘O Holy Night’: “Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appear'd and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”

The birth of Christ reveals to us our worth: God’s love for us is so great that he became man to save us from our sin. The thrill of hope should surely well up within our hearts with this Good News. Praise be to Christ our King!