The details of how Christ came to be born in Bethlehem are found in St Luke’s gospel. St Matthew’s gospel also describes the birth, but only in headlines, choosing to focus more on the visit of the Wise Men to the Christ child. While much of the Christmas story may be familiar to us from carols, nativity scenes and greeting cards, a return to the text itself can shed additional light.
To begin, St Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in a census ordered by the Roman emperor. While this journey may well have involved Mary travelling on a donkey, the gospel doesn’t include this detail. The ‘census’ may also have been an oath of allegiance, as mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus, rather than a count for taxation.
The gospel goes on to say that while the Virgin was in Bethlehem, “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7). To many minds, this may conjure up an image of a stable connected to a hotel. While this is possible, there is another, more likely, interpretation.
The word translated “inn” actually has several meanings – ‘lodgings’, or simply the ‘upper room’ of a house (cf Luke 9:12; 22:11,12). Most probably, there was no room for the Holy Family in the upper room of one of their relative’s houses, so they had to make do with the lower room, which was typically used as a stable for oxen or donkeys at night-time (cf Luke 13:15).
After describing the birth of Christ, the gospel then switches scenes to the fields surrounding Bethlehem. There, an angel visits a group of shepherds who are watching their flocks at night. The angel tells the shepherds to go and visit the newborn Christ, who they will find swaddled in a manger. They hurry to do so and find the child lying in a cattle trough, exactly as the angel said.
Preaching on the Nativity, Pope Benedict XVI observed: “Saint Luke’s account of the Christmas story tells us that God first raised the veil of his hiddenness to people of very lowly status, people who were looked down upon by society at large – to shepherds looking after their flocks in the fields around Bethlehem.”
He went on: “Luke tells us that they were “keeping watch”. This phrase reminds us of a central theme of Jesus’s message, which insistently bids us to keep watch, even to the Agony in the Garden – the command to stay awake, to recognize the Lord’s coming, and to be prepared. Here too the expression seems to imply more than simply being physically awake during the night hour. The shepherds were truly “watchful” people, with a lively sense of God and of his closeness.”
In this fascinating mural of the Nativity, we find the shepherds arriving to meet the newborn Christ. The painting is by the artist and naturalist Charles Mahoney and is found within the Lady Chapel of Campion Hall, Oxford. Dating to the period 1942-1952, it’s one of a series picturing scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary.
The murals are particularly interesting, as each pictures the season in which the scene took place. Since the birth of Christ was in December, the scene here is of a bleak midwinter, with cold blues, bare trees and dead leaves.
The subdued image also reflects when and where it was painted – during the Second World War, in England. Notice, for example, how one of the shepherds is dressed in a brown, British Army greatcoat while a very English cottage is seen in the background.
The two girls kneeling in prayer (with forties-style bows in their hair), also appear within some of the other murals. Meanwhile, the angel who spoke to the shepherds hovers rather menacingly overhead.
See the full image:
Reproduced courtesy of the Master and community of Campion Hall, Oxford
Detail of the Holy Family:
Detail of the shepherds:
Where to find this work of art
Campion Hall, Oxford – by arrangement
Read the relevant passage