The shepherds, imitators of the holy patriarchs, and the most innocent and guileless men in the world, were “keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Lk 2:8) Holy angels, accustomed to conversing with those shepherds of old—with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—brought these country folk the news that the great shepherd had arrived and that the earth was once again to see a shepherd king, the son of David.
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them.” (Lk 2:9) Let us not, like Manoah the father of Samson, ask the angel his name. He may well also respond to us, “Why do you ask my name, seeing it is wonderful?” (Judg 13:17-18) Yet do we not hope he is the same angel that appeared to Zachariah and to the Holy Virgin? Be that as it may, without presuming in a place where the Gospel does not speak, let us listen: “an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear.” (Lk 2:9)
All divine things initially cause fear in our sinful human nature, banished from heaven as we are. But the angel reassured them, saying “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy.” It is in the city of David, he said, this place so long marked out in prophecy, that today is born for you “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:10-12) By the singular sign of a child laid in a manger, you will recognize the Christ, the Lord. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,” who at the very same time is called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Is 9:6) “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace.” (Lk 2:13-14)
Here we see a new Lord to whom we belong, a Lord who now receives the supreme and divine name of Christ. This is the God who is the anointed one of God, the one to whom David sang: “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness above your fellows.” (Ps 45:7) You are God eternally, but you are newly the Christ, God and man at once, and the name of Lord is given to you to express that you are God with the same title as your Father. Henceforward, following the example of the angel, you will be called the Lord in all sovereignty. Command your new people. You do not yet speak, but you command them by your example. And what is that command? To love, or at least to esteem, poverty, and to reject the pomp of the world. To seek simplicity, even perhaps the holy rusticity of these new adorers that the angel brings to you, and who make up the whole of your courtiers, agreeable to Joseph and to Mary, and appearing like them, for they are equally arrayed with the robe of poverty.
Let us once more consider the angel’s words: “you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” (Lk 2:12) You will know by this sign that it is the Lord. Go to the courts of kings: you will recognize the newborn prince by his gold-embroidered covers and by a splendid cradle that looks something like a throne. Yet to know the Christ who is born for you, a Lord so high that David his father, although himself a king, called him “my Lord,” (Ps 110:1) all you are given as a sign is the manger in which he is lying, and the poor rags in which his frail infancy has been swaddled. That is to say, all you are given is a nature similar to your own and a poverty below your own. Which of us was born in a stable? Which of us, poor as we may be, gives his child a manger for a crib? Jesus is the only one abandoned to such an extent, and this is the mark by which we are to know him.
If he had wished to make a show of his power, with what gold would his head have been crowned? What purple would have covered his shoulders? What stones would have enriched his vestments? But, as Tertullian tells us, “he judged all this false display, all this borrowed glory, unworthy of him and of his own, and so, in refusing it, he disdained it, and in disdaining it, he proscribed it, and in proscribing it, he placed it with the pomp of the world and the devil.” So it was that our fathers the first Christians were wont to speak, while we wretches breathe only ambition and the love of comfort.