The Gospel reading for the Christmas Mass at midnight is Luke’s narrative of the Holy Family returning to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem to enroll in the census. With no room at the inn, they are forced to stay in the animals’ shelter. Mary gives birth to the Lord Jesus: “She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger.” Their only attendants are nearby shepherds, who learn from an angel of the birth of the Messiah.
Consider it less romantic and more utterly humble. Or perhaps it is romantic, as the Incarnate Word romances us in the ordinariness of our lives. As we celebrate the incarnation of God 2,000 years ago, we also celebrate his incarnate life here in the midst of our own day-to-day existence, even as we look forward to his final coming.
The story goes that from a medieval English town Rabbi Isaac, known to be a holy visionary, traveled to the baron’s castle to see him and his wife. “I have been given a divine secret and commanded by God to share it with you,” he told them. “You may never speak of this again.” They agreed. “The secret,” said Rabbi Isaac, “is that the messiah is hidden among us. That is all I am permitted to say.”
The baron knew that Christ had already come, so this must mean that it is the end time. He had one request: “Please Rabbi, tell the monks of our monastery, for they must hear this great news.” The rabbi agreed, and when he met the monks he swore them to secrecy: “The messiah is hidden among us,” he repeated, “but you must not speak of this again, even among yourselves, until he chooses to reveal himself.”
Now this monastery was not in good shape. The monks were fond of quarrels, of gossip and of striving for authority. “Who is he?” they wondered among themselves. Given the humility of divine love, some thought perhaps it was the strange brother who tended the garden. Others imagined perhaps the abbot. It could even be the monk next to them who sang off key day after day. Speculation ran everywhere. So they began to treat each other as though he could be the hidden messiah. You never know.
The baron and his wife privately speculated too. They wondered about each other, about the stable boy, the village fool.... It could be anyone! Not surprisingly, the baron lived quite well, while the peasants’ lives were little more than hardship. He and his wife sold their tapestries, fine clothes and many sets of dishes. They shared their proceeds with those most in need. They also transformed part of their castle into a hospice to care for those most dangerously ill. Who knows if that peasant they washed and cared for might be the hidden messiah.
The people of the realm had never experienced such generosity by their lord and lady. They in turn became even more loyal, and they began to treat each other differently. Thefts became unknown, doors remained unlocked, and strangers no longer found suspicion but hospitality.
News of the monastery got back to the people. The brothers never prayed or worked with such love and devotion. They were so happy, so blessed, knowing that the messiah was hidden among them. Some people even said that on a dark, clear night, you could see the monastery itself seem to radiate light.
The monks aged and died, to be replaced by other young men, some zealous and others less so. The baron and his wife died and were replaced by their children and grandchildren, as was the case with all the townspeople. Rabbi Isaac died and was replaced several times over by other rabbis.
Generations came and went. Bickering returned a bit, and suspicion sometimes replaced trust. The baron’s grandson was not the man his grandfather was. And they all looked back to that time, now many years ago, when it wasn’t that way. “Why has all this changed?” they sometimes wondered. “What secret did they know that we do not?”
This is the secret—but you mustn’t tell anyone—the messiah is hidden among us.