When Heaven Meets Earth

Luke’s Gospel has been described as the most beautiful book ever written. One reason for that description is its infancy narrative, with its familiar biblical language, attractive characters and subtle theology. Deliberately imitating the style of the Old Testament historical books, Luke portrays the birth of Jesus as the meeting of heaven and earth. This event fulfills Israel’s hopes for the Davidic Messiah and has lasting significance for all peoples.

The Lukan birth narrative read at Midnight Mass on Christmas explains how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem (the city of David), describes the humble circumstances of his birth and recounts the angelic proclamation to shepherds about the significance of Jesus’ birth. In narrating how the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Luke shows how heaven met earth in the child Jesus.

On the surface Luke’s birth narrative can seem placid, charming and even romantic. But beneath the soothing surface we can glimpse some harsh political and social realities. The reason why Jesus came to born in Bethlehem was an imperial decree ordering a census of all the peoples subject to the Roman empire. Because there was no room in the usual lodging places, the child was born in a cave or perhaps part of a house reserved for animals. The newborn was placed in a trough from which animals ate. The first human witnesses to the child were shepherds, regarded in some religious circles as liars and social outcasts.

At the same time, Jesus is no ordinary child. He is a firstborn son, with traditional rights and privileges. Angels attend his birth, and one identifies him as the “Messiah and Lord” born in David’s own city. His birth is an occasion for joy on earth and for giving glory to God. The language in which the angels proclaim Jesus’ birth may reflect a parody on claims made about the emperor Augustus. The child Jesus (not Augustus) is Lord and Savior, and his birth is the real “good news” to be celebrated. In these circumstances heaven met earth when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The messianic prophecy from Isaiah 9 looks forward with joy to the appearance of a descendant of David who will defeat the enemies of God’s people and rule them with justice. A new event in salvation history demands a “new song,” and Psalm 96 befits the celebration of Jesus’ birth especially with its call to “let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice.”

The reading from Titus 2 places the birth of Jesus in its wider theological context. It describes Jesus as the manifestation of God’s favor and saving power, insists that we reject godless ways and live “temperately, justly and devoutly,” looks forward to the even more glorious Second Coming of Christ and reminds us of the redemptive significance of Jesus’ passion and death in the story of our salvation. In Jesus the Word of God, heaven still meets earth.

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Matthew’s community struggled to understand why so few believed in Jesus. How was it possible, they wondered, that friends and loved ones heard the same message but did not grasp its implications?
Michael SimoneJune 30, 2017
Jesus offers the same yoke that he bears, the saving mission he receives from the Father.
Michael SimoneJune 16, 2017
What might get lost in this elegant theology is that the Trinity does not act merely for God’s own glory, but to form a people.
Michael SimoneMay 19, 2017
Our most important task is to reveal God at work. Such efforts continue the original work of the apostles, who spoke “in their own tongues of the mighty acts of God.”
Michael SimoneMay 19, 2017