The True Meaning of Christmas: Encountering Jesus in the Eucharist
I had been an avid reader of books for many years before I discovered that many people start at the end.
I was unfamiliar with the practice of reading the final chapter or page of a novel before going back to start at the beginning, and I was surprised to find out that it is a common practice. Anecdotal evidence suggests that readers who do this can appreciate the literary style and small details of a story when the main plot points are already resolved, making a first reading feel more like a re-reading, and a 2011 study suggests that many readers derive more enjoyment from reading a story end-first.
End-first reading is somewhat like looking back on events that happen in our lives. Often, the meaning and deepest significance of our experiences is not clear as we are going through them. Reflection on the events of the day, week, year, or lifetime lets us view them in light of one another and see the coherence in the story of our own lives. Sometimes small events became big turning points, or the slender threads of a certain relationship had a big influence over time, and this is only apparent in hindsight.
Reading the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, we really benefit from hindsight. It’s easy to appreciate the story knowing how it ends, but not the same as putting yourself in the place of Joseph or the Magi or the Shepherds who experienced it. How did they understand what was happening at the time? What did the announcement that Jesus was the Savior mean to them? How did they reconcile the prophecy of a king’s birth with the poor child they met? How did they receive the angelic proclamation of “peace on earth” in a world torn by violence and injustice? These questions would be quite difficult to answer unless you read the endings of the Gospels.
Both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke culminate in the death and resurrection of Jesus. He is revealed as Savior, King, and Peace in a very unexpected way. The end of the Gospels profoundly interprets everything that happened at the beginning. In the Gospel of Matthew, Pilate asks Jesus, betrayed by his own people, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (27:11) long after Gentiles had been led by a star to pay homage to him as a king (2:11). In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (24:35) when at his very birth in Bethlehem (“house of bread”), shepherds had found him in a manger, a common food dish (2:16). Just as unexpected as the reappearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection was the gift that he had given before his passion and death: his abiding presence in his Body and Blood at the Last Supper. Emmanuel, “God with us” in the flesh (Matthew 1:23), made himself with us always “until the end of time” (Matthew 28:20).
This gift of God changes the meaning of the Infancy Narratives completely. Reading those alone, one could conclude that God sent his Son into the world just for a moment of history. That would certainly still change all of history, but the gift of the Eucharist reveals that Jesus intended to be present with his people forever. St. Ephraim the Syrian sang, ““You are, O Church, the abiding Bethlehem — for in you is the Bread of Life!” Every time we adore the Eucharist, we join the shepherds of Bethlehem; every time we bring an offering to the Church, we lay our gifts with the Magi; every time we contemplate the presence of Jesus in the tabernacle, we join Mary and Joseph who experienced God-in-the-flesh in their own home. Just as looking back on our lives helps us to understand and see meaning in the events of the past, the presence of the Lord with us now helps us to understand the coming of Jesus and see the meaning of what God has done.