December 25
from The Golden Legend1

There is disagreement about the date of the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh. Sonic say that it took place 5228 years after the birth of Adam, others that it occurred 6ouo years thereafter. Eusebius of Caesarea reckons only 5199 years in his Chronicle. Methodius was the first to put the date at 6000 years: but he found this by mystical inspiration rather than by chronological calculation.

It is known, in any case, that the birth of Christ occurred under Emperor Octavian, who was also called Caesar, after his uncle Julius Caesar, and Augustus, because he 'augmented' the Roman Republic, and Imperator- because of his imperial dignity; for, differing from other kings, he was the first to be called by that name. And at the same time when the Son of God was born in the flesh, a universal peace reigned in the world, which was united under the pacific authority of one Roman emperor.

Caesar Augustus, being master of the world, wished to know how many provinces, cities, fortresses, villages, and men he possessed. Consequently he decided that all the men of his Empire should go to the town or village of their origin, and to pay to the governor of the province a silver penny, in token of their submission to the Roman Empire. Thus it was that Joseph, who was of the house and family of David, went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem, whither the enrollment called him. And as the time was approaching for Mary to be delivered, and Joseph did not know when he would be able to return, he took her with him to Bethlehem, not wishing to confide to the hands of strangers the treasure with which God had entrusted him. The Book of the Infancy of the Saviour tells, in this regard, how the Virgin, as she drew near to Bethlehem, saw some of the people rejoicing, and others lamenting. And the angel explained this to her, saying: 'Those who rejoice are the people of the heathen who, in Abraham's seed, are about to be admitted to eternal bliss. Those who grieve are the people of the Jews, for God is about to cast them out, in accordance with their deserts.'

Then Joseph and Mary came to Bethlehem. Being poor, they could not find lodging in the inns, for these were already filled with those who had come for the same purpose; and they had to take shelter in a public passage, or shed. This, according to the Scbolastic History, was located between two houses, and served as a meeting place for the people of Bethlehem, or again as a shelter against the uncertainties of the weather. There Joseph set up a crib for his ox and his ass, or perhaps it was there already, for the peasants to use when they came to market.

And there, at midnight, the eve of Sunday, the Virgin brought forth her Son, and laid the beloved Child in the manger, upon some hay. This hay was later brought to Rome by Saint Helena; and it is said that neither the ox nor the ass dared to touch it.

Let us recall, in this regard, that everything about the birth of Christ was miraculous. In the first place, it was a miracle that the Mother of Christ was a virgin, after the birth of her Son as well as before.

We have five witnesses to prove that she was a virgin. The first is the prophet Isaias, who in his seventh Chapter says: 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.' The second is the example of Aaron's rod, which blossomed without the help of man. The third is Joseph's attention, for he watched over her and she remained pure. There is a fourth proof, for Bartholomew tells us that when the hour had come in which Mary was to be delivered, Joseph called two midwives, the one being called Zebel and the other Salome; not that he doubted that the Virgin would bear the Son of God, for he was only following the custom of the country. When Zebel saw that Mary was a virgin, she cried out: 'Truly, she is a virgin and she has given birth!' But Salome did not believe this and wished to examine her; thereupon her hand withered and died. Then an angel appeared and bade her touch the child; and immediately she was cured. The fifth proof was reported by Pope Innocent III. In the twelve years during which the world had been at peace, a temple of Peace had been built at Rome, in which was placed a statue of Romulus. The oracle of Apollo had been consulted, and had declared that the statue and the temple would stand until the day when a virgin would give birth to a child. All had concluded that the temple was to be eternal, for they did not believe it possible that a virgin could become a mother; and an inscription had been carved on the pediment: Eternal Temple of Peace. However, on the night of Our Lord's birth, this temple crumbled to the ground; and on its site the church of Santa Maria Nuova stands today.

No less miraculous are all the other circumstances of the Nativity. We know, for instance, that it was revealed to every class of creatures, from the stones, which are at the bottom of the scale of creation, to the angels,,who are at its summit.

The Nativity was revealed to inanimate creatures. We have already seen from the example just narrated that it was made known to the stones of a temple at Rome. Moreover it is known that in the night of the Nativity, the darkness of the night was changed to the brightness of day. In Rome, the water of a spring changed to oil, and flowed thus down to the Tiber; whereas the Sibyl had foretold that the Saviour of the world would be born when a fountain of oil began to flow. The same day, certain Magi were praying on a mountain, and saw a star appear which had the form of a fair child, bearing over his head a cross of fire. And he told the Magi that they were to go to Jerusalem, and there they would find a newborn child. The same day three suns appeared in the East, and fused into one, which was an evident sign of the Holy Trinity. Finally, here is what Pope Innocent III tells us: in order to reward Octavian for having established peace in the world, the Senate wished to pay him the honours of a god. But the wise Emperor, knowing that he was mortal, was unwilling to assume the title of immortal before he had asked the Sibyl whether the world would some day see the birth of a greater man than he. Now on the day of the Nativity the Sibyl was alone with the emperor, when at high noon, she saw a golden ring appear around the sun. In the middle of the circle stood a Virgin, of wondrous beauty, holding a child upon her bosom. The Sibyl showed this wonder to Caesar; and a voice was heard which said: 'This woman is the Altar of Heaven(Ara Coeli)!' And the Sibyl said to him: 'This child will be greater than thou.' Thus the room where this miracle took place was consecrated to the holy Virgin; and upon the site the church of Santa Maria in Ara Coeli stands today. However, other historians recount the same event in a slightly different way. According to them, Augustus mounted the Capitol, and asked the gods to make known to him who would reign after him; and he heard a voice saying: 'A heavenly Child, the Son of the living God, born of a spotless Virgin!' Whereupon Augustus erected the altar beneath which he placed the inscription: This is the altar of the Son of the living God.

The Nativity was revealed to the creatures which possessed existence and life, such as the plants and trees. For in the night of the Saviour's birth, the vines of Engedi bloomed, bore fruit, and produced their wine.

The Nativity was revealed to the creatures possessed of existence, life, and sensation, that is, to the animals. For indeed, Joseph, at his departure for Bethlehem, had taken with him an ox and an ass; the ox, perhaps, to sell, and so to have wherewith to pay the census tax, and the ass, no doubt, to bear the Virgin Mary. Now the ox and ass, miraculously recognizing the Lord, knelt before Him and adored Him.

The Nativity was revealed to the creatures possessed of existence, life, sensation, and reason, that is, to men. The very hour that it occurred, shepherds were watching the night through near their flocks, a thing which they did twice a year; for it was the custom of the ancient peoples to wake through the nights of the solstices - that is, the longest and shortest nights of the year. To these shepherds, then, an Angel appeared, and announced to them the birth of the Saviour, telling them also how they might find their way to Him. And they heard a multitude of angels singing, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will!' In yet another way, the Nativity was revealed through the Sodomites, who that right perished throughout the world. In this regard Saint Jerome tells us: 'So great a light arose that night that it extinguished all those who were given to this vice.' And Saint Augustine says that God, could not take flesh in the nature of man as long as there existed, in this nature, an unnatural vice.

Finally, the Nativity was revealed to the creatures who possessed existence, life, sensation, reason, and knowledge, namely to the angels; for it was the angels themselves, as we have just seen, who announced the birth of Christ to the shepherds.

Now we must define the divers reasons for which the Incarnation of Our Lord was accomplished. It came to pass, first, for the confusion of the demons, On the eve of Christmas, Saint Hugh, the Abbot of Cluny, saw the Blessed Virgin holding her Son in her arms, and she said to him: 'Behold the day in which the oracles of the Prophets shall be fulfilled! Where henceforth is the Enemy who until now prevailed against mankind?' At these words, the Devil came forth from the earth, to give the lie to Our Lady's words. But his wickedness was of no avail. In vain he roamed throughout the monastery: neither in the chapel, nor in the refectory, nor in the dormitory, nor in the chapter-room, did a single monk allow himself to be distracted from his duty, According to Peter of Cluny, the Child, in the vision of Saint Hugh, said to His Mother: 'Now where is the power of the Devil?' Whereupon the Devil came out of the ground, and answered-. 'I cannot, indeed, enter the chapel, where they are singing Thy praises-, but the chapter, the dormitory, and the refectory ire still open to me!' But it came out that the door of the chapter was too narrow for him, the door of the dormitory too low, and the door of the refectory blocked with obstacles which he could not surmount, these being none other than the charity of the monks, their attention to the reading of the day and their sobriety in eating and drinking.

Next, the Nativity took place to enable men to obtain pardon for their sins. A Book of Examples tells the story of a prostitute who, having finally repented, despaired of forgiveness. And since she deemed herself unworthy to invoke Christ glorious, or Christ in His Passion, she bethought herself that children were easier to mollify: wherefore she called upon the Child Christ, and a voice made known to her that she was pardoned.

The Nativity took place to cure our weakness. For as Saint Bernard says: 'Humankind suffers from a threefold malady - birth, life, and death. Before Christ, man's birth was impure, his life was corrupt, his death a peril. But Christ came, and against this threefold ill. He brought us a threefold remedy. His birth purified ours, His life corrected ours, and His death destroyed ours.'

Finally, the Nativity came to pass to humble our pride. For as Saint Augustine says: 'The humility which the Son of God showed in His Incarnation is to our benefit as an example, as a consecration, and as a medicine: as an example, to reach us to be humble ourselves; as a consecration, because it delivers us from the bonds of sin; and as a medicine, because it heals the turnout of our vain pride.'

1. From: The Golden Legend of Jacobus de Voragine, trans. and adapted by Ryan, Granger and Helmut Ripperger. (Arno Press: Longmans, Green & Co) 1941. pp. 46-51.