Several years ago, my (then) fiancé and I made our way through the frigid streets of Rome one dark January morning. Hoping to beat the crowds, our deepest desire was to have some quiet time to pray together in St. Peter’s Basilica the day before our wedding. Upon entering this glorious basilica for the first time we were immediately rendered speechless by the beauty surrounding us. We weren’t even ten feet in the door before seeing one of history’s most famous works of art, the Pieta by Michelangelo.
The statue had always fascinated me. Beyond the incredible artistry and exquisite detail, for me the Pieta was an invitation into the heart and mind of God… and Mary. The faithful yet sorrowful Mother holding her heroic yet lifeless Son. Many no doubt thought on that eerie Friday afternoon, “What a tragic end to a miraculous life!” Of course, as Christians we have the advantage of looking at Good Friday in retrospect. Twenty centuries later we know that the miraculous end to Good Friday would be revealed on Easter Sunday morning. You might be wondering what this has to do with Christmas…lest we forget that the wood of the Messiah’s manger prefigures the wood of Christ’s cross.
As it is with the Christian life, if we want to see clearly… as God sees… we have to look at the big picture of salvation. If we want to understand Jesus’ death, for instance, we need to begin with his birth and when we do, we will undoubtedly learn something very interesting… that he was born to die. In fact, if you want to get technical, that pieta moment first occurred not on Calvary, but in Bethlehem. The manger’s wood was a foreshadowing; it is the Cross of Christmas. There is far more going on at Jesus’ birth than many of us realize upon first glance.
NOT-SO JOYFUL MYSTERIES
At first glance, the Joyful Mysteries might not appear that joyful. Consider these moments from the Gospels: a teenage virgin is pregnant but not with her husband’s child. The girl then leaves home for three months and later travels ninety miles by donkey in her third trimester of pregnancy. She then gives birth in a cave surrounded by animals, hears from a prophet that both she and her child will suffer greatly and then, to top it all off, she and her husband have their pre-teen son … the son of God … go missing for three days.
Most would not consider these moments very joyful. Upon further reflection on these mysterious events, however, you begin to see that they are actually a cause for intense joy.
God was on a rescue mission to save you, and that mission included some courageous souls fighting through some incredibly challenging and painful situations. Not only do the Joyful Mysteries walk us more deeply into the conception, birth, and childhood of our Lord Jesus, they reveal to us a God who is madly in love with us; a God who will stop at nothing to save all of us from death.
There’s a famous saying that in order to be successful you should “begin with the end in mind.” If that is the case, there is no better example of “success” than the Gospels. God, quite obviously, had a detailed plan to save us, as the birth and the death of Jesus have striking similarities.
Consider just these few parallels between Bethlehem and Calvary:
- Angels are present during Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection (Luke 2:13; Matthew 26:53; John 20:12).
- Mary, our Mother, is present in both accounts (Matthew 2:11-13; John 19:26-27).
- In both scenes, Jesus was draped in swaddling clothes (Luke 2:7, 23:53).
- Each event was accompanied by a celestial act/sign (Matthew 2:2, 27:45).
- The wooden manger lies between two animals, the wooden cross between two thieves (Isaiah 1:3; Luke 2:12, 23:33).
- A righteous man named Joseph was present at both his birth and his death (Luke 2:16; 19:38).
- Jesus was pronounced “King of the Jews” at each (Matthew 2:2; John 19:19).
Both events took place on a hill, on the outskirts of Jerusalem (Bethlehem and Calvary are both set within many hills). Both Jesus’ birth and death/resurrection were foretold in advance (prophecy), both were miraculous, and both involved God “emptying” himself for us, and both events ultimately lead to our salvation.
How divine that the same eyes which welled with joyful tears one starry night in Bethlehem also shed the broken tears of a widowed mother holding the same blessed Body years later. The only thing separating the Nativity from the Pieta is time and perspective. The manger lays in the shadow of the Cross. Joseph held and wiped the blood off his new baby boy that night in Bethlehem, and Joseph of Arimathea would share a similar honor three decades later.
Biblical scholars affirm that it was not a barn, but a cave hewn out of rock that served as the first Christmas tabernacle, which is a perfect mirror image to the Easter tabernacle of the rock-hewn tomb. It was out of a cave that the Word became flesh and out of a cave that the Word breathed life once again. Both caves acted as a starting point for heaven, although both were ending points in the eyes of earth.
Now, some people like to look upon these consistencies as proof that the stories must be false or deemed pure myth. However, that point of view is painfully short-sighted, as it not only fails to respect God’s providence but also the irrefutability of written prophecies penned centuries earlier by distinctly different authors who were not contemporaries. These guys didn’t compare notes. No, these similarities were part of God’s divinely inspired design, showing us all the inseparability of the two events; Christmas and Easter are like two sides of the same coin.
God is not ironic; he is, however, all-knowing, all-directing, and all-powerful. His plan, from the beginning, was to save us. That is why we say that Jesus was born to die. When God emptied himself and took flesh (Philipians 2:7-9), he was on a mission. Christ came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. In both of these events, history and the future were both irreversibly changed forever. How fitting that the two most important events in this drama we call history would be linked by the same cast of characters.
Bethlehem and Calvary were less than seven miles apart geographically; they are even closer in the heart of God.
Contemplate these things in your heart as we enter into the Christmas season. In Jesus’ birth we celebrate his life, which resulted in his death, which offered us all new life . . . in him.
So, it seems, that love and suffering are inexorably and inseparably linked.