Our collection begins with the work of one of the most thorough students of the Bible in the early church, and with a sermon that may well have been preached in Bethlehem itself, in a church built to honor Jesus' birth (the Basilica of the Nativity). Jerome was a pioneer biblical scholar, who translated the entire Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament into Latin, and is known for his work in assessing the validity of biblical manuscripts. After living in Rome, Antioch, and Constantinople, he worked for almost thirty five years in Bethlehem.

Most of Jerome's Christmas sermon consists of phrase-by-phrase commentary on Luke 2. Jerome's pastoral intent can be seen in his advice to the poor to take comfort in Jesus' lowly birth. He takes time to ponder each textual detail, often citing other Scripture texts that provide insight on the meaning o f a given phrase-though occasionally Jerome makes more of each detail than the text warrants (did Joseph really not touch baby Jesus?). The sermon also includes a short treatise on why Jesus' birth should be celebrated on Christmas (in light of a calendar dispute with other Christians of the time) and culminates with a summons to Christmas praise. In a move emulated by preachers o f every generation, Jerome ends with an apology for preaching too long ("We have forgotten our resolution and said more than we intended"!).

In this sermon, Jerome was the first to tie Lukes comment that there was no room found for them in the inn to the idea of Jewish unfaithfulness. This association fed into the adversus Judaeos tradition, which was used to fuel Christian hatred of Jews.

"She laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." (Luke 2:7) His mother laid him in a manger. Joseph did not dare to touch him, for he knew he had not been begotten of him. In awe, he rejoiced at a son, but he did not dare to touch the Son.

"She laid him in a manger." Why in a manger? That the prophecy of Isaiah, the prophet, might be fulfilled: "An ox knows its owner, and a donkey, its master's manger." (Isa.1:3) In another place, it is written: "You save both humans and animals, O Lord." (Ps. 36:6) If you are human, eat the Bread; if you are an animal, come to the manger.

"Because there was no room for them in the inn." Appropriately said: "There was no room for them in the inn," for Jewish unbelief had overflowed into everything. He found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk, and silver. He is born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable (wherever there is a stable, there is also dung) where our sins were more filthy than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it; "from a dunghill he lifts up the poor." (Ps.113:7) He is born on a dunghill, where Job, too, sat and afterwards was crowned.

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"There was no room for them in the inn." The poor should take great comfort from this. Joseph and Mary, the mother of the Lord, had no servant boy, no maid servant. From Nazareth in Galilee, they come all alone; they own no work animals; they are their own masters and servants. Here is a new thought. They go to the wayside inn, not into the city, for poverty is too timid to venture among the rich. Note the extent of their poverty. They go to a wayside inn. Holy Scripture did not say that the inn was on the road, but on a wayside off the road, not on it, but beyond it; not on the way of the Law, but on the byway of the Gospel, on the byroad. There was no other place unoccupied for the birth of the Savior except a manger, a manger to which were tethered cattle and donkeys. O, if only I were permitted to see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as an honor to Christ, we have taken away the manger of clay and have replaced it with crib of silver, but more precious to me is the one that has been removed. Silver and gold are appropriate for unbelievers; Christian faith is worthy of the manger that is made of clay. He who was born in that manger cared nothing for gold and silver. I do not find fault with those who made the change in the cause of honor (nor do I look with disfavor upon those in the Temple who made vessels of gold), but I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay.

"There were shepherds in the fields nearby keeping watch." (Luke 2:8) They will not find Christ unless they keep watch, which is the shepherd's duty. Christ is not found except by the alert. That is why the bride says: "I was sleeping, but my heart was awake." (Song 5:2) "Indeed the guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." (Ps. 121:4) There were shepherds in the fields nearby. Herod was there; the high priests, the Pharisees were there; while they were sleeping, Christ is found in a lonely grotto.

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"Shepherds keeping watch over their flock at night." They were guarding their flock so that the wolf would not attack while they slept. They were keeping careful watch; the threat to the flock from the treachery of wild animals was reason enough. They were keeping watch, as it were, over the Lord's flock, but they could not keep it safe; therefore they urgently asked the Lord to come and save it.

"An angel of the Lord stood by them." (Luke 2:9) They who were so alert deserved to have an angel come to them.

"The glory of God shone around them, and they were terrified." Human fear is unable to gaze on a magnificent and majestic vision. Because they were so thoroughly terrified, the angel speaks and, like a healing salve applied to wounds, restores their confidence.

"Do not be afraid," for you cannot grasp what I am saying if you are paralyzed by fear.

"There has been born to you today in the town of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." (Luke 2:11) These are weighty words. While they were so astonished, "suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying." (Luke 2:13) Since one angel had announced the nativity of the Lord, and so that it would not seem that only one testifies, the entire host resounds in one song of keep praise: "Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth found among those of good will." (Luke 2:14) If sins, according to the heretics, are a daily occurrence in heaven, how can there be glory in heaven, and why is peace prayed for on earth? Notice what the Gospel says. In heaven, where there is no conflict, glory rules; on earth, where every day is warfare, peace prevails. On earth peace. Peace among whom? Among humans. Why are the Gentiles without peace; why, too, the Jews? That is exactly the reason for the qualification: peace among those of good will, among those who acknowledge the birth of Christ.

"The shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go to Bethlehem.'" (Luke 2:15) Let us leave the deserted Temple and go to Bethlehem. "And see the word which was made." Truly alert, they did not say, "Let us see the child, let us find out what is being announced"; but, "Let us see the word that has been made."

In the beginning was the Word … And the Word was made flesh." (John 1:1, 14) The Word that has always been, let us see how it was made for us. "And see this word which was made, which the Lord has made, and has made known to us." (cf. Luke 2:15) This same Word made itself, inasmuch as were this same Word is the Lord. Let us see, therefore, in what way this same Word, the Lord himself, has made himself and has made his flesh known to us. Because we could not see him as long as he was the Word, let us see his flesh because it is flesh; let us see how the Word was made flesh.

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"So they went with haste." (Luke 2:16) The eager longing of their souls gave wings to their feet; they could not keep pace with their desire to see him: "So they went with haste." Because they ran so eagerly, they find him whom they were seeking. Let us see what they find.

"Mary and Joseph." If she were truly the wife, it would be improper to say, they found the wife and the husband; but the Gospel named the woman first, then the man. What does Holy Scripture say? "They found Mary and Joseph": they found Mary, the mother, and Joseph, the guardian.

"And the babe lying in the manger." And when they had seen him, they understood concerning the word, what had been told them concerning this child.

"But Mary kept in mind all these words, pondering them in her heart." (Luke 2:16-19) What does pondering mean? It must have meant weighing carefully in her heart, meditating within herself, and comparing notes in her heart. A certain interpreter explains "pondering in her heart" as follows: she was a holy woman, had read the Sacred Scriptures, knew the prophets, and was recalling that the angel Gabriel had said to her the same things that the prophets had foretold. She was pondering in her heart whether the prophets anticipated the words: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and therefore the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God." (Luke 1:35) Gabriel had said that; Isaiah had foretold: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son." (Isa. 7:14) She had read the latter; she had heard the former. She looked at the child lying before her; she saw the child crying in the manger; she saw there the Son of God, her Son, her one and only Son; she looked at him, and in her musing, she compared what she had heard with what she had read and with what she herself perceived.

Since she was pondering in her heart, let us, likewise, meditate in our hearts that on this day Christ is born. There are some who think that he was born on Epiphany. We do not condemn the opinion of others, but follow the conclusions of our own study. "Let everyone be convinced in his own mind and perhaps the Lord will make it clear to each one." (cf. Rom. 14:5; Phil. 3:15) Both those who say the Lord is born then, and we who say he is born today, worship one Lord, acknowledge one Babe. Let us review a few facts, however, not to rebuke others by our reasoning, but to confirm our own position. We are not airing our own opinion, but supporting tradition. The common consent of the world is contrary to the thinking of this province. Perhaps someone may object: "Christ was born here; are they who are far away better informed than those who are close by? Who told you?" They who are of this province, of course, the apostles, Peter and Paul, and the rest of them. You have rejected tradition; we have accepted it; Peter who was here with John, who lived here with James, taught us also in the West. The apostles are both your teachers and ours.

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Here is another fact. The Jews, at that time, were ruling in Judea. Furthermore, the Acts of the Apostles reports: "On that day a great persecution broke out and those who believed were scattered abroad." (Acts 8:1) They went into Cyprus and into Antioch, and the dispersed Jews penetrated the whole world. Since, therefore, the Jews were in power for forty-two years after the Ascension of the Lord, everywhere else there was peace; here, alone, there was war. Tradition could, then, be preserved more easily in the West than in Judea where there was conflict. After forty-two years, the armies of Vespasian and Titus arrived; Jerusalem was overthrown and destroyed; all the Jews and Christians were driven out, every one of them. Until the time of Hadrian, Jerusalem remained a wilderness; there was not one Jew nor one Christian left in this entire province. Then Hadrian came and, because another revolution of the Jews broke out in Galilee, he destroyed what had remained of the city. He further proclaimed by law that no Jew was permitted to approach Jerusalem, and brought new settlers into the city from different provinces. I might mention that Hadrian's name was Aelius Hadrian, and that, after he destroyed Jerusalem, he called the restored city Aelia.

Why am I saying all this? Because they say to us: This is where the apostles lived; this is where the tradition has been established. Now, we say that Christ was born today; on Epiphany, he was reborn. You who maintain he was born on Epiphany prove for us generation and regeneration. When did he receive baptism, unless you face the consequence that on the same day he was born and reborn? Even nature is in agreement with our claim, for the world itself bears witness to our statement. Up to this day, darkness increases; from this day on, it decreases; light increases, darkness decreases; the day waxes, error wanes; truth advances. For us today, the Sun of justice is born. In conclusion, consider another point. Between the Lord and John the Baptist, there are six months. If you study the nativity of John in relation to Christ's, you will see that they are six months apart.

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Since we have touched on many things and have heard the Babe crying in the manger and have adored him there, let us continue our adoration of him today. Let us pick him up in our arms and adore him as the Son of God. Mighty God who for so long a time thundered in heaven and did not redeem humanity, cries and as a babe redeems him. Why do I say all this? Because pride never brings salvation, but humility does. As long as the Son of God was in heaven, he was not adored; he descends to earth and is adored. He had beneath him the sun, the moon, the angels, and he was not adored; on earth, he is born perfect man, a whole man, to heal the whole world. Whatever of human nature he did not assume, he could not save; if he assumed only the body and not the soul, he did not save the soul. Did he, then, save what is of less value and not redeem that which is of greater? If, however, they admit that he saved the soul that he assumed, then consider that, just as the soul is superior to the body, reason is similarly the ruling faculty of the soul itself. If Christ did not redeem human rationality, neither did he save the soul which is less. You reply that he did not take upon himself a human mind, in order that his heart might be free from human vices, evil thoughts, and desires. Do you mean, therefore, that if he could not control what he made, I should consider myself unworthy if I cannot conquer what he should have conquered?

We have forgotten our resolution and said more than we intended; the mind planned to do one thing, the tongue in its zeal slipped ahead. Let us be ready now to give our attention to the Bishop and earnestly take to heart what he has to say on what I have left out. Let us bless the Lord, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Reprinted by permission. The Homilies of Saint Jerome, ed. Marie Ligouri Ewald, in The Fathers of the Church, vol. 57. Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1966, pgs 221-28.

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More Christmas articles available from our Christmas page include:

An After-Christmas Gift | A homeless man, an angel, and a reminder about our final home. (Dec. 23, 2003)
I'm Dreaming of a Victorian Christmas | An ageless story reminds us of the values the Victorians can still teach us. (Dec. 23, 2002)
O Christmas Tree | A truly "traditional" tree would be unrecognizable—and flammable. (Dec. 14, 2001)
Christmas Kettles | The history behind a Yuletide institution. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Yabba-ka-doodles! | I'd begun to think of joy as a hard taskmistress, and of Christmas as her nasty elder sister. (12/03/2001)
Why December 25? | The month and day of Christ's birth have been hotly disputed for centuries. (12/8/2000)