Scripture Readings: Isaiah 9:2-7; Letter to Titus 2:11-14; Gospel According to Luke 2:1-14
First, a blessed and Merry Christmas to all! The celebrations have just begun, and continue in earnest for nearly two weeks, for what are traditionally called the “Twelve Days of Christmas.” The Christmas season extends until the Epiphany of the Lord, on January 6th. Put another way, as folks are dismantling Christmas displays, religious or otherwise, the Church is saying to the faithful: keep celebrating! It should have all begun on Christmas Eve and going on for many days hence. It is of course hard to alter the prevailing culture, though Christians can surely strive to do so, in peace and in love.
In the first reading for Midnight Mass, from the Prophet Isaiah, we see God’s saving presence, by sending a child to rule the people. This is cause for abundant joy, as peace and deliverance are assured for God’s suffering people who are in exile. People who were formerly oppressed and separate from their homeland, are compared to harnessed animals, and so their being freed is likened to a breaking of the yoke that had tyrannized them.
What was spoken about in political terms in the Book of Isaiah is understood in the Christian context as perfectly fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, Savior of all people. In Jesus, the Son of David, “Lion of the tribe of Judah, root of the offspring of David” (Book of Revelation 5:5), all of God’s promises to the people are fulfilled. Is it any wonder that C.S. Lewis chose a lion to be the representative of deliverance?
Christian tradition has seen the hope of our ancestors in the faith for a political and earthly king, realized perfectly in the ideal and eternal King and Messiah, Jesus Christ. Instead of overthrowing oppressive enemies surrounding God’s people, though, Jesus is recognized by His followers as being the One who conquers sin and death and bestows resurrected life, which no one can ever take away.
The second lesson for Christmas Mass at Midnight is from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus. In it, God’s love for the human race is emphasized, in the appearance of Jesus Christ in the flesh, what we call the Incarnation. Those who are willing to live in Christ, to adhere to the Redeemer, are asked to break with whatever is not of God and embrace the path of self-forgetfulness. Why? In order to serve and love one another, as Jesus lived and taught and which leads to true peace.
The Gospel assigned for Midnight Mass is completely focused on the birth of the Messiah, taken from the Gospel according to Saint Luke. The account of the birth of Christ revolves around two poles: heaven and earth. On earth there is the passage of time with its ebb and flow of human history. In heaven there is Divine glory, which is made manifest to humans by the child Jesus found in the manger. The Redeemer, born as an infant, is described by Saint Paul as “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).
As a link between heaven, from whence Jesus came, and earth, where he was born in time, are the angels, messenger of God’s word, who explain to the shepherds outside of Bethlehem the wonder that has taken place at the birth of the Jesus Christ. The angel calls it “tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people.”
The great joy at the birth of Jesus is for the poor in spirit, those who know their need of God, hopefully all of us. In all that takes place on Christmas morning: the birth of the Holy Child Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and the appearance of the angel to the shepherds, are all manifestations or appearances of God’s glory, meant for the good of the whole human race.
Two thousand years later we are heirs to the good news of Christmas morning and the promise of sharing in Divine life. This unfolds by the choices we make, the energy we expend, to know, love and serve the living God. It is a life-long endeavor and we do not do it alone. We are part of God’s family, linked to one another, through good times and bad, but always cognizant that God will not abandon us nor disappoint us in our expectations.
What is the effect of the appearance of God on earth two thousand years ago, in the birth of Jesus Christ that we celebrate in this holy season? It is nothing less than peace among people on whom God’s favor rests. Is this intended just for a select few? Hardly, for it is a gift for all people of all times, and a peace not that the world can give, but which God alone can bestow, namely resurrected and eternal life.
May the joy of this Christmas night and the days ahead be “boosters” for us in this time of pandemic and sorrow in many parts of the world, and perhaps in our own hearts and lives. May we possess perspective and persistence, resilience and optimism in the face of discouragement, and never lose sight of the One who has created us and holds us like a mother hen.
Saint Frances de Sales said this: “We should hide our littleness in God’s greatness and stay there like a little bird, beneath its mother’s sheltering wing.”
An old Christmas carol from England speaks of “Tidings of comfort and joy” at the birth of the Messiah. May that be our gift from God as well!
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB