Christmas – The birth of the Lord
The mystery of walking and seeing
1. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1).
This prophecy of Isaiah never ceases to touch us, especially when we hear it proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas Night. This is not simply an emotional or sentimental matter. It moves us because it states the deep reality of what we are: a people who walk, and all around us – and within us as well – there is darkness and light. In this night, as the spirit of darkness enfolds the world, there takes place anew the event which always amazes and surprises us: the people who walk see a great light. A light which makes us reflect on this mystery: the mystery of walking and seeing.
Walking. This verb makes us reflect on the course of history, that long journey which is the history of salvation, starting with Abraham, our father in faith, whom the Lord called one day to set out, to go forth from his country towards the land which he would show him. From that time on, our identity as believers has been that of a people making its pilgrim way towards the promised land. This history has always been accompanied by the Lord! He is ever faithful to his covenant and to his promises. Because he is faithful, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 Jn 1:5). Yet on the part of the people there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience, and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people adrift.
In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows. If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. “Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11). A people who walk, but as a pilgim people who do not want to go astray.
2. On this night, like a burst of brilliant light, there rings out the proclamation of the Apostle: “God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race” (Tit 2:11).
The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing that we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
3. The shepherds were the first to see this “tent”, to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. The pilrim is bound by duty to keep watch and the shepherds did just that. Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence. Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praises of his fidelity: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.
On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us, he so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). As the angels said to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid!”. And I also repeat to all of you: Do not be afraid! Our Father is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is mercy: our Father always forgives us. He is our peace. Amen.
24 December 2013
RETURN TO BETHLEHEM
In between greeting cards and gifts, dinners and noise, almost hidden by lights, trees and stars, it’s still possible to glimpse in the center of the Christmas festivities «a child laid in a manger». The same thing happens in the story of Bethlehem. There are lights, angels, and songs, but the heart of that grandiose scene is occupied by a child in a manger.
The Gospel writer tells of the birth of the Messiah with surprising restraint. For Mary «the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her son». Not one word more. What really seems interesting to the Gospel writer is how the child is welcomed. While in Bethlehem «there was no room» not even in the inn; in Mary he finds a touching welcome. The mother has no means, but she has heart: «She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger».
The reader can’t continue the story without expressing a first surprise: in this child God is incarnate? We would never have imagined it so. We think about a majestic and almighty God, and this God presents Self in the fragility of a weak and defenseless child.
We imagine God great and far away, and this God is offered to us in the tenderness of a newborn. How to be afraid of this God? Teresa of Liseux, declared a doctor of the church in 1997, says it thus: «I can’t fear a God who has been made so small for me… I love this God!».
The story offers a key to get close to the mystery of that God. Luke insists up to three times on the importance of the «manger». It’s like an obsession. Mary lays him in a manger. The shepherds are given no other sign: they’ll find him in a manger. Effectively, in the manger they meet him when they get to Bethlehem. The manger is the first place on earth where that God made child rests. That manger is the sign for recognizing him, the place where we must meet him. What’s hidden behind that enigma?
Luke is alluding to some words of the prophet Isaiah where God complains thus: «The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib; Israel does not know me, my people do not understand» (Is 1,3). You don’t have to seek God in what’s admirable and marvelous, but in the ordinary and daily things. You don’t have to investigate the great, but comb the small.
The shepherds show us where to look for the mystery of Christmas: «Let us go to Bethlehem». Let’s change our idea of God. Let’s do a rereading of our Christianity. Let’s return to the beginning and discover a God who is near and poor. Let’s welcome God’s tenderness. For the Christian, to celebrate Christmas is to «return to Bethlehem».
José Antonio Pagola
Translator: Fr. Jay VonHandorf
Glory to God and Peace to Men
Christmas Mass at Midnight
An ancient custom for the feast of Christmas foresees three Masses, called respectively “at night,” “at dawn,” “during the day.” In each Mass, through readings that vary, a different aspect of the mystery is presented, in such a way that we get, so to speak, a three-dimensional vision.
The Gospel of the Mass at night focuses on the event, on the historical fact. This is described with disconcerting simplicity, without any apparatus — three or four lines of humble and familiar words to describe the absolutely most important event in the history of the world, the coming of God to earth.
The task of bringing to light the significance and importance of this event is given, by the Evangelist, to the song intoned by the angels, after having made proclamation to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” In the past this expression was translated differently, that is, as “Peace on earth to men of good will.” In these words the expression entered into the Gloria and it became common in Christian language. After Vatican II this expression was used to indicate all the honest, who seek the true and the common good, whether or not they be believers.
But it is an inexact translation and for this reason it has been abandoned today. In the original biblical text it is a matter of men who are loved by God, who are the object of the divine good will, not that they themselves are gifted with good will. In this way the proclamation becomes more consoling. If peace were accorded to men on account of their good will, then it would be limited to a few, to those who merit it; but since it is accorded through God’s good will, through grace, it is offered to all. Christmas is not an appeal to the good will of men but a radiant proclamation of the good will of God toward men.
The key word, then, for understanding the angelic proclamation is the last one, that which speaks of the “favor” of God toward men, as font and origin of all that which God began to accomplish at Christmas. He predestined us to be his adopted sons “in accord with the favor of his will,” the apostle writes; he made known to us the mystery of his will, according to what he foreordained “in accord with his favor” (Ephesians 1:5,9). Christmas is the supreme epiphany of that which the Scripture calls God’s philanthropy, that is, his love for men: “The goodness of God and his love for men are manifested” (Titus 3:4).
Only after having contemplated the “good will” of God toward us can we concern ourselves also with the “good will” of men, that is, with our response to the mystery of Christmas. This good will must be expressed through imitation of God’s action. Imitating the mystery that we celebrate means abandoning every thought of justifying ourselves on our own, every remembrance of wrongs done to us, erasing from our hearts all resentment toward others, even justified resentment. It means not willingly allowing any hostile thought against anyone, whether against neighbors or those far away, the weak, the strong, the little, the great of the earth, or against any creature that exists in the world. This is what it means to honor the birth of the Lord, because God did not hold onto any rancor, he did not look at the wrong done to him, he did not wait for others to take the first step to him. If this is not always possible during the rest of the year, let us at least do it at Christmas. Thus Christmas will be truly the feast of goodness.
[Translation by Joseph G. Trabbic]
WHY DID GOD BECOME MAN
Mass on Christmas day
Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa
Let us go right to the apex of the prologue of John’s Gospel, which is read at the third Mass on Christmas day.
In the Credo there is a line that on this day we recite on our knees: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven.” This is the fundamental and perennially valid answer to the question — “Why did the word become flesh?” — but it needs to be understood and integrated.
The question put another way is in fact: “Why did he become man ‘for our salvation?'” Only because we had sinned and needed to be saved?
There is a vein of the theology inaugurated by Blessed Duns Scotus, a Franciscan theologian, which loosens a too exclusive connection to man’s sin and regards God’s glory as the primary reason for the Incarnation. “God decreed the incarnation of his Son in order to have someone outside of him who loved him in the highest way, in a way worthy of God.”
This answer, though beautiful, is still not the definitive one. For the Bible the most important thing is not, as it was for Greek philosophers, that God be loved, but that God “loves” and loved first (cf. 1 John 4:10, 19). God willed the incarnation of the Son not so much as to have someone outside the Trinity that would love him worthily as to have someone to love in a way worthy of him, that is, to love without measure!
At Christmas, when the child Jesus is born, God the Father has someone to love in an infinite way because Jesus is together man and God. But not only Jesus, but us together with him. We are included in this love, having become members of the body of Christ, “sons in the Son.” John’s prologue reminds of this: “To those who welcomed him he gave the power to become sons of God.”
Therefore, Christ did descend from heaven “for our salvation,” but what moved him to come down for our salvation was love, nothing else but love.
Christmas is the supreme proof of God’s “philanthropy,” as Scripture calls it (Titus 3:4), that is, of God’s love (philea) for man (anthropos). John too responds to the why of the Incarnation in this way: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever should believe in him would not die but have life everlasting” (John 3:16).
So, what should be our response to the message of Christmas? The Christmas carol “Adeste Fideles” says: “How can we not love one who has so loved us?”
There is much that we can do to solemnize Christmas, but the truest and most profound thing is suggested to us by these words. A sincere thought of gratitude, a feeling of love for him who came to live among us is the best gift we can give to the child Jesus, the most beautiful ornament in the manger.
To be sincere, however, love needs to be translated into concrete gestures. The simplest and most universal — when it is pure and innocent — is the kiss.
Let us kiss Jesus, then, as we desire to kiss all children just born. But let us not just kiss the statue of plaster or porcelain but the child Jesus in flesh and blood. When we have kissed those who are wretched, suffering, we have kissed him!
To kiss someone, in this sense, is to help in a real way, but it is also to speak a good word, to give encouragement, to pay a visit, to smile, and sometimes — why not — to give an actual kiss. These are the most beautiful candles that we can light in our manger.