Advent comes to an end this afternoon, and the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord begins with the First Vespers of Christmas tonight. Parishes in some places will even have the first Masses of Christmas as early as the liturgical laws of the Church will allow, some at 4:00 or 5:00 p.m. this afternoon, because in many places the first Christmas Mass is generally geared toward children for an obvious reason-parents may not want their very young children out of bed for tonight’s more traditional “Mass During the Night.” Not long ago we still called it Midnight Mass, and it was listed in our missals and missalettes as “Mass at Midnight.” Call me a traditionalist, I still prefer Midnight, but a lot of parishes are doing the Christmas Eve Mass at earlier times, and my own is one of them. C’est la vie…What is important is what this Mass and this night are commemorating.
I’ve written here at Life At 25 about the increasing secularization of our feasts and seasons, and we know that is especially true with Christmas more than any other time. I have never quite understood secular folks (well-meaning as many are) who make what we might call a “big deal” of Christmas. They may not use the imagery of faith that we would, but at least on the 25th of December, they’ll go great guns and have a great deal of enjoyment. What are they celebrating, if nothing in the world is to be celebrated tonight and tomorrow? Please, don’t take me wrong here, I am glad that the world will be having a good time and I’m not attempting to detract from whatever people’s reasons may be for celebrating, and I’ll be joining them, but the reason the world celebrates goes well beyond the Yule.
Even as so much of the world removes references to God and to Jesus Christ from days and places where we could find them in previous years, the birth of Jesus Christ is the one reality that no one seems able to escape from. Hard-core skeptics tried for years to tell us that his birth wasn’t real, but even the most hardened anti-religious skeptics have been forced to admit that Jesus was a real historical person. His influence is so great that even in attempting to remove Christ from the calendar (we used to say “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” which is roughly translated from the Latin as “The Year of Our Lord,” but now people use the words “Before the Common Era” and “Common Era”), the date used to determine when the present epoch of human history began is the traditional date for the birth of Christ, even if it was probably about four years off.
Never in human history before or since has one person had as much influence as Jesus of Nazareth. We believe that Jesus Christ is God, fully human and fully divine, and that our salvation was achieved because he became a man as we are, and was born into a real human family. God, who by definition is entirely apart (i.e. “other”) from the time and space of our earth and universe, entered into human history in a direct way in Jesus Christ, and he did it out of nothing more than love for us. That is truly worth celebrating.
The real message of Christmas, however, is not merely that God sent his Son Christ Jesus into the world to live among us, be one of us, and ultimately to die for us, though that is part of the message. The fullness of the message of Christmas is understood when we see how Christ came into the world. He could have come in glory and power. The Jewish people were, after all, expecting a Messiah. Someone who would restore Israel, someone who would restore God’s favor and make the Romans go away. He would be a king, they believed this because that is what the prophets said. They also said that the Messiah would be despised and rejected of men (Isaiah 53:3) and that he wouldn’t appear beautiful or be desired by men.
The King of Creation came to earth to be born as a human being, but more than this, he was born in a stable cave, in a manger. We tend to romanticize the nativity, but for a moment, let’s get very real. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, usually cows or pigs, sometimes sheep. Our Lord was laid in an animal trough and wrapped up in rags, it was all that the Blessed Mother and St. Joseph had that night…rags and a feeding trough. The Messiah, the Lord, the Son of God, the King of the Universe came into this world not in glory and majesty, but in the lowest humility, in a borrowed stable, a borrowed manger, and wrapped in rags.
Recall that as we entered the final days of Advent, I mentioned remembering the poor and the vulnerable, both physically and spiritually. The reason is because Jesus Christ came to us as poor and vulnerable…as one of us, and as one of the weakest among us, because of his love for us.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirin′i-us was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.