Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Christmas Midnight Mass: 2015

The Mass on Christmas Eve naturally invites comparison with that other nocturnal liturgy, the Easter Vigil. Among the more obvious  contrasts is that there are always more people on Christmas Eve than there are at the Vigil. What is strange about that is that while the Easter Vigil moves from darkness to light the Christmas Gospel records a movement from light to darkness. In the octave following Easter nothing is allowed to get in the way of celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus, But in the Christmas octave every effort is made to clutter up the time with other commemorations: the stoning of  Stephen, followed by St. John the Divine, the Holy Innocents massacred by the coming of Jesus, the murder of St. Thomas Becket. The birth of Jesus is the prelude to thirty years of obscurity, the hidden life of Jesus.

The mystery of Christmas is that God plunges himself into the darkness of the world. Jesus leaves his glory behind him and goes into the dark world, into insignificance, into the world of human limitations and restrictions, into the poverty of the crib.

So too the shepherds leave behind the heavenly glory of the angels and go into the darkness of the night.   They take the same path the Lord has taken.

The angels put on quite a show for the shepherds. They are addressed by an angel who shines upon them with the blinding glory of God and they are afraid. The angel says ‘do not be afraid’. Easy enough for an angel to say: Angels do not fear. They live in a world of light and nothing is hidden from them. So it is natural for angels to tell us not to fear. As it is natural for them to tell the truth: “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 while the angel is speaking to these poor frightened men he is joined by a vast number of others, who sing “Gloria in excelsis” in praise of God and announcing the peace of God to men. “Then ‘the angels went away from them into heaven.”

Probably the shepherds were relieved that the light of divine glory had receded and to find themselves in the familiar earthly darkness. But angels had done their job; they had proclaimed the Gospel to them, the ‘good news of a great joy’. So the Shepherds say  "Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us."

St. Jerome translates the passage: “let us go see this Word.” And when they arrive at the stable, St. Jerome says: seeing, they understood the word that had been spoken to them concerning this child.

Hearing is not enough; they also have to see. Which is one of the reasons that a homily on Christmas Eve is usually beside the point. Which also tells us something fundamental about the mystery of Christmas: not only is there something to hear but there is something to see. But it is demands night vision, the ability to see in the dark.

When the shepherds arrived at the stable what did they see? Nothing much with their physical eyes: a child, not necessarily the child, a youthful mother, a bewildered and weary father, and the usual inhabitants of stables, beasts, and outside the stars and midnight sky, which the shepherds must have seen every night. That was all there was to see. But what they saw with the night vision of faith was what St. Paul saw in the Epistle: ‘the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men.’ One suspects that the shepherds knew vaguely, certainly not with learning of St. Paul, of the coming of the Messiah, ‘the Consolation of Israel” “the Expectation of all the Nations” And maybe the prophecy: ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son and his name shall be called Emmanuel, God with us’. Could this child be the one who was to come? The question is for us as well.

But to the night vision of the Shepherds it was the promised Savior, Christ the Lord, Emmanuel, God with us.

From time immemorial God had declared his love for man: in the escape of a motely crew of slaves from Egypt, in the return from exile in Babylon. But now there it lies in concrete shape, visible, in bodily form, God’s love for man incarnate, in human flesh, embodied in the flesh of a little child. 

The world is as dark and dangerous tonight as it ever has been  but may we all be able to hear the angels and see with the eyes of the shepherds.  A very merry and happy Christmas to you all.

1 comment:

LSP said...

I liked that very much, especially the tactical bits about night vision. Useful.

I have a very good mind to get some Gen 2 or 3 night vision optics. Pricey? Sure, but worth it and saves messing about with lights.

Regardless. Merry Christmas!