Christmas Midnight Mass: The Wonder of Christmas

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Tonight’s liturgy and readings of the Nativity of the Lord, Christmas Mass during midnight, is full of contrasting words and images.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah proclaims,

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9: 1).

These prophetic words from Isaiah truly express the paradoxical challenge of living the spirit of Christmas: Christmas is to see and to walk towards the light amidst the darkness of our lives and our world

The second reading, St. Paul in his letter to Titus, speaks of the two comings of Christ: (1) “the grace of God has appeared,” that is, in the Christ event (and Bethlehem marks the inception of its appearance); (2) “while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory…”

In the Nativity, Christ comes first in great humility in anticipation of his coming again in majesty and great glory. It is especially fitting that this note should be struck at the Midnight Mass of Christmas, for much of the traditional imagery speaks of the Lord’s Second Coming as taking place at midnight. This imagery, for example, is found in the parable of the ten virgins: “At midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom!’” (Mt 25:6).

Lest we sentimentalize Christmas into a “Baby Jesus” cult, we need to remember that it is only in the light of the Second Coming that we can celebrate the first coming.  We are kind of living in-between times. Jesus has already come more than 2,000 years ago but we still await the fullness of his coming when we partake of his glory at the end of time.

Of all the readings, the gospel has the most contrasting images. Christmas is the birth of the king. But the new king wasn’t born in a palace, his birth wasn’t hailed by heralds fanning out to every corner of the empire. Instead, his family were refugees: They couldn’t find room at the inn; Mary gave birth in a stable; and the child had to rest in a manger.

There is darkness in the night, and yet the radiance of  God’s love is in the child. The winter is cold, but the baby brings the fire of God’s love to earth. The baby is so small and helpless; and yet he is the Word, who in the beginning was God and was with God. The humble animals surround the child, but the angels of God sing his birth. The child is poor and lowly in origin, and yet all the power of God is his. The stable is lowly, but it is the king of kings who is born into it.

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It is in these contrasts that we can find the wonder of Christmas. Indeed, Christmas is not the eradication of contrast. Christmas is not the absence of conflict. It is not the deleting of differences. On the contrary, it is the acceptance of diversity. It is the welcoming of the other who is unique and different from me. Contrast, is at the core of God’s incarnation: God became fully human without God stripping of God’s divinity and human becoming divine without human stripping of humanity.

The wonder of Christmas is the story of God coming down from heaven and embracing the world and humanity despite all its darkness, messiness, sinfulness, and muddiness.  The wonder of Christmas is God’s becoming human by not resorting to human power, prestige, wealth and fame.

The wonder of Christmas, however, is not just God coming down to become human. The wonder of Christmas is also human going up to God by welcoming God’s word and plan in human life. The greatest joy of Christmas for humanity is this very sublime dignity that God has imparted to all of us through Jesus Christ–the opportunity to partake of God’s divine life and all its qualities–peace, justice, wisdom, joy, unity, generosity and prosperity.

Saint Athanasius, the renowned fourth-century bishop of Alexandria and the greatest apologetic of the doctrine of God as the Trinity, in his classic work, Incarnation of the Word, said that the incarnation of Christ occurred not just in order for God to become human but also for human to become God, Similarly, the Benedictine monk Julian of Vezelay (c. 1080 – 1165) highlights the double movement of the Christmas wonder–God’s becoming human and human becoming divine:

And so from his royal throne the Word of God came to us, humbling himself in order to raise us up, becoming poor to make us rich, and human to make us divine.

It is in this light that Mary’s yes is very important to the Christmas story. Mary’s fiat (yes) is a turning point in the history of the world. The turning point involved the incarnation as God’s coming down from heaven to become human and Mary’s yes which represents humanity’s aspiration of going up to God. Mary’s yes is the prototype of humanity’s yes, or more precisely, Mary’s yes represents humanity’s yes par excellence.

Mary’s yes is replicated by the shepherds who came to worship the baby in the manger and the different characters in the Christmas story that we have heard during the 9 days of Simbang Gabi or Christian academy. They are all part of the wonder of Christmas.

The wonder of Christmas will not be complete with just the birth of Jesus. The response and participation of Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters who allowed God to make them an instrument of God’s plan and dream for all humanity and creation, are all part of the Christmas wonder. The wonder of Christmas cannot be complete with merely God’s action; it includes and necessarily involves human response and participation.

We can never, therefore, experience the wonder of Christmas if we become passive observer of the great event of incarnation. You are part of the wonder of Christmas. God wants you to be part of the wonder of Christmas. We can be part of the wonder of Christmas not through the baby-cult, admiring the cute baby Jesus on the manger from the outside but not receiving Christ from the inside of our being. The wonder of Christmas is the reception of the Christmas story into our lives and like Mary, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Joseph, and many other prophets and characters, it is allowing ourselves to become instruments and heralds of the building of God’s kingdom, here and now.

This Christmas, let us once again welcome in wonder and awe the greatest event of God’s coming into our lives. Together with the whole world let us bow down and adore our savior Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us humbly receive the birth of Jesus in our hearts and resoundingly accept our becoming part of the Christmas wonder.

A most blessed Christmas to all!

 

Here is the schedule of Christmas Day masses at the Baclaran Shrine (Philippine Time). All Christmas Day masses at the shrine are streamed live. Click this link to watch and listen to the Christmas Day masses at the shrine.

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3RD SUNDAY OF ADVENT: THE REAL JOY OF CHRISTMAS

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Christmas is the season of joy. It is about the joy of the coming of the Lord among us. As in one of my most well-loved Christmas Carols, Joy to the World!

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing

The readings for this 3rd Sunday of Advent are all about joy. St. Paul in the Second Reading commends the Philippians:

“Brothers and sisters: rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again, rejoice.”

The word for rejoice in Latin is gaudete. Thus, this Sunday is called Gaudete Sunday.

The Church boldly  exhort people on this Third Sunday of Advent, ready or not, to rejoice. The joy that the church exhort the people is not, however, cheap and superficial joy.  It is not an escapist joy that numbs us and forgets all about the pain and sorrow in this life. As the song of Redemptorist Fr. Oli Castor goes,

How can I possibly sing a joyous Christmas song
when there’s so many people who know not where they belong

The joy of Christmas is not the fleeting joy that serves as an escape from the sad reality of our lives, which sadly has been the scourge for many of our people come every Christmas. It is rather the profound joy borne out of God’s immersion into the messiest and muddiest experiences of our humanity.

The readings also speaks of joy but not the shallow and cheap joy. In the first reading, from the prophet Zephaniah, the part we read this Sunday comes from a hymn celebrating the survival of the faithful remnant, a passage that commentators judge was added after the Babylonian Captivity. It is sung, therefore, by a group that has passed through tough times. In the midst of those difficulties they have come to know the presence of God so vividly that they can picture that the Lord “will sing joyfully … as one sings at festivals.” How did they get to be rejoicing survivors? In an earlier chapter the prophet had said,

Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth,
who have observed his law;
Seek justice, seek humility;
perhaps you may be sheltered
on the day of the Lord’s anger (Zeph 2:3).

In the Second Reading, when Paul exhorts the Philippians to rejoice, he is in a captivity of his own, in Roman custody. Like others who have been able to deal prayerfully with the enforced solitude of incarceration, he is able to urge rejoicing on much the same basis as Zephaniah’s surviving Judahites: he has come to know the presence of the Lord. It is not wishful thinking but personal testimony that stands behind his pep talk:

Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

In the gospel, the crowds John encountered in the desert had, themselves, little reason for joy about the happenings in their lives during that time. Yet they share a joyous and hopeful expectation of the coming of the Messiah who will deliver them from their lethargy and gloom. The people in long rows, gathering to be baptized in the wilderness, was expecting the Savior who is to come. In this context of joyful expectation, John exhorts the people to take concrete small steps towards making changes in their lives and the actual situation. The work for a better world is preparation for the coming of Christ. It is also a sign that the coming of Christ is near.  Each segment (the crowd, the tax collectors, the soldiers) asked John the Baptist the question: “Teacher, what should we do?”

He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

Rita Ferrone notes that Pope Francis echoed this passage in his address to 2014 Collegeville Conference on Liturgy, Music, and the Arts:

The crowds asked Pope Francis, “What then should we do?” To the pastors he said “Get out of the sacristy! Go and be with your people; smell like your sheep!” To the wealthy nations he said, “Give up your trickle down economic theories! Address the injustices that hold the poor in bondage.” To the religious he said “Answer the questions of the CDF,* but don’t let their investigations dismay you. Continue in your ministry!” [1]

Christmas is a season of joy borne out of the coming of the Lord in our midst. The coming of the Lord is both exciting and demanding. Christmas joy is the Lord Jesus Christ walking with us as we take small and steady steps in reforming our lives and transforming the world we live in.

Before Christmas, what little change can we make within ourselves and in our family, workplace and community we belong?

 


 

[1] July 7, 2014, Rita Ferrone, Church Reform, Pope Francis