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Reflections for Christmas Vigil Mass

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Christmas Vigil Mass.

Christmas Vigil Mass: Is 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Mt 1:1-25

Introduction: The Scripture lessons for today focus on the first Christmas, or the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate today in all its solemnity. We are celebrating the fulfillment of the prophecies about our merciful God who sent His own Son to save a sinful world.

Homily starter anecdote: Consider Christmas Again: When Pope Julius I authorized December 25 to be celebrated as the birthday of Jesus in A.D. 353, who would have ever thought that it would become what it is today? In 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi used a nearby cave to set up a manger filled with straw, and his friend, Vellita, brought in an ox and a donkey, just like those at Bethlehem, nobody saw how that novel idea was going to evolve through centuries. When Professor Charles Follen lit candles on the first Christmas tree in America in 1832, who would have ever thought that the decorations would become as elaborate as they are today? There is an unproved legend that Martin Luther is responsible for the origin of the Christmas tree. This story says that one Christmas Eve, about the year 1500, he was walking through the snow-covered woods and was struck by the beauty of the snow glistening on the trees. Their branches, dusted with snow, shimmered in the moonlight. When he got home, he set up a small fir tree and shared the story with his children. He decorated the Christmas tree with small candles which he lighted in honor of Christ's birth. In 2019, as we walk through Advent again in the midst of all the excitement, elaborate decorations and expensive commercialization which surround Christmas today, we are given another opportunity to pause, to consider again the event of Christmas and the Person whose birth we celebrate. ( ).

Scripture lessons summarized: In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies how the God of Israel will honor the desolate and forsaken Jerusalem and land of Israel by espousing her as a man marries a virgin and makes her a mother. Yahweh does this by sending His long-awaited Messiah into Israel to possess it and rule over it.  The Messiah will vindicate Israel and save her. Through His prophet Isaiah, the Lord God wished to inspire the hopeless Israelites, returned from the Babylonian exile, to plant crops and make their desolate land fertile and prosperous so that she might be able to hold up her head again among the other nations.   In the second reading, St. Paul recounts the history of God’s mercy to Israel, His chosen people. God showed His mercy to His chosen people of Israel by fulfilling the prophecy about His long-awaited Messiah. He sent His Son as the Savior and the descendant of David. The Gospel reviews the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17), tracing his descent from Abraham through David as foretold by the prophet, then describing his birth as our Savior at Bethlehem (1:18-25), through the working of the Holy Spirit.   The Gospel also shows how God resolved the doubts of Joseph by sending His angel, first to reassure Joseph, then to instruct him to name the child Jesus. The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yehosua, which means ''Yahweh is salvation." Just as the first Joshua (the successor of Moses), saved the Israelites from their enemies, the second Joshua (Jesus) would save them from their sins. 

The first reading, Isaiah: 62:1-5 explained. After their exile in Babylon, the Jews returned to Judah where they had a difficult time restoring their old institutions, their economy, their capital Jerusalem and their Temple on Mount Zion. They were quite discouraged when the prophet Isaiah received this prophecy from God to restore their fallen spirits (Chapters 56-66.)   Just as we look forward to the celebration of the birth of the Messiah, so Isaiah looked forward to God’s breaking the silence of many years. In today’s text, Isaiah uses imagery to describe the conversion of Israel from gloom to joy. Isaiah compares the dispirited Jewish people to a woman who had thought she would never marry. But she suddenly has found a suitor! It’s Israel, the land of the Jews that the Lord proposes to marry, and, by extension, to make fertile. The prophecy's goal has been to inspire the hopeless people to plant crops and make their desolate land fertile.   Now, the Lord God says through Isaiah, Israel will be able to hold up her head again among the other nations, who will see her vindication.  

Second Reading, Acts 13:16-17, 22-25 explained: This reading is taken from the account of Paul’s first missionary journey, which began in Syria and took him to Antioch in Pisidia.  This is the first of the several speeches of St. Paul in which he tells   the Jews that the Christian Church is the logical development of Judaism.  When St. Paul delivered this speech, the Jews had 1800 years of history behind them. Paul takes advantage of their knowledge to show that the coming of Jesus was the fulfillment of all history.

Gospel exegesis: The genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:1-17):  While Paul presents Jesus as  a descendent of David in our second reading, Matthew traces Jesus’ genealogy from Abraham. This genealogy not only shows Jesus’ human ancestry, but also indicates that salvation history has reached its climax with the birth of the Son of God through the working of the Holy Spirit. Though we often skip over these lists of names, the Gospel writers took great pains to compile the genealogies and to make several theological points in the process. Our Lord Jesus Christ was born of a line of ancestors whom Matthew arranges into three groups, of 14 patriarchs, 14 kings and 14 princes. The three groups are based on the three stages of Jewish history: i) the rise of Israel to a great kingdom by the time of David, ii) the fall of the nation by the time of Babylonian exile and iii) the resurrection of the nation after the exile. Strangely enough, the list includes a number of disreputable characters, including three women of bad reputation: Tamar, Rahab and Bathsheba. Perhaps the Lord God included these women in His Son's human genealogy to emphasize God's grace, to give us all hope, and to show us that Jesus is sent to save sinners.  Thus, God's powerful work of salvation comes to us under the appearance of weakness. From the beginning, Matthew's account challenges our human expectations as to how God will fulfill our hopes for endless peace, justice, and righteousness. Luke's account shows us another example of this kind of challenge. The royal child, heir to King David's throne and bearer of wonderful titles, is born in poverty. He is laid in a manger because there is no room in the inn.

The three-step marriage:   Engagement, betrothal and marriage proper were the three stages of the Jewish marriage ceremony.   The engagement was often made through the parents when the couples were only children. The betrothal was the ratification of the engagement into which a couple had previously (been) entered.  It made the young man and woman husband and wife, legally married, but without cohabitation and conjugal rights for one year. The third stage was the marriage proper, which took place at the end of the year of betrothal. It was during the betrothal period that Mary miraculously conceived Jesus. The essence of God's story in Matthew is that, in the birth of Jesus, the Spirit of God was seen operating in the world as He had never done before.

Joseph the “father” of Jesus (Mt. 1:18-25): While Luke's Gospel emphasizes the role of Mary, Matthew's brings Joseph to the forefront.  Joseph is important to Matthew's Gospel, because Jesus came from David’s lineage through Joseph (1:1-17).  The Davidic descent of Jesus is shown as both legal and natural. In other words, Jesus is descendant of Abraham and David not only by physical descent but also by God's supernatural action. The Davidic descent of Jesus is transferred not through natural paternity but through legal paternity. Matthew carefully constructs verse 1:18 to avoid saying that Jesus was the son of Joseph. As Mary’s legal husband, Joseph became the legal father of Jesus. Later, by naming the child, Joseph acknowledged Him as his own. The legal father was on par with the biological father as regards rights and duties.  Since it was common practice for couples to marry within their clan, probably Mary also belonged to the house of David. Several early Church Fathers, including St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Irenaeus, St. Justin and Tertullian, testify to this belief, basing their testimony on an unbroken oral tradition. Joseph is presented as a righteous man (v. 19), who chose to obey God’s command rather than to observe rigidly a law that would have required him to divorce Mary publicly.   He resolved to divorce Mary quietly in order that he might not cause her unnecessary pain.  In doing so, he serves as a model of Christ-like compassion.  He also demonstrates a balance between the Law of Torah and the Law of Love. While Luke tells the story of the Archangel Gabriel's appearance to Mary (Luke 1:26-38), Matthew tells us only that the Child was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 

The Divine intervention through the angel: Luke tells us of Mary's obedience (Luke 1:38), and   Matthew tells us of Joseph's obedience.  This is the first of three occasions on which an angel appears to Joseph in a dream.  In each instance, the angel calls Joseph to action, and Joseph obeys. He is told   not to be afraid of his fiancée's pregnancy, nor of the opinion of his neighbors, nor even of the requirement of the Torah that Mary be punished.  He is not to hesitate, but is to wed Mary. "She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." Mary's role is to bear a Son, and Joseph's role is to name Him.  By naming Him, Joseph makes Jesus his Son and brings Him into the house of David.

Jesus the Savior as the fulfillment of prophecy: The name Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yehosua, which means "YHWH is salvation." Just as the first Joshua (successor of Moses), saved the Israelites from their enemies, the second Joshua (Jesus) will save them from their sins.  The Jews, however, did not expect a Messiah Who would save them from their sins, but one who would deliver them from their political oppressors. Matthew stresses the fact that the birth of Jesus as Savior is the fulfillment of a prophecy by Isaiah (7:14): “'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'" The fulfillment of the prophecy is important to Matthew’s first audience, Jewish converts, which is why Matthew mentions the fulfillment of eleven prophetic statements about Jesus in his Gospel.  The context of the verse taken from Isaiah is the dilemma of King Ahaz in the eighth century BC.  Jerusalem was under siege, and it appeared that both the city and the nation might be destroyed.  Isaiah's prophecy was that a boy-child would be born and that, by the time he reached maturity, the threat from the enemy would have passed.  We do not know that boy's identity, but the city and nation were both spared.

Emmanuel born of a Virgin: The NRSV correctly translates ho parthenos as "the virgin" rather than "a virgin."  In other words, the original uses the definite article.  Isaiah referred to a young woman (almah), but Matthew's ho parthenos clearly refers to a virgin.  That is why the Church has always taught Mary’s perpetual virginity. "'They shall name him Emmanuel,' which means, 'God is with us.'" In Hebrew, El is a short form of Elohim, a name for God.  Immanu-El, therefore, means "God with us," a meaning which Matthew spells out for non-Hebrew readers.  Emmanuel is not a second name by which friends and neighbors will know Jesus.  "Jesus" is Our Lord's true name, and   Emmanuel describes his role.  Thus, Matthew begins his Gospel with the promise that Jesus' role-name means "God-with-us."  He will end his Gospel with Jesus' own promise that He will be with us "always, to the end of the age" (28:20).   

Life messages: 1) We need to look for Jesus in unlikely places and persons.   During the Christmas season we, like the Magi, must give our most precious gift, our lives, to Jesus.  We will learn to discover Him in the most unlikely places and in the most distasteful people –- in those who live in suffering or in distress,  in poverty or in fear. The message of Christmas is that we can truly find Jesus if we look in the right places –- in the streets, in the slums, in the asylums, in the orphanages, in the nursing homes –- starting in our own homes, workplaces and town. We need to look for Him in people that we might otherwise ignore: the homeless, the sick, the addicts, the unpleasant people, the rebels, or the people of different culture and lifestyle from us.  True Christmas is about celebrating the coming of God among the poor, the homeless and the disadvantaged, with a message of hope and liberation for these sufferers in our world.  It is about our responsibility to be part of that liberating process.  It is about working to remove from our world the shameful blot of poverty, discrimination and exploitation that is the lot of too many in our environment of prosperity. God challenges us to be like the shepherds who overcame their fear in order to seek out Jesus, or like the Wise Men who traveled a long distance to find Him. Then we will have the true experience of Christmas – the joy of the Savior.

2) We need to allow the Savior to be reborn in our lives.   Let us remember the famous lines of Alexander Pope: “What do I profit if Jesus is born in thousands of cribs all over the world during this Christmas, but is not born in my heart?”   Let us allow Him to be reborn in our lives during Christmas 2019 and every day of the New Year 2020. How should we prepare for Christ’s rebirth in our daily lives? As a first step, John the Baptist urges us to repent daily of our sins and to renew our lives by leveling the hills of pride and selfishness, by filling up the valleys of impurity, and by straightening the crooked paths of hatred. Our second step in preparing for Christ’s rebirth in our daily lives is to cultivate the spirit of sacrifice and humility.   It was by sacrifice that the shepherds of Bethlehem and the Magi were able to find the Savior. They were humble enough to see God in the Child in the manger.   We, too, can experience Jesus by sharing Him with others, just as God shared His Son with us.  Let us remember that the angels wished peace on earth only to those able to receive that peace, those who possessed the good will and largeness of heart to share Jesus our Savior with others in love, kindness, mercy, forgiveness and humble service. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

23 December 2019, 12:12