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Reflections for Christmas Mass During the Night

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass during the Night

Is 9:1-6; Ti 2:11-14; Lk 2:1-14 

Introduction: Today we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, which occurred some 2,000 years ago.  Looking through the telescope of Christ’s Resurrection, the New Testament authors, as well as the Fathers of the Church, reexamined foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, in the writings of the prophets, and they identified Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. 

Homily starter anecdote: 1) "Don't go! You can have my room." Nine-year-old Wally was in second grade when most children his age were fourth graders. He was big for his years, a clumsy fellow, a slow learner. But Wally was a hopeful, willing, smiling lad, a natural defender of the underdog, and he was well-liked by his classmates. His parents encouraged him to audition for the annual parish Christmas play. Wally wanted to be a shepherd. Instead, he was given the role of the innkeeper. The director reasoned that Wally's size would lend extra force to the innkeeper's refusal of lodging to Joseph. During rehearsals, Wally was instructed to be firm with Joseph. When the play opened, no one was more caught up in the action than Wally. And when Joseph knocked on the door of the inn, Wally was ready. He flung the door open and asked menacingly, "What do you want?" "We seek lodging," Joseph replied. "Seek it elsewhere," Wally said in a firm voice. "There's no room in the inn." "Please, good innkeeper," Joseph pleaded, "this is my wife, Mary. She is with child and is very tired. She needs a place to rest." There was a long pause as Wally looked down at Mary. The prompter whispered Wally's next line: "No! Be gone!" Wally remained silent. Then the forlorn couple turned and began to slowly move away. Seeing this, Wally's brow creased with concern. Tears welled up in his eyes. Suddenly, he called out, "Don't go! You can have my room." ( ).

Scripture readings summarized: Following the death of the Assyrian monarch in the late 8th century B.C., the Lord God, through  His prophet Isaiah, promises relief for both the northern and the southern kingdoms of Israel through a new king and his descendant in the line of David, in the person of Jesus. Jesus is the child Isaiah's prophesy calls the “prince of peace” The second reading, taken from the “pastoral letter” of Paul to Titus, tells us that it is only by the saving power of God in Christ that we are enabled to live virtuously in the present with hope for the future.  The Gospel for the midnight Mass tells us how Jesus was born in Bethlehem and how the news of His birth was first announced to shepherds by the angels.  Since David was a shepherd, it seems fitting that the shepherds were given the privilege of visiting David’s successor in the stable.  If these shepherds were the ones in charge of the Temple sheep and lambs meant for daily sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem, no wonder they were the first to see the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!

First reading, Isaiah 9:1-6 explained: In the late eighth century BC, God's people in the Promised Land had become divided into a northern kingdom, Israel, and a southern kingdom, Judah.  Assyria was the dominant power in the region, particularly oppressing the northern kingdom.  In the eighth century BC, the source of the “darkness” was the Assyrian invasion under Tiglath-Pilesar III.  But following the death of the Assyrian monarch, the prophet declares that in the darkness, light has shone!  Hope for endless peace, justice, and righteousness has been kindled and burns brightly.  Isaiah prophesies relief for both northern and southern kingdoms in the person of the new king who will come to the throne in the southern kingdom, Judah, and will see to the reunion of the north and south and the expulsion of the Assyrians from the north.  The king whom Israel saw as fulfilling the prophecy is, interestingly, Hezekiah, the successor of King Ahaz.  So “the people once in darkness” are the dwellers in Israel oppressed by Assyria.  The “child/son born to us” was the new king in Jerusalem in Judah.  Hezekiah inherited the throne of David whose glorious reign, roughly four centuries earlier, was still the source of national pride and hope. Some 2700 years later, we see Jesus, the Incarnate Son of God and Son of David, the Redeemer and Savior of the world, as the final fulfillment of the prophecy of this promised King.

Today's passage in Isaiah 9 completes a prophecy begun in Isaiah 8:1.  In spite of all the doom and gloom that surround Israel and the evil that darkness portends, there will eventually be light and restoration for Israel.  The yoke and bar, (verse 4), represent enslavement and oppression.  Those will be cast off vigorously as in the days of Gideon and the Midianites (Judges 8:10-12; Psalm 83:9-11).  The prophecy concludes with the now-famous words: "For a child has been born for us, a son given for us….."  What follows is a description of the yet-to-be-realized Kingdom of Christ (verse 6).  Notice the many titles given to the coming child: Wonderful Counselor — counsel, as in advice; Mighty God — an image of power and majesty; Everlasting Father — one Who will not diminish, expire, or fade away: an eternal relationship of nurture and trust; Prince of Peace — not war-like, but reconciling.

Second Reading, Titus 2:11-14, explained:  The books of Titus and 1st and 2nd Timothy are called “pastoral letters” because they are instructions to the pastors dealing with Church life and practices.  This reading is an interesting choice for Christmas Midnight Mass because it focuses on the other coming of Jesus, at the end of time, and on the changes that we are called to make in our lives.  It reminds us that we are enabled to live virtuously in the present with hope for the future by the saving power of God in Christ.  The theological plainness and moral starkness of this letter make it a worthy counterpoint to the sentimentality that dominates Christmas.

Gospel Exegesis: The origin of the Christmas celebration: Many scholars believe that Christmas came to be placed on December 25th in order to counteract a pagan celebration called the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, a feast established by the Roman Emperor, Aurelian, in AD 274.  Since December 25th was near the date of the winter solstice (the year’s shortest day, after which the days begin to lengthen again, showing the victory of the sun over darkness), it was chosen as the date of rejoicing.  When Christianity was approved as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church chose this day to celebrate the birth of the true Sun – the Son of God Who conquers the power of darkness.  Another theory gives Biblical support for celebrating Christmas on the 25th of December.  It claims that the Annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah occurred during the feast of Yom Kippur, around September 25th, placing the birth of John after nine months on June 25th.  Since the Archangel Gabriel tells Mary that Elizabeth is in the sixth month of her pregnancy, the Annunciation event and the conception of Jesus took place around March 25th, leading to Jesus’ birth after nine months, around December 25th.

The Christmas event: While Matthew places the birth of Jesus against the background of Herod's reign, Luke places it against the background of the Roman Empire.  It is generally accepted that Jesus was born in 4 B.C.  Luke begins by making a subtle contrast between Caesar Augustus who failed as an inaugurator of peace, and Jesus the Savior and bringer of peace.  Both Tertullian and Justin Martyr (c. 165) state that in their time the records of the 4 B.C. census still existed along with those of 28 B.C., 8 B.C. and 14 A.D.  In the Roman Empire, a census was taken periodically with the double object of assessing taxation and of discovering those who were subject to compulsory military service.  Another hidden aim was to find out the true descendants of King David who had a claim to the throne as the king of the Jews.  Luke’s purpose in mentioning the census was to provide God’s reason for, and means of, getting Mary and Joseph the roughly eighty miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the city of David, wherein the promised heir of David was to be born, as prophesied by Micah (5:1).  Bethlehem was commonly thought of as the city of David because of David's birth and childhood there. Since travelers brought their own food, the innkeeper provided only fodder for the animals and a fire for cooking along with a spot to sleep within his walls.  A manger is a feeding trough (food box), and it symbolizes the sacrificial meal that Jesus becomes, which provides sustenance for the whole world. Father Raymond Brown in his masterful book on the Infancy Narratives says that these stories are theologumena, not so much literal history as stories with a theological point – the other gratuitous and revolutionary impact of Jesus’ birth, life, and death. The important thing to remember is that they are stories of God’s love and Jesus’ role in history and that’s what counts, not historical details.

The first visitors:  Since David was a shepherd, it seems fitting that the shepherds were given the privilege of visiting David’s successor in the stable.  If these shepherds were the ones in charge of the Temple sheep and lambs which were meant for daily sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem, no wonder they were the first to see the Lamb of God Who takes away the sin of the world!  Shepherding was a lonely, dirty job, and shepherds found it difficult to follow all the obligatory religious customs.  Hence, they were scorned as non-observant Jews.  So Baby Jesus selected these marginalized people to share His love at the beginning of his earthly ministry.  The shepherds expressed their joy and gratitude by “making known what had been told them" (v. 17).  Just as very ordinary people would later become witnesses to the Resurrection, very ordinary shepherds became witnesses to the Incarnation.  Other than the angels, they were the first to proclaim the Good News of Jesus' birth.  Once we have been privileged to experience God's presence, we, too, have the responsibility and the privilege of sharing that experience with other people – of spreading the word – of proclaiming the Gospel.

Good News of great joy: "But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is the Messiah, the Lord.'”  Perhaps because Luke was a Gentile convert, he establishes at the beginning of this Gospel that Jesus is for all the people -- not just for the people of Israel:  "... a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (v. 11).  The Romans thought of Augustus as savior.  However, Augustus' peace was fragile.  After his death, other men would assume power -- men like Nero and Caligula whose names would be synonymous with treachery and cruelty.  The angels introduced a different kind of Savior -- a Savior who would continue His saving work throughout human history.  The Savior of the First Century is also the Savior of the Twenty-first Century.  The Savior of Israel is also the Savior of the World.

Glory to God and peace on earth: The angels welcomed Jesus' birth singing: "Glory to God in the highest heaven" (v. 14).  Later, the crowds would welcome Jesus to Jerusalem, saying, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!  Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!" (Luke 19:38). That peace is the shalom of God – life experienced in all its fullness, richness, and completeness, in accord with the will of God.  The angelic song conveys the message that true peace on earth is available only to those able to receive it, that is with the good will to do the will of God, and thus to give Him glory.

Christmas is not just one day, but a season which lasts for twelve days, concluding on Epiphany (Twelfth Night). The extension of the feast should remind us to continue to share our joy at the comings of the Messiah – the first some 2000 years ago, the last at our death or at the Parousia, the “Second coming,” for which we all pray (Eucharistic acclamation – “We proclaim Your Death, O Lord, and profess Your Resurrection, until You come again”), and all those occurring between the two, as we live our daily lives.  As we celebrate the Incarnation of the Word of God this Christmas, we might make a conscious effort both to remember that Jesus is always with us in our hearts and in the Eucharist and to share our joy in His presence with others.

Life messages: 1) We need to reserve a room for Jesus in our heart: Christmas asks us a tough question. Do we close the doors of our hearts to Jesus looking for a place to be reborn in our lives? There is no point in being sentimental about the doors slammed by the folk in Bethlehem, if there is no room in our own hearts for the same Jesus coming in the form of the needy.  We need to reverence each human life and to treat others respectfully as the living residences of the incarnate God.  To neglect the old, to be contemptuous of the poor or to have no thought for the unemployed and the lonely is to ignore those individuals with whom Christ has so closely identified Himself.  Hence, we all need to examine ourselves daily on the doors we close to Jesus.

2) We need to experience Jesus the Emmanuel: The real meaning of Christmas actually is Emmanuel, God-with-us – God coming down to us; God seeking us out;  God coming alongside us; God revealing Himself to us; God bringing us forgiveness, healing, comfort, moral strength, guidance; God dwelling within us. Each one of us has, deep down in our souls, an incredible hunger: a hunger for purpose and meaning; a hunger to feel and celebrate the redeeming, forgiving, sustaining love of God; a hunger to be in the presence of God. Christmas is special because it reminds us concretely that God is indeed with us. In every circumstance of life, even when we are frightened or lonely or in sorrow, God is with us. So let’s go home to the heart of Christmas and embrace Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. (Fr. Antony Kadavil)

23 December 2019, 12:36