The Gospel passage traditionally proclaimed during the liturgy of the Third Mass of Christmas is the Prologue to the Gospel according to Saint John (John 1:1-18). The Prologue contains the resonant and magnificent sentence: “The Word was made Flesh and dwelt among us.” The Greek word literally means He pitched His tent with us.
Commenting on this phrase our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, wrote, “We have become so accustomed to this expression that we are no longer struck by that enormous divine synthesis of apparently irreconcilably divided elements. This is where the genuinely new element of Christianity was and still is to be found, that element which seemed to the Greek mind absurd and unthinkable. What is said here does not spring from some particular culture, Semitic, for instance, or Greek, as people nowadays repeatedly and thoughtlessly assert. It runs counter to every cultural model known to us. It was just as absurd for the Jews as it was on quite different grounds for the Greeks or for the Indians or, come to that, as it is for the modern mind, for whom this synthesis of the phenomenal and religious spheres appears quite unreal and who therefore renews the attack on it with all the self-consciousness of modern rationality. What is said is new because it comes from God and could only be brought about by God. It is something entirely new and strange to any and every culture throughout history, into which we can enter by faith and only by faith, and which opens up for us entirely new horizons of thought and of life.”
However, it is especially and precisely at Midnight Mass each Christmas that the synthesis of the human and divine, which the Pope speaks about, is vividly presented to our minds, our eyes, our ears, and our hearts. It is at the First Mass of Christmas, more than any other time, that the paradoxical and overwhelming beauty of the beginning of God’s work for our salvation is displayed for our souls’ benefit.
In the words of Saint Augustine, it is then and there that we encounter Jesus as “the Revealer of His Father and the Creator of His mother, the Son of God from His Father without a mother, and the Son of Man through His mother without a father. He is as great as the day of the angels and as small as a day in the life of man. He is both the Word of God before all ages and the Word made Flesh at the appointed time. Maker of the sun, He is made beneath the sun. Disposing all the ages from the bosom of His Father, He consecrates the day of Christmas from the womb of His mother. In His Father He abides. From His mother He goes forth. Creator of heaven and earth, He is born under heaven upon the earth. Wise beyond all speech, He remains wise as a speechless Baby. Filling the whole world, He lies in a manger. Ruling the stars He nurses at His mother’s breast. He is great in the form of God and small in the form of a servant. His greatness is not diminished by His smallness nor can His smallness conceal His greatness.”
The Bishop of Hippo goes on to say, “When He assumed a human body He did not stop His divine activity, He did not cease to know all things mightily from one end of the universe to the other, and to order all things delightfully when, having clothed Himself in the fragility of our flesh, He was received into but never confined in the Virgin’s womb. He did this so that, while the Food of Wisdom was not taken away from the angels, we nevertheless with them could be able to taste how sweet the Lord is.”
The Holy Night
At one of the last Midnight Masses of his pontificate, the late Pope John Paul II said that on the night before Christmas time opens up to eternity. The sublime holiness of the Christ Child makes all time holy, the days, the weeks, the months, the years, the centuries, the millennia. By His birth Jesus turned time into the “today” of salvation. At Midnight Mass we celebrate the mystery of Bethlehem, because that night is night within time but also beyond time.
That Pontiff said, “On Christmas Eve the ancient yet ever new proclamation of the Lord’s birth rings out. It rings out for those keeping watch like the shepherds of Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. It rings out for those who have responded to Advent’s call and who, waiting watchfully, are ready to welcome the joyful tidings which in the liturgy of Midnight Mass become our song: Today is born our Savior.”
Our present Holy Father noted the mystery of Christmas is “that God has become Man. He has become a little Child. Thus He fulfills the great and mysterious promise to be Emmanuel, God-with-us. Now He is no longer unreachable for anybody. God is Emmanuel. By becoming a Child, He offers us the possibility of being on familiar terms with Him.”
Ox and Ass
Pope Benedict XVI said that we should remember while gazing at the Christmas crib “that the ox and the ass are no mere products of pious imagination. They have become actors in the events of Christmas through the Church’s faith in the unity of the Old and New Testaments. In Isaiah (1:3) it is stated, The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s crib. But, Israel does not know. My people do not understand. The Fathers of the Church took this prophecy as applying to the New People of God, the Church composed of Jews and Gentiles. In God’s eyes all mankind, Jews and Gentiles, were like those without reason and insight. But, the Child in the manger had opened their eyes so that they now recognize the voice of their Master, the voice of their Lord. Thus in the holy night the faces of the ox and ass are turned to us questioningly. Do you recognize the voice of your Lord? Both of those animals represent the prophetic cypher in which is hidden the mystery of the Church, our mystery, since we are ox and ass when confronted with the One Who is eternal. On the first Christmas night those beasts had their eyes opened. May this happen to us so we might recognize our Lord, the One in the manger.”
Gentle readers, may Christ’s joy and grace be yours in a very merry Christmas for you and your loved ones. My prayer for you is: (written originally by Sister Madaleva) “The stars at Bethlehem shone very clear and bright. Oh, may they shine with light divine for you this Christmas night!”