Nativity of the Lord (Christmas) A
Mass at Midnight
December 25, 2013
Reading I: Isaiah 9:1-6
This is the most famous of all the messianic prophecies of
Isaiah. Its original meaning was very different from the associations
that have grown up around it in Christian use during this season.
may have been composed originally as a liturgical anthem to
be sung on the occasion of the coronation of the Davidic
kings of Judah. Every time a new descendant of David ascended
the throne, it was hoped (note the irrepressible hope of Old
Testament religion!) that this king would in fact
prove to be the ideal king.
The joy of the occasion is expressed by two comparisons: the
joy of harvest and the joy of victory on the battlefield (Is 9:3). The new reign ushers in freedom from want and freedom from
oppression (for the allusion to Midian, see Judg 6-8) and peace
(the burning of the bloody debris of the battlefield).
The “birth” of
the child (Is 9:6) was actually the enthronement of the king,
which in the royal theology was conceived as God’s adoption
of the king as his son (see Ps 2:7).
The king is hailed by
a series of royal titles. This is one of the few places (cf.
Ps 45:6) where the king is actually called “God.” Usually
it was anathema for Israelite religion, even in the royal theology,
to go as far as that, though it was common enough in the surrounding
Probably we should understand the king’s divinity
in a modified sense: he is the embodiment of God’s own kingship,
God’s representative on earth.
Christian faith reinterprets this passage.
The joy is the joy
of Christ’s advent, which ushers in deliverance for the oppressed
(Lk 4:18) and peace between God and humankind (Jn 14:27).
The words “a child has been born for us” now suggest the
birth at Bethlehem rather than the enthronement of a king.
reminds us that the birth of Jesus is only the beginning of
the Christ event, that the Nativity really stands for the
total advent of Christ, the whole saving act of God in him.
it seems more appropriate to hail Jesus rather than the king
of Judah as “God.” Yet, even here we must
be careful. The New Testament never refers to Jesus as God without qualification.
Jesus is not Deus in se (such a notion would compromise
the unity of God), but Deus pro nobis—God turned
to us in grace and salvation.
Responsorial Psalm 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
This is probably
the most magnificent of all the enthronement psalms that
celebrate the kingship of YHWH. Much of its content also
appears in another place in the Old Testament, namely, 1
Chr 16, a cento of psalms put together by the Chronicler
to mark the bringing of the ark into the temple by David.
The theme of a “new song” can be traced all through
the Bible. The old song was sung by Moses and Israel at the
Red Sea (Ex 15). One might say that the whole liturgy of
the old Israel was a continuation of this old song. But it
lost its zest with the passage of time and especially in the
Exile: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange
land?” So Second Isaiah looks for a new song to be sung
after the return (Is 51:11).
This hope for a new song was disappointed at that time, and
the new song became part of Israel’s eschatological expectation.
the Book of Revelation, the new song’s promise is fulfilled
at last in the celebration of the victory of the Lamb. Christmas
marks the first step toward that victory, so the Church can
already here and now take up the new song (as it always does
in its liturgy).
In the birth at Bethlehem, YHWH truly
comes to judge and save the world.
Reading II: Titus 2:11-14
This passage 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...”
Second Coming, which had been the dominant theme at the beginning
of Advent but had receded into the background as the season
progressed and the expectation of the birth of Christ took
over, is not completely forgotten now that Christmas has come.
it is only in the light of the Second Coming that we can celebrate
the first coming. People who forget this sentimentalize
Christmas into a “Baby Jesus” cult.
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 our traditional imagery speaks of
the Lord’s Second Coming as taking place at midnight. This
imagery is found in the parable of the ten virgins: “At midnight
there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom!’” (Mt 25:6).
Gospel: Luke 2:1-14
The infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke pose very difficult
problems for those who would use them to reconstruct actual
history. The two narratives agree on the following points:
the names of Mary and Joseph as the parents of Jesus; his supernatural
conception and Bethlehem as the place of his birth; and the
dating of his birth in the reign of King Herod. Clearly these
items go back to earlier tradition, prior to the evangelists.
Is the location of Jesus’ birth at Bethlehem simply an expression
of faith in his Davidic messiahship (see Mic 5)? Probably this
question will never be answered. Then there is the unsolved
problem of the census.
Luke dates it during the period when Quirinius was legate of Syria. This we know from Josephus to
have been from 6 to 9 C.E., a dating that appears to be confirmed by the fact that Josephus places
the first census in Judea (see Acts 5:37) at about 6 C.E.. This
was immediately after Judea came under Roman rule—a more
plausible reason for a Roman census than at the time when Judea
was still a quasi-independent kingdom.
But this dating for the census clashes with Luke’s
other statement, supported by Matthew, that Jesus was born
in the reign of Herod, that is, not later than 4 B.C.E.
Many attempts have been made to vindicate Luke’s account of
the nativity census. For instance, it has been suggested, on
the basis of remarks by Josephus, that Quirinius had already
been in Syria as early as 10-7 B.C.E. with
a legatine commission.
But the neatest solution, proposed not
long ago, is a different though perfectly plausible translation
of Lk 2:2: “This
was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius
was governor of Syria.”
Another problem is that we have
no evidence for people returning for a census from their normal
domiciles to their ancestral homes.
These historical problems should warn us that, in the words
of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (original edition), “the details of the
narrative are symbolic and biblical; they communicate the mystery
of redemption, not a diary of early events” (2:121). That
is certainly how the narrative should be heard at the first
Mass of Christmas.
We should probably not romanticize the shepherds. They had
a bad reputation as thieves, and in any case they were poor.
In fact, as Joachim Jeremias has shown, they were classed with
tax collectors and prostitutes as members of despised trades.
This fits in perfectly with the emphasis of Luke’s Gospel.
The angelic announcement is the biblical way of bringing out
the meaning of an event in salvation history (see the annunciation
stories). This is the birth of One who is to be the Savior,
the Christ (Messiah), and Lord. In the second proclamation,
made by the “multitude of the heavenly host,” not
his titles but the effects of the Christ event are announced:
glory to God and peace (with the full meaning of shalom) among
The words “among those he favors” vary in the Greek
texts. The King James Version favored a text that gave the
sense “good will [i.e., God’s good will or favor] toward
men.” The Vulgate preferred a reading that yielded, literally,
the sense “to men of good will.” This is probably
the right text, but the literal meaning is badly misleading.
of good will” is a Semitic idiom that means people who
are the objects of God’s favor. So actually the Vulgate reading
comes to very much the same thing as the King James translation.
This is a warning against much of the loose talk about people “of
good will” that goes on at Christmas time, especially
in the secular world.
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Preaching the Lectionary:
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Reginald H. Fuller and Daniel Westberg.
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