Readings for Vigil Mass: [Isaiah 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17, 22-25; Matthew 1:1-25 or 1:18-25]
Readings for Midnight Mass: [Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14]
Readings for Mass at Dawn: [Isaiah 62:11-12; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:15-20]
Readings for Mass During the Day: [Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-6; John 1:1-18]
In the Gospel reading for the Vigil Mass, we learn of a seemingly irrelevant genealogy, that of Joseph, the husband of Mary and legal father of Jesus but he’s never referred to as the biological father of Jesus.
In the Gospel reading for Midnight Mass, we learn that Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to fulfill a call to enroll in a census (which has left no historical evidence though the Romans were nothing if not good bureaucrats and documenters). Moreover, shepherds in a field were told to go to the city of David (Bethlehem) where they will find a savior in the form of an infant in a manger.
In the Gospel reading for the dawn of Christmas day, we learn the shepherds did find Joseph, Mary, and the infant. All were amazed by the shepherds’ story of the angels and Mary begins to wonder (didn’t she already supposedly know)? The shepherds go away, glorifying and praising God.
In the Gospel reading for Christmas during the day, we learn of the Word of God, quite personal, with God in the beginning. The Word was God.
Few there are who will follow such a trail of words through the readings of four different Christmas Masses. Perhaps there are even fewer who can follow the trail through the Gospels or the New Testament or the entire Bible if they embark upon a more general reading program.
There are dangers here, some dangers for those who are careful and skeptical readers and some dangers for those who just believe what they are told and happily read the Bible in the same way they once read their books of fairy-tales.
The historian Carroll Quigley once summarized the philosophical teachings of traditional Christianity in these words:
The truth unfolds in time through a communal process.
The Gospels can be read, along with the letters of St. Paul, in such a way that we can see the Good News unfolding in the hearts and minds of a monotheistic people just beginning to understand the Trinity of Persons who live as one God. The idea that God could be embodied in human flesh, while perhaps hinted at in the Old Testament, was shocking to the Jews including those who first followed Christ. In some ways, it would have been still more shocking to the more intellectually inclined pagans who were horrified by the misbehaving and lusty gods of Homer. However well-behaved Jesus was, a higher pagan wouldn’t have been so accepting of a God who needed a mother to change His diapers, a father to teach Him how to live in the world that baby supposedly created.
We know that Jesus of Nazareth entered a public mission which is usually described as three years long though it might have been a bit longer. We know that He scandalized the Jews by claiming that loyalty to Jesus of Nazareth was more important than loyalty to even father and mother. He even told one disciple to leave his father to be buried by others because the primary duty of men is to follow Jesus. [Matthew 8:21-22] Are we not bidden by God to honor father and mother? Can any but God override that commandment?
Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…” [The entire story is told in John 6:35-65.] No wonder the pagans thought Christians to be cannibals.
Before His mission years, Jesus of Nazareth was said to have lived in obscurity. Mark tells us that this man who supposedly was announced as the Savior at His birth was not even acknowledged as having any authority by His neighbors. “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country and among his own kin, and in his own house.” [See Mark 6:1-6 for the more complete story.]
He multiplied loaves and fishes, using small amounts of fish and bread to feed thousands of those who’d followed Him to listen to Him preach. [Mark 6:31-44.]
He healed the sick. [Luke 4:38-39.]
He forgave sins. [Luke 8: 36-56.]
He exercised control over storms. [Luke 22-25.]
He turned water into wine. [John 2:1-11.]
Of all these, the forgiveness of sins is the most remarkable, but surely, we should be shocked by the power to overrule the commandments God gave to Moses.
The truth unfolds in time through a communal process.
As the early Christian preachers and teachers came to understand more clearly that Jesus Christ, Son of God, was true man and true God, they struggled to communicate that great truth. It doesn’t seem all that hard to identify the parts of the Gospels which are history, stylized only in the Gospel of St. John. In the other three Gospels, most of the narrative is gritty and broken up and generally inconsistent. It has the smell of stories told by simple men who were there. Those parts give us no reason to believe the Savior was glorified at His birth. There is no reason to believe, and not a shred of historical evidence, that Herod or other powerful men knew something had happened to endanger their positions. The Gospels aren’t even consistent about Mary’s understanding of her son, until she stood at the foot of His cross, or maybe not until the Holy Spirit came upon her once again at the Pentecost. This much we know:
God became man that man might share the life of God.
The early Christians saw this truth unfold in time, within their communities. It was a process that involved deep thinkers, preachers, social organizers, and charitable workers. It was a process that would extend over time, reaching the clear statements in the creeds promulgated by the Church Fathers at Nicea, Chalcedon, and other conferences. Those clear statements were not finalized until more than three centuries after the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. But the matter has not ended there.
Matthew and Luke saw the truth unfold and felt compelled to speak of a Kingly birth and of visits from great men acknowledging the Kingship of the son of Mary, though there is no evidence that even the miracles or shocking words of Christ were sufficient to convince many to seriously contemplate His divine royalty. John saw the truth unfold and produced the most wonderful poetry in the history of theology:
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.
This was something new, not Greek as some have falsely claimed. It was something beyond the reach of the human imagination. If it hadn’t happened, we could have never guessed at the possibility.
The truth continues to unfold. In the modern world, we have been particularly successful at learning truths of God’s Creation, starting with the physical universe but going deeply into more abstract truths. Even the more mundane truths of Creation lie beyond the reach of human efforts at schematic knowledge and we sin greatly in presuming that the origins of the human race or the nature of time and space will correspond to the thoughts of our minds untutored by proper responses to the Creator and His works. If not for those bones in the sands of Africa or the openness of the likes of Einstein to unfolding truths, we’d not have known about the evolution of the human race or the existence of black-holes.
We know much about the history of the human race before Abraham, much that is disturbing to those who would accept the story of Adam and Eve as literalistic truth. Still more disturbing is what our new knowledge of human nature tells us of the sheer wonder of God becoming man.
We know enough about space and time to know they’re one creature and not two absolute truths. What does that tell us about the journey of the Son of God as He entered Creation to embody Himself as one of His own creatures? What does it say about the possibilities of Heaven or the nature of our Creator?
The Lord of Creation will lie in a manger before the sun rises. He will need to suckle at the breasts of Mary. He will need to be fed and clothed and taught the skills of carpentry by His legal father, Joseph.
It is time to glorify and praise Him and time to open our hearts and minds that the truth might unfold.
[Biblical quotations from RSV, Catholic Edition as printed by Thomas Nelson Publishers for Ignatius Press.]