The basic elements of the Christmas story are very familiar – the manger, the shepherds, the star, etc. But when we turn to the liturgy, we find these well-known gospel images carefully distributed over four Christmas Masses, celebrating progressively the momentous occasion of the Messiah’s birth. The Vigil Mass turns to Matthew’s account, focusing on the important role of Joseph. At Midnight we ponder the famous account of Luke, the story of the census, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds, and sudden appearance of the angelic choir singing, “Glory to God in the highest!” The Dawn Mass recalls the shepherds’ joy at finding the Child and understanding what the angel had said. The Mass during the Day turns to John’s profound gospel prologue, which tells us that this Child is the Word (Logos) made flesh, “the true light that enlightens all men.”
Taken together, the four Masses give us a sense of being gradually bathed in brighter and brighter light – very much like the experience of being outdoors in the early morning. As the sun rises, we can feel the whole world filling with light and new life. This is a fitting analogy for Christmas morning, for today we are rejoicing in the great divine “sunrise” – the first appearance of God as man. This newborn Jesus is “the reflection of the Father’s glory, the exact representation of the Father’s being.” We can see this divine glory if we have eyes of faith. Otherwise, we may see only another cute child born into poverty.
There is something beautiful about the Christmas event even on a purely natural level. The birth of a baby appeals to our human sentiments – which is one reason why it is easy for the world to turn Christmas into a feel-good, commercial opportunity. If we look beyond the level of nostalgia, however, we find that Christmas addresses something much deeper: our soul’s longing for God. Many passages in the Bible express this universal human longing to “see the face of God,” which means, to be in his presence in a personal way. For example, the psalmist prays: “My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God?” (Ps 42:3).
On Christmas morning this longing is satisfied in an astounding way. Now, suddenly, we can see the face of God, and it is the face of a helpless little Child! When the Word became flesh and lived among us, he entered the world just as all of us have, as a tiny infant, entirely dependent on his young mother. It would be impossible to think that God could make himself so lowly – it would even be blasphemous – except that this is exactly the way he has revealed himself. The gospel of John gives us the clearest picture of who this little baby really is. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise. He is the Word made flesh. He took on our human nature to restore our friendship with the Father. He became one of us so that we may experience the love and mercy of the Father.
John says, “We have seen his glory: the glory of an only Son coming from the Father, filled with enduring love.” But on this morning, the only “glory” we can see is the glory of divine humility. From the very beginning of his earthly life, Jesus shows us the extent of his self-emptying love.
The other readings of the Mass during the Day also take us far beyond the humble appearances of the stable in Bethlehem. Isaiah’s prophecy is a joyful proclamation of the good news that the Lord has come. His coming is both a consolation to Jerusalem and revelation to every nation: “All the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.” The reading from Hebrews teaches us what makes this announcement different from all that came before. “In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this, the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son.” Before, we had glimpses of the mystery of God. Now, God himself, “the only Son, ever at the Father’s side,” has come among us – and the whole history of the world is changed forever.
To see the true glory of what the humble God-man is revealing today, we must be humble ourselves. Let us set aside the busyness of Christmas and pause even for a few moments to allow the Lord to touch our hearts. The One we have longed for is here! Let us welcome him! After an Advent of many centuries, the only people ready to welcome the Savior at his birth are Mary and Joseph, and a few lowly shepherds. We join them, the anawim, bowing in adoration at the tiny feet of our Lord and our God.
What does this most holy of days mean to me personally? Can I approach the Lord with the simplicity of a child? What “gift” am I going to give him?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 12, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.