Mass at Midnight
Christmas night, the Christian community is invited to contemplate with joy and gratitude the mystery of the birth of the Savior. Faith turns to admiration and humble prayer before the stall of Bethlehem, in imitation of Mary: The Mother gazed in sheer wonder / on such an exchange / in God, man's weeping / and in man gladness / to the one and the other / things usually so strange (St. John of the Cross). Bethlehem is the culminating meeting point between the living God and the history of men and women. However, the God that reveals himself in the stall overturns all our images and representations of him. The image of a strong, powerful and demanding God disappears, and the face of a small, weak, serving and merciful God is manifest. This is precisely the greatness and omnipotence of the God that reveals himself in the smallness of the Child of Bethlehem. He has entered in history silently, discreetly, without asking anything, respecting the liberty of man and woman. Born poor among the poor, far from the centers of power and out of the way of the great of history, because there was no room for him at the inn (Lk. 2,7). In effect, in Bethlehem the Messiah is born that will carry out in fullness the hope of the poor. In him has been manifested the grace of God, and it has made possible salvation for the whole human race (Tt. 2,11). His death and resurrection represent the beginning of a new world, the vertex of history, the only event capable of making sense along the way of history of humanity. For there is a child born for us (Is. 9,5). Let us rejoice and be joyful, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to all that enjoy his favor! (Lk. 2,14).
The first reading (Is. 9,1-3.5-6) is a song of joy and of hope that overflows from the heart of a people, that before walked in darkness but that now has seen a great light (v. 1). The poem of Isaiah refers to a human group that has suffered anguish, hunger, the violence of war and injustice (Is. 8,23), but now finds motives for rejoicing and hope. The known biblical contrast between light and darkness serves to express this radical chance in the historical horizon of the people. The light is the first work of creation, almost as the first-born creature of God (Gn. 1,3). It is an image of life and salvation that come from God. In you is the source of life, by your light we see the light (Ps. 36,10), is like the clothing of God, expression of his dignity and of his saving power: Clothed in majesty and splendor, wearing the light as a robe! (Ps. 104,1-2). The light reveals the mystery of God in a particular form: God is light, and there is no darkness in him at all (1 Jn. 1,5). In addition, Jesus will say: I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark (Jn. 8,12). The text from Isaiah speaks of a great light, a light that symbolizes salvation and peace, and gifts that come from God and that transform the obscure horizon of an oppressed people. Together with light appear diverse terms that evoke joy: You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase (v. 2). The light-liberation that God offers produces in the people a special rejoicing. The light evokes the saving action of God; joy, the response of the man and woman that experiences peace and salvation.
The text of the prophet offers three reasons that explain such joy (vv. 3-5): (a) God has made disappear the tyrant and oppressor (you have broken the yoke that weighed on them), (b) there does not remain now any residual of war or violence (for all the footgear clanking over the ground and all the clothing rolled in blood, will be burnt, will be food for the flames), (c) a mysterious person appears in the horizon of history giving new hopes (For there is a child born for us, a son given to us). This last affirmation is central in the poem and needs to be explained. Isaiah does not speak precisely of the biological birth of a child, but of the ascent of a new king to the throne. He uses the same court language that we find in so many monarchical texts of ancient Egypt to speak of a new sovereign. His words evoke the rite of enthronement of the king in Israel, that the day of the coronation was adopted by Yahweh as his son. It is sufficient to remember Psalm 2 that represents a liturgy of enthronement: I myself have anointed my king on Zion my holy mountain...you are my son, today have I fathered you. Ask of me, and I shall give you the nations as your birthright, the whole wide world as your possession (Ps. 2,6-8). The people rejoice, because together with the new perspectives of peace and of liberation (end of war, absence of all oppressing and tyrannical power) ascends to the throne a sovereign that raises up great expectations. Isaiah speaks probably of the king Hezekiah, in whom the people placed many hopes. This is the making of the titles of which are spoken continuously: Wonder-Counselor (capable of creating extraordinary plans and of carrying them out), Mighty-God (docile and open man to the omnipotence of God that has adopted him as his son and desires to manifests himself through him), Eternal-Father (a king that as provident father is preoccupied for the wellbeing of his people), Prince-of-Peace (a governor that utilizes his capacity and political power to bring about and conserve peace). The prophet knows that this is to dream a lot and that only God will be able to realize such an ideal. For this reason, the prophet affirms at the end of the poem: "The zeal (ardent and faithful love) of the All-powerful Lord will realize this" (v. 6).
The text of Isaiah helps make a reading of the mystery of Christmas, beyond that which is sentimental and romantic, in tones of justice and salvation. The celebrated poem of the promise made by God to David, but in superhuman proportions. That which the prophet sings is beyond what can be said of the kings that succeeded David. Only in Christ Jesus, Messiah and Savior, the loved Son of the Father, to whom God has wanted to give The throne of David his father, so that he will rule over the House of Jacob for ever and his reign will have no end (Lk. 1,32-33), is realized in fullness this oracle. Before Jesus this text was only hope and anxiousness, an ideal not fulfilled, but believed and desired. A cry of humanity, an announcement and a preparation. The night of Christmas we can say rightly: for there is a child born for us, a son given to us. The Child of Bethlehem has brought the reign of God, reign of justice and of peace, of truth and of light for all men and women. With him begins for humanity a new adventure of light and joy. Rightly, St. Bernard said commenting on this text of Isaiah and applying it to Christ: Admirable in birth, counselor in preaching, God in pardon, strong in the passion, father of the future era in the resurrection, prince of peace in the eternal happiness.
The second reading (Tt. 2,11-14) makes up a type of profession of faith of the ancient Christian community. The text speaks of the Christian mystery as an epiphany. Something hidden has been manifested: the grace of God that has made salvation possible for the whole human race (v. 11). All of humanity is called to open itself to the gift of life in Christ Jesus (v. 12) and to go on hoping for another epiphany, the Appearing of the glory of our great God and savior Christ Jesus (v. 13). Christianity is not a simple religion. It is the experience of a constant epiphany. A saving manifestation that fills with light the world in the night of Bethlehem, through the Child that brings grace and salvation, and that anticipates another, the ultimate, when the Messiah will appear gloriously to initiate the new heaven and the new earth for all men and women. Incarnation, Easter and the glorious return of the Lord, are united today together in one mystery. A mystery of life and of grace that fills us with joy and hope.
The Gospel (Lk. 2,1-14) is the relation of the birth of Jesus. A text that joins in a magnificent way narration and theology, history and contemplation. Jesus is born in the history of men and women (v. 1), but in the city of David (1 Sam. 16,1-3), in Bethlehem of Judah (v. 4). He is a man like others, but is the Messiah and Lord that is born as fulfillment of the ancient prophecies. Jesus is born poor among the poor. Mary and Joseph do not find for him a worthy place in the house, because there was no room for them at the inn (v. 7). Probably this is an allusion to some house where pilgrims or the relatives of Joseph lodged. At the moment of birth, the parents of Jesus do not know what to do, already that the house may have been small or full of people. In any case, the situation is one of alienation and poverty. In addition, the Child is born in a stall, in a place that was used to give food to animals (Lk. 13,15). This fact the evangelist Luke repeats three times (vv. 7.12.16). His insistence wants to underline the poverty and the alienation in which was born the Son of God, sharing from the first moment the dramatic conditions of so many men and women of this world that live in extreme poverty. Luke adds a detail: Mary gave birth to a son, her first-born and she wrapped him in swaddling clothes"(v. 7). The phrase has been hidden with care. In the book of Wisdom is described with these words the birth of King Solomon (Wis. 7,4). Luke wants to express the loving care of Mary and the real and human condition of the Child.
The second part of the Gospel unfolds in the open air, in the open field, where some poor shepherds took care of their flocks (vv. 8-14). Also here the text underlines the context of the poverty of the birth of Jesus. The first hearers of the news are some poor shepherds, despised in the society of that time that because of their state of life were incapable of observing the law and the conditions of purity that the law imposed. It is precisely to them, the people that the society and religion alienated and despised, that God directs himself. Two elements are central in the Gospel: the angel of the Lord and the light. Two symbols of the divine presence and of his saving action. The angel, as a messenger from heaven, proclaims the news (in Greek: euaggelízomai), a news that is not simply good or pretty, but that has to power to change the person that receives it. A true act of evangelization. Heaven announces the Gospel to Earth, and so begins in Luke the history of evangelization, that will have to reach all peoples. The angel says: Do not be afraid. Listen, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord (vv. 10-11). The news is accompanied by a song intoned by other angels in heaven that say: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to men who enjoy his favor!. Heaven offers also the interpretation of the fact. The birth of the Child is a manifestation of divine glory (Hebrew: kabód, Greek: dóxa), that is to say, of its saving power in favor of men and women, and its fruit is peace, the biblical shalom, that has in itself all of the goods that fill up the live and happiness of men and women.
The memory of the birth of Jesus should be read and mediated on in the light of Easter. The Child that is born in Bethlehem is the Messiah-King, which proclaims and makes present the kingdom of God through his word, his life and above all with his death and resurrection. The celebration of Christmas places us before the option of God for the poor and simple. The joyful notice of this night is directed to those, like Mary, like Joseph, like the shepherds, live openly to God as their only wealth: How blessed are you who are poor: the kingdom of God is yours (Lk. 6,20). The holy night of the birth of Jesus invites us to welcome the immense love of the Father that has given us his Son (Jn. 3,16).
May the messianic peace, announced by the prophets (Is. 2,1-5; 11,6-9), and realized by Jesus of Nazareth in favor of the poor of this world (Lk. 4,18-19), fill us and take root in our hearts (Ep. 3,17). Today that the kindness and love of God our Savior for humanity has been revealed (Tt. 3,4), at the beginning of this Holy Year of the jubilee, let us joyfully proclaim our faith and our hope in the Lord that is close and walks with us, and that invites us to transform this world with the power of love.