Dec 25, 2019: Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Mass at Dawn | ABC)

Introduction

The season of Advent is past; the period of anticipation is complete.  The solemnity of the Lord’s birth celebrates the mystery of the incarnation by which the Word of God humbled himself to share our humanity, in order that he might enable us to become sharers in his divinity.

The second Mass of Christmas Day is the Mass at Dawn, traditionally called the Shepherds’ Mass because the gospel text recounts the visit of the shepherds. Just as the shepherds went eagerly to the crib to adore the Lord and to receive his great gift of light, so we also go to the altar where the same Lord comes just as truly to us. The theme of light is prominent in this Mass. Outside, the natural light is increasing. In Bethlehem the Light is manifested to a few more men. Over and over in the Mass texts, light is mentioned: The Introit begins, “A Light shall shine upon us this day; for the Lord is born to us.”

Since the 18th century, it has been commonly taught that the date of Christmas was set in order to counteract a pagan Roman festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or “Birthday of the Unconquered Sun,” which was celebrated on December 25th.  Just after the winter solstice, the year’s shortest day, when it seems that the nights are so long that they will suppress the light of day, Sol Invictus, the Roman sun god, begins to regain strength and the days start to lengthen again — a victory that was cause for rejoicing.  It is therefore thought that Christians chose this day because Jesus is one with the true God, who conquers the power of darkness.

The origin of the calendar date, however, is largely irrelevant.  The focus of our celebration is to commemorate the cosmic event that occurred in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago:  God has taken on flesh and become Emmanuel, “God with us.”

1st Reading – Isaiah 62:11-12

See, the LORD proclaims
to the ends of the earth:
say to daughter Zion,
your savior comes!
Here is his reward with him,
his recompense before him.
They shall be called the holy people,
the redeemed of the LORD,
and you shall be called “Frequented,”
a city that is not forsaken.

The message of the two short verses in this first reading is extraordinary: in the time of Isaiah, it is announced that a savior is already on his way.

See, the LORD proclaims to the ends of the earth:

The proclamation comes from the Lord himself, and it to be announced to the entire world.

Say to daughter Zion, your savior comes!

Zion is another name for Jerusalem. Note the tense used: the savior is not promised in future times; rather, he is coming now, in the present.

Here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. 

The savior brings their reward, which is salvation itself, and recompense for their sufferings.

They shall be called the holy people, the redeemed of the LORD, 

Salvation has been accomplished; the new names for the people and the city (in the next line) make this clear.

In order to appreciate the title of “the holy people,” we must remember that ancient Israel was exiled in Babylon at the time of this writing.  As a nation, this political and social exile was interpreted by the people themselves as punishment for their sins.  Now they have a new name, and that name implies that not only are they forgiven, but they enjoy a new identity, as if newly born.

The people are also called “the redeemed of the Lord,” a title that marks a double relationship with God.  The obvious meaning points to a bond between redeemer and redeemed: the former pays the debt of the latter and provides deliverance from any kind of servitude.  The less obvious relationship implied in the title is one of kinship, because normally in these cases, it was a close relative who paid the debt.  These titles point to the intimate and remarkable attachment that God has for this people.

And you shall be called “Frequented,” a city that is not forsaken.

Zion/Jerusalem is also given new names, also indicative of a new identity.  The city that was overthrown, depopulated, and plundered will once again attract people to her.  It will then be called “Frequented,” that is, “not forsaken.”

The desolation of the past is forgotten; salvation has come to the city.

2nd Reading – Titus 3:4-7

Beloved:
When the kindness and generous love
of God our savior appeared,
not because of any righteous deeds we had done
but because of his mercy,
He saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

The theme of this second reading, which was probably part of an early Christian baptismal hymn, is the appearance of the saving love of God.

It describes the change in humanity brought about by the coming of Christ. Before his coming, all humanity, both Jews and Gentiles, was in a deplorable state. Now, there is hope.

Beloved: When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, 

The love and kindness of God have already appeared; this is not a future event believers ardently long for.  The coming of Christ coincides with the ultimate manifestation of God’s love.

not because of any righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy,

This love is a free gift springing from the mercy of God.  Paul makes it clear that it is not simply compensation for righteous living.

he saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he richly poured out on us through Jesus Christ our savior, 

A rudimentary trinitarian formula appears in the reference to baptism.  The text explicitly states that it is God’s love that appears and it is God who saved us through the washing of baptism.  It was God who poured out the Spirit through Jesus Christ.

so that we might be justified by his grace

For Paul, the process of justification begins in God.  Salvation is bestowed first, so that having received it, Christians might then be able to live virtuously.  It is this saving grace that justifies them, not any effort on their part. Everything is a free gift bestowed out of divine largesse.

Although Paul uses common Hellenistic religious language such as “rebirth” and imagery such as cleansing with water, the theology of justification stems from Jewish thought.  There the righteous are those who, though unfaithful, have been acquitted by God.  The initiative is always God’s, and it is usually exercised in the face of human infidelity.  From a human point of view, the absurdity of such a situation is unmistakable.  Still, accepting the opportunity of freely given justification is not an easy thing to do, and many people do not even believe it is possible.  However, for those who believe it is both possible and desirable, reluctance to avail themselves of salvation is the real absurdity.

and become heirs in hope of eternal life.

Being born anew, Christians can now act in a new way, walking blamelessly in this world in anticipation of the next.  Christians are radically changed because God has entered their lives, a feat that was accomplished by the appearance of God’s love.

Gospel – Luke 2:15-20

When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger.
When they saw this,
they made known the message
that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed
by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things,
reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned,
glorifying and praising God
for all they had heard and seen,
just as it had been told to them.

The birth narrative we hear in this Gospel reading is unique to Luke. The shepherds and angels are not mentioned in the Gospel according to Matthew; Mark and John have no infancy narrative at all.

It is believed that Luke uses the shepherds to emphasize Jesus’ portrayal as a son of David; the king who had been a shepherd. There is also a heightened contrast between the shepherds (the poor, ignorant and ritually unclean) and the leaders of Jerusalem.

When the angels went away from them to heaven,

In the verses just prior to this passage, an angel of the Lord had appeared to the shepherds, announcing the birth of the Messiah and informing them that they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

Immediately after this proclamation, a “great company” of angels suddenly appeared with the one angel, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.

Now this heavenly host has left them once again alone in their fields.

the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, 

Shepherds were considered irreligious by the self-righteous in their community, because their occupation prevented them from participating in regular ritual observances.  Their focus was on supervising and protecting their flocks.

The fact that they would leave their flocks in the hills in search of a newborn baby was extraordinary.  If anything happened to the sheep in their absence, they would suffer a considerable financial setback – a very risky gesture on the part of the shepherds, who were likely poor.

However, they were responding to heavenly revelation.  Note that “they went in haste.”  They were, in fact, the first to respond to a divine invitation to seek out this child.

and the infant lying in the manger.

This was the sign the angel had given them, that they would find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, which was surely a unique sight.  After all, who puts a baby in a feeding trough?  One would expect the infant Messiah to be draped with royal robes, lying in the warmth and security of a palace, with a long line of attendants and visitors.

When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

When the shepherds saw the Holy Family in the exact state the angel had predicted, they were convinced that everything the angel had told them was true: the long-awaited Messiah had arrived.

It’s reasonable to guess that the shepherds not only told Joseph and Mary about the message from the angel, but also about the entire vision of the host of angels and their song of praise.  This would have been a great encouragement to them.

It is also likely that Joseph and Mary told the shepherds about the visions and experiences they’d had concerning the child.  Such an exchange would have greatly strengthened the faith of both parties.

All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

They proclaimed this news to everyone they met. This was another risky move on the part of the shepherds – not only had they abandoned their flocks, they were now making truly incredible claims.

Note that the text doesn’t state that the hearers were convinced; it states that they were astonished.  Evangelization does not itself guarantee success.

And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

Mary has already experienced the wondrous power of God, having conceived and birthed a child without having relations with man.  She has made clear in her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) that she is a believer.  She stands silently before the mystery of what God has done, treasuring these events in her heart with respectful contemplation.

Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.

If the shepherds received any negative reaction to their message, they have not been dissuaded.  Encountering the infant Messiah has been a profound religious experience.  They resume their lives, but they would never be the same.  These humble, probably uneducated, people had been transformed into believers, and their final response was praise.

Connections and Themes

God’s initiative of universal transformation.  God has taken the first step in our redemption, and the offer of grace is made to all people who can hear and who will embrace the gift.  As a season, Christmas is really a time of universal goodwill.  Widespread change seems to occur at Christmas: human hearts appear to soften, and we greet each other with good wishes and cheer.  Because we remember the gift of God’s love and receive it anew in our hearts, our interactions are transformed.

Left to our own designs, we tend to set limits and remain caught in the status quo of our lives.  God disrupts the order of life and by a divine undertaking of grace starts something that can impact the universe.  The declaration of Christmas is bold: all of this possibility has already been realized; we can already live by the new name of God’s compassion and justice.  Transformative love comes alive in our midst, in the city where people dwell.  The possibility of a new way of life happens now, and the future will usher it in among us.  Receptivity is all that is asked of us.

A matter of great gratitude.  In response to God’s gracious gift of transformation, we are invited to rejoice with grateful hearts.  The royal infant whose birth we celebrate is the one who was promised, the one who inaugurates the age of transforming grace.  The child is, in fact, the long-awaited messianic king.  He is the source of rejoicing in those who receive him with great gratitude.  He is recognized by the angels and by the shepherds, but not by the power structures of the city.  Only those who are open to God’s gift can receive it with thanksgiving.  When it is received, however, marvelous things happen.  Our identities are changed, all the cosmos joins in the festivity, and righteousness blossoms in history.

The life of baptism.  For Christian believers, the life of baptismal fidelity is the grateful response to the gift of God’s initiative.  This baptismal life is rooted in the mystery of the triune God, the God in whom believers are baptized.  It is a life lived in the rebirth of the spirit of God that animates us to live blamelessly, to live in a way that shows our appreciation of this gift, to live lives that are manifestations of holiness.

It is by living such lives that Christians are able to proclaim that God has truly appeared and to become the place of the ongoing appearance of God’s gift of transformation.  What becomes clear is that this is not our work; it is the work of God, who has come to dwell with us and in whom we find our cause for celebration.  The baptismal life is a life of gratitude for the gift we have received, a gift whose fulfillment will be realized by God in the future.

Solidarity with the poor.  While Christmas morning may be a time of opening gifts and for family celebrations, it is also a time when people of means reach out to those who are less fortunate.  Christmas celebrates generosity, first the generosity of God and then our generosity with one another, especially with the poor.  Solidarity with the outcasts of society, with those who are barred from the power structures of society, is in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

The birth of the baby is the source of joy for the poor and those who are scandalously forced to the fringes of Bethlehem.  The despised shepherds become the privileged ones to whom the message is announced.  God’s gift finds a place among the outcasts and continues to dwell at home there.  It is indeed a Christmas grace to be able to find God there, to rejoice in the gift, and to respond creatively to it.  Thus we become the place where shepherds and kings meet in adoration and where the future of God’s justice dawns.

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