The season of Advent is past; our 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 Midnight Mass is often called the “Mass of the Angels,” for the heavenly multitude that appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of the Savior. Before the Mass, the Proclamation is sung, announcing the impending Incarnation and setting it in the context of history. The Gloria is also sung for the first time since the beginning of Advent and after being intoned is celebrated with fanfare and bells, joyfully recalling the first singing of the Angelic anthem to the shepherds.
Why celebrate at midnight? It corresponds with the traditional belief that Christ was born at midnight, and serves as an outlet for our natural enthusiasm, which often moves us to celebrate a joyous event at the earliest possible minute. Secondly, from the material darkness around us in the middle of the night, we are reminded of the spiritual darkness in the world which only Christ the Light can dispel.
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 9:1-6
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us;
upon his shoulder dominion rests.
They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero,
Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
Our first reading dates from the early part of Isaiah’s writing and is an announcement of deliverance, which will be accomplished in an astounding way: through the birth of a child.
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.
This is not the darkness of night, but a metaphor for the condition of the people. The light that comes to them ushers in a complete reversal of fortune.
You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing,
The words of the prophet are now directed to God.
He acknowledges that the people did not bring this joy upon themselves; they are the recipients of God’s grace.
As they rejoice before you as at the harvest, as men make merry when dividing spoils.
Salvation has inspired a threefold joy in the people, which is expressed in metaphors:
- The joy and excitement of harvest time, which included the deep satisfaction of accomplishment, the savoring of luscious fruits, and the assurance of new life,
- The headiness of victory in battle, including the privilege of dividing the spoils that go to the vanquisher, and
- The relief of being freed from Assyrian oppression, seen in the image of shackled oxen, a fairly common image of enslavement. God has intervened and destroyed the instruments of their servitude.
There is a tremendous sense of relief that the hardships are over. God opens up a new future for the humble where gloom had previously existed.
as on the day of Midian.
This recalls the oppression the Israelites endured from the Midianites (Judges 6:2-6), until God chose to raise up Gideon, who miraculously defeated the enemy (Judges 7:15-25). Isaiah is saying that just as God defeated the enemies of Israel at Midian, so can God defeat the Assyrians.
For every boot that tramped in battle, every cloak rolled in blood, will be burned as fuel for flames.
Jewish law regarding holy war forbade the taking of booty. The conquering soldiers were trained to destroy everything except what could be passed through fire, such as silver and gold; these were devoted to the Lord and added to the treasury.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests.
The reading takes an unexpected turn: the salvation being promised will be delivered through the agency of a child. The responsibility for establishing the peace described here rests on his shoulders.
They name him Wonder-Counselor,
The names ascribed to this child signify the feats expected of him. Like every good leader, he will make wise decisions and will guide others in their judgments. This leader, however, will surpass all others in this regard, he will be a wonder.
This term comes from the Hebrew word gibbor, a term with military connotations. The same word is used for Yahweh in Isaiah 10:21, where it is translated “mighty God” or “God-warrior.”
He will be ever devoted to his people, unfailing in providing for those under his care.
Prince of Peace.
Sar Shālôm. His reign will be characterized by peace, which he secures and safeguards.
This peace (shālôm) is more than the absence of war; it means wholeness, completion, harmony. It is a condition in which all things — humans, animals, plants — follow their God-given destinies undisturbed.
His dominion is vast and forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustains by judgment and justice, both now and forever.
All of the qualities described are in some way connected with that of a Davidic king. However, a super-human dimension has been added: he will reign forever. The exercise of his dominion is the saving action of God.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
“Lord of hosts” is a military title, and correlates with the other military references (the battle of Midian, spoils of war). Our God is a mighty warrior God; he, and only he, has won salvation for the people, and that salvation is absolute.
2nd Reading – Titus 2:11-14
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good.
The books of Titus, 1st Timothy, and 2nd Timothy are letters written to the pastors of Christian communities. Because these letters deal with church life and practices, they are often called the Pastoral Epistles.
Today’s reading is a short excerpt from Paul’s letter to Titus, who was in charge of developing the church on the large Mediterranean island of Crete. In it, Paul makes a confession of faith in the saving grace of God.
Beloved: The grace of God has appeared,
God’s grace is no longer something for which we wait with longing; it has arrived.
The universality of this salvation is clearly stated; it is not merely for a select group.
This theological concept of salvation has profound Jewish and Hellenistic connotations. In Jewish thought, salvation was seen as rescue from the perils of life. In the Hellenistic mystery religions, which were prominent at the time of the writing of this letter, believers shared in the mythical divine being’s victory over death and were assured of a share in blissful life in the hereafter.
Christianity includes aspects of both views. Having been saved from the perils of evil, Christians have been empowered to live lives of moral integrity in this world. In addition, their salvation has come to them through the sacrifice of Christ Jesus, and they still await a future divine manifestation.
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
God’s grace will adequately prepare believers to live in moderation, righteousness, and piety, regardless of the opposition they may have to face.
“You hear that the prophets foretold and predicted that men will no longer be bound to come from all over the earth to offer sacrifice in one city or in one place but that each one will sit in his own home and pay service and honor to God. What time other than the present could you mention as fulfilling these prophecies? At any rate listen to how the Gospels and the apostle Paul agree with Zephaniah. The prophet said: ‘The Lord shall appear’ (Zephaniah 2:11); Paul said ‘The grace of God has appeared, saving all.’ Zephaniah said: ‘To all nations’; Paul said ‘Saving all people.’ Zephaniah said: ‘He will make their gods waste away’; Paul said: ‘training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age.’” [Saint John Chrysostom (ca. 388 AD), Discourses Against Judaizing Christians 5,12,9]
as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of the great God and of our savior Jesus Christ,
Note the intimate relationship between God and Christ.
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good.
Christ Jesus has achieved this great grace. His sacrifice of himself has redeemed us from lawlessness and purified us, making us eager to do good works.
Salvation has been won by Christ and is offered to all; it is up to each of us to decide how we will respond to it.
Gospel – Luke 2:1-14
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The gospel reading is the familiar birth narrative from Luke, one of the best-known stories of the Bible.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
Situating the birth within the context of history underscored the gospel claim that God was indeed born at this time, in this place, among these people. However, there are historical problems with the text. Caesar Augustus reigned from 27 BC to 14 AD and Quirinius was governor in 6 and 7 AD, but Jesus was born during the time Herod was king of Judea (Luke 1:5; Matthew 2:1), from 37-4 BC. It is generally accepted that Jesus was born in 4 BC.
It’s been suggested that Quirinius was acting as governor for Saturninus (the appointed governor) for the purpose of conducting the census.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
The census was an oppressive tool the Romans used to help collect taxes from the people.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While Mary is in the last months of her pregnancy, she and Joseph are uprooted from their home in Nazareth and forced to travel to Bethlehem to be counted.
Note that in addition to situating Jesus in first-century history, Luke also deliberately links Jesus to the house of David. The gospel tradition maintains that Jesus was from Nazareth; this account explains how his parents happened to be in Bethlehem at the time of his birth.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
The firstborn had certain privileges in the family (inheritance, pre-golden calf priesthood, etc. (see Genesis 27; Exodus 13:2; Numbers 3:12-13)) and there were obligations placed on the parents (dedication in the temple (Luke 2:23)).
The description of Jesus as firstborn is a legal description indicating these privileges and obligations; it does not necessarily mean that Mary had other sons.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes
See Wisdom 7:4. Like King Solomon, his predecessor on the Davidic throne (after Solomon’s reign, the kingdom was divided), Jesus wears the trappings of humility.
and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
A manger is a feeding trough.
The familiarity of this story blunts the shock of what it conveys: the Son of God enters the worth with extreme hardship and poverty. From the outset, he was treated like an unwelcome stranger, deprived of comfort, almost an outcast.
However, the lowly beginnings of our Savior magnify how great God’s love is for us. He loves us so much that he — the infinite, all-holy, all-powerful God — chooses to become one of us. He is willing to come to us even though practically everyone fails to give him a proper welcome, even though he must lie in a manger.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.
These were Bethlehemite shepherds like King David himself. Shepherds were a lowly class of people, physically unclean due to living in the fields with their flocks, and ritually unclean because they were often required to deal with the birth and death blood of the sheep.
The announcement of Jesus’ birth to shepherds is in keeping with Luke’s theme that the lowly are singled out as the recipients of God’s favors and blessings.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.
In the Old Testament, God’s “glory” was the visible manifestation of his divine presence. It often came in the form of a cloud, covering the ark of the covenant of filling the temple in Jerusalem (Exodus 40:34; 1 Kings 8:11; Ezekiel 10:4, 18). When the prophet Ezekiel had a vision of God’s glory in the temple, he fell on his face in worship (Ezekiel 44:4).
The glory of the Lord, however, did not remain in the land of Israel forever. Shortly before Babylon invaded Jerusalem and destroyed the temple (586 BC), God’s glory left the sanctuary and the holy city because of the people’s sinfulness (see Ezekiel 10-11). For hundreds of years, the Jewish people were without God’s glory dwelling among them.
Now on this night of Christ’s birth, the same divine glory that once hovered over the ark of the covenant and filled the Holy of Holies envelops these simple shepherds in an open field outside Bethlehem!
The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
We often imagine angels as beautiful, peaceful, and serene, but angels are most often described in Scripture as terrifying. It is unclear whether it’s their countenance that is actually terrifying, or the fact that they have appeared unexpectedly, or that they have historically delivered startling or difficult news.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
This single verse is the crux of the entire infancy narrative.
Luke is the only synoptic gospel writer to use the term “savior.” As savior, Jesus is looked upon by Luke as the one who rescues humanity from sin and delivers humanity from the condition of alienation from God.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
Jesus’ first visitors will not be friendly neighbors or extended family, but poor, dirty shepherds. This is consistent with Luke’s theme that the lowly are singled out as the recipients of God’s favors and blessings.
Time and again in Scripture, God shows preference for the poor, the overlooked, and the forgotten.
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
The angel is joined by countless other angelic beings who filled the night with their song of praise to God. The glory of God could not be contained; the disregard of the human community is outstripped by a display of heavenly exaltation.
“Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
The peace that results from the Christ event is for those whom God has favored with his grace. This peace is more than the absence of war; it also includes the security and well-being characteristic of peace in the Old Testament.
The angelic host joyfully recognizes what seems to go unnoticed by almost everyone on earth: Today is born the Savior of the world, Christ the Lord!
Connections and Themes
The birth of Jesus in history. The gospel clearly situates Jesus’ birth within a specific historical period, that of the Roman rule of Israel in the first century. The incarnation of God happened among us! God comes to us in our time, in our place, in our history.
Once the historical reality is established, the story reveals another dimension: the ordinary becomes extraordinary. Night glows with the radiance of daytime; at the midnight hour is the breakthrough of everlasting light. And only those of humble heart come to know this wonder — not the educated, the rich, or the influential, but those whom society forgets. It is, in fact, the nature of this child, born in history, to reverse the orders of power.
The liberating king. The readings contain strong images of the royalty of the Lord. God is portrayed as a valiant liberator: it is he who champions the cause of justice and reverses the ways of war, power, and oppression. This reversal of fate is made more shocking by the fact that this mighty warrior and conqueror of all comes as a child — weak, voiceless, lacking any legal rights.
The age of fulfillment has begun. With the birth of the child, something new has happened: the age of fulfillment has begun. This is an age of grace and fresh hope, made available to all people of goodwill. It is a time when reconciliation transforms us and we seek peace; it is an era of redemption, for now all people can walk in the newness of life and grace.