Dec 25, 2019: Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Mass During the Day | ABC)

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Introduction

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.

In the Mass During the Day, the Christmas celebration gains a new depth of theological meaning.  There is progression of insight from the midnight Mass to now, when we assemble during daylight hours.  At midnight, the birth in history was proclaimed. At dawn, the initiative of God’s gift was declared and the baptized community’s joyfully gratitude was announced.  In this third celebration, we meditate on the identity of Christ and on our own new way of life in the Word made flesh.

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 52:7-10

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings glad tidings,
announcing peace, bearing good news,
announcing salvation, and saying to Zion,
“Your God is King!”

Hark! Your sentinels raise a cry,
together they shout for joy,
for they see directly, before their eyes,
the LORD restoring Zion.
Break out together in song,
O ruins of Jerusalem!
For the LORD comforts his people,
he redeems Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm
in the sight of all the nations;
all the ends of the earth will behold
the salvation of our God.

Today’s first reading is a proclamation of good news, dramatically portrayed.  In it, God leads his people back from Babylon to Zion, from whose ruined walls watchmen shout for joy.

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, and saying to Zion, “Your God is King!”

The passage begins with a sketch of a messenger running swiftly over the mountains with the message of peace and salvation.  The focus here is on the feet of the runner, which highlights his speed and determination.  They are beautiful feet because of the message of deliverance they carry.

The excitement of the scene is obvious by the repetition of the action: “bearing,” “announcing,” “saying.”  The message holds such promise — promise of peace, good news, salvation.  Zion has been desolate so long, waiting for a ray of hope, and now she is being told her God is king.  The implication of this news is that she will be able to partake in God’s victory.

Hark! Your watchmen raise a cry, together they shout for joy, for they see directly, before their eyes, the LORD restoring Zion.

The first ones to see the runner are the sentinels who stand watch on the walls of the city. As is so often the case with the prophetic word, its very proclamation brings about the salvation it announces.  With the announcement of peace and salvation, the Lord has indeed returned to the city.

Break out together in song, O ruins of Jerusalem! For the LORD comforts his people, he redeems Jerusalem.

The very ruins of the city are exhorted to break forth in song.  No longer need they lie destitute, unable to stand with dignity, without the protection of honor.  God comforts and redeems the people dwelling within them.  The inhabitants are now a renewed people, and so the city itself is renewed.  Peace is no longer a hoped-for dream, nor is salvation only a promise for the future.  They are now accomplished facts for which to rejoice.

The LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations; all the ends of the earth will behold the salvation of our God.

The prophet sketches another picture, this time of the arm of God bared, revealing the source of divine power that effected the deliverance which the city now enjoys.

This demonstration of strength serves to remind the people of the might of their protector.  It also alerts the other nations to the seriousness with which God defends his people.  It is not enough that Zion is rescued; the other nations of the world must see and acknowledge this power.  They must recognize both the scope of God’s power and the identity of the people who most benefit from it.

Just as the messenger heralds peace and salvation to Zion, so the deliverance of the city heralds the mighty power of God to the ends of the earth.

The prophet’s words take on a second layer of meaning when read in the context of our Christmas liturgy: The glad tidings being proclaimed becomes the good news of Jesus Christ, the God who is king is Jesus, and the redemption offered is redemption from sin. Thanks be to God!

2nd Reading – Hebrews 1:1-6

Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say:
You are my son; this day I have begotten you?
Or again:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me?
And again, when he leads the firstborn into the world, he says:
Let all the angels of God worship him.

The identity of the author of Hebrews is unknown. With the exception of 1 John, it is the only New Testament epistle that begins without a greeting that mentions the writer’s name; however, the reference to Timothy in 13:23 suggests connections to the circle of Paul and his assistants.  The exact audience, author, and even whether Hebrews is a letter have long been disputed.

Regardless, the book of Hebrews is a treatise of great rhetorical power and force, in which Christians are admonished to faithful pilgrimage under the leadership of Christ.

Today’s reading is the introduction from the book of Hebrews, which is a confessional hymn that celebrates Christ as the agent of revelation, creation, and salvation. Like our gospel reading, it is filled with high christology — that is, it teaches about Jesus’ divine identity.

Brothers and sisters: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets;

The passage begins with a comparison of the ways that God communicates with humankind.  In the past, God spoke to the fathers of Israel through the prophets, but in disconnected and fragmented ways.

in these last days, he spoke to us through the Son,

In the present, God speaks a definitive word to the believers through his own son.  Without disparaging the former way, it is clear that the author considers divine revelation through Christ as far superior to the earlier method.

The use of the phrase “in these last days” is indicative of the author’s perspective, together with primitive Christianity in general, that the Christ-event inaugurated the final age.  This perspective is also shown in Hebrews 6:5, when he speaks of Christians as those who have experienced “the powers of the age to come.”

whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe,

Christ enjoys a position of unrivaled privilege.  He is the heir of all things and the agent through which the world was made.  This assertion suggests not only preeminence but pre-existence: Christ existed before he appeared as man, and through him, God created the universe.

who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being,

This is a reinterpretation of the wisdom tradition, which held that it was through Wisdom that God created (Proverbs 8:22-31; Wisdom 9:9), and Wisdom is the pure emanation of the glory of God (Wisdom 7:25-26).  In this tradition, the line between Wisdom as a creation of God and wisdom as an attribute of God is not always clear.  This very ambiguity lends itself to a christological interpretation.

and who sustains all things by his mighty word.

Not only is Christ the agent through which the world was made, he is the agent through which it is sustained.

When he had accomplished purification from sins, he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,

Attention is now turned from the cosmological role of the pre-existent Son to the redemptive work of Jesus. After Jesus redeemed the human race, he took the place of greatest honor, at the right hand of God (Psalm 110:1).

As is becoming clear, our Christmas celebration is not simply a celebration of Jesus’ birth many years ago, but a celebration of Jesus’ whole role in salvation history.

as far superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

Having proven the pre-eminence of Christ over the prophets, the author now proceeds to show that Christ is also superior to the angels.

Angels are glorious beings.  The scripture always represents them as the most excellent of all creatures, far more glorious and excellent than the best of men. In fact, before Christ, there was no known being that outranked the angels but God himself.

For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are my son; this day I have begotten you”?

The author then supports his statement by referring to a number of Old Testament texts that he applies to Jesus.

The first is Psalm 2:7, a royal psalm that originally celebrated the king of Judah.  Here it may refer to Christ’s eternal existence, or to his resurrection, or to his ascension into heaven and position at the right hand of the Father. The point being made is that this was never said concerning the angels.

Or again: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me”?

Taken from 2 Samuel 7:14; this is part of the Lord’s promise to David that his heirs, the future kings of the Davidic line, would be secure.

And again, when he leads the first-born into the world, 

“Firstborn into the world” is a high-christology title for Jesus (see Colossians 1:15).

This is reminiscent of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, in which Luke states that Mary “gave birth to her first-born son” (Luke 2:7). This often puzzles those who believe Mary did not have additional children, since the word first-born might be taken to imply that she did. Scripture scholars suggest that Luke, the the authors of Colossians and Hebrews, is using the world first-born to refer to Jesus’ divinity.

he says: “Let all the angels of God worship him.”

An allusion to Deuteronomy 32:43 as it appears in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament), calling on the angels to glorify God. When Jesus was born into the world, at his nativity, the angels attended to and honored him.  When he ascended into heaven, they again honored him.  When he returns at the parousia, as judge of the world, the highest creatures will once again worship him.

The author continues beyond today’s reading with extended proofs.  Suffice it to say that since Jesus is indeed the Son of God as well as the wisdom of God, it follows that he would be superior even to the angels.  In light of some Jewish traditions which held that angels were mediators of the old covenant (Acts 7:53; Galatians 3:19), the author is also emphasizing the superiority of the new covenant over the old.

By applying these Old Testament texts to Jesus, the author of Hebrews is doing what we did with our first reading: He is finding an additional level of meaning in the scriptures in light of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Gospel – John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life,
and this life was the light of the human race;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it.
A man named John was sent from God.
He came for testimony, to testify to the light,
so that all might believe through him.
He was not the light,
but came to testify to the light.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world,
and the world came to be through him,
but the world did not know him.
He came to what was his own,
but his own people did not accept him.

But to those who did accept him
he gave power to become children of God,
to those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation
nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word became flesh
and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory,
the glory as of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth.
John testified to him and cried out, saying,
“This was he of whom I said,
‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me
because he existed before me.’”
From his fullness we have all received,
grace in place of grace,
because while the law was given through Moses,
grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
No one has ever seen God.
The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side,
has revealed him.

The gospels of Matthew and Luke present the genealogy of Jesus.  Matthew traces Jesus’ ancestry from Abraham (1:1-17), and Luke’s genealogy reaches all the way back to Adam (3:23-37).  Matthew and Luke also include infancy narratives, which comprise the gospel readings for the other three Christmas Masses (vigil, midnight, and dawn).

In contrast, John’s gospel has no infancy narrative.  It opens with a genealogy of divine, not human, origins. John speaks not of a child conceived by Mary through the Holy Spirit, but of a preexistent Word that became flesh. From the very beginning John’s is a high Christology gospel, highlighting Jesus’ divine nature. John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity throughout his gospel because he wants his readers to understand that the risen Christ is alive and in their midst.

This reading, the prologue of John’s gospel, states its main themes: life, light, truth, the world, testimony, and the preexistence of Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Logos, who reveals God the Father.  In origin, it was probably an early Christian hymn.

In the beginning was the Word,

The gospel of John begins with one of the most profound christological statements in the entire New Testament.

This phrase “in the beginning” is reminiscent of Genesis 1:1. This parallel may be the author’s way of implying that the coming of the Word into the world is as momentous as was the first creation.

Some commentators believe John is demonstrating that Jesus is the creative word of God who spoke things into existence.  God made the world “by a word” (Psalm 33:6); here, John is telling us that Christ is the Word.

and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

John goes on to describe the Word in language that recalls the figure of Wisdom personified (Proverbs 8:30; Wisdom 7:25).  Like Wisdom, the Word was actively involved in creation.  Unlike Wisdom, the Word is explicitly identified as divine.  However, the Word is not all of divinity, as it is clearly distinguished from the God-head as a distinct person.

He was in the beginning with God.

For the fourth time, John insists that the Word was with God at the beginning. Unlike created things, there never was a time when the Word did not exist.

All things came to be through him,

In a free-flowing manner, the author ascribes life-giving power to the Word.

and without him nothing came to be.

John emphasizes his point by reiterating it in the negative.

Here we can pause and contemplate how the four gospels, each progressively more distant from Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection, tells the good news of Jesus Christ in a larger context:

  • Mark has no story of Jesus’ origins at all but begins with Jesus’ public ministry.
  • Matthew, through the genealogy back to Abraham, puts the saving acts of Jesus Christ in the context of Jewish salvation history.
  • Luke, through a genealogy that goes back to Adam, puts Jesus’ saving acts in the context of the whole human race.
  • John’s picture is even bigger: John presents Jesus as the preexistent Word through whom all else that exists came into being.

What came to be through him was life,

Life is not mere existence – even inanimate things exist. Life is some kind of sharing in the being of God.

and this life was the light of the human race;

Life in man is something greater and nobler than it is in other creatures; it is rational, and not merely animal. When man became a living soul, created in the image and likeness of God, his life was light.

the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

This comparison between light and darkness is the first of many contrasts in John’s writings.

Man, in his fallen state, lies under the power of death and darkness.  By contrast, the Word is life and light, overcoming death and penetrating the darkness.

A man named John was sent from God.

The witness referenced here only as “a man named John” is not further identified; however, it is presumed that this is John the Baptist, because the words that appear in this passage are later ascribed to him (John 1:15; 1:30).

He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.

The concept of witnessing is one of the fundamental ideas in John’s writings.

Light provides its own testimony; it is, in itself, evidence.  However, to those who shut their eyes against the light, it is necessary for someone to bear witness to it.

In other words, the light of Christ doesn’t need testimony, but the world’s darkness does.

He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. 

There seems to be a definite need to contrast the Word with John.  The Word is the true light that comes into the world; John is merely the witness who testifies to the authenticity and superiority of this light.

The need for this distinction may have been motivated by the fact that the Baptist’s position had been misinterpreted by some (see Acts 19:1-7).  John is neither a peer nor a rival of the Word.

The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

Up until this point, only John is clearly a historical person; the Word resided in some primordial place.  Now, the Word enters into human history.

He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.

The great Maker, Ruler, and Redeemer of the world was now in it, and few or none of the inhabitants of the world were aware of it.  They did not recognize him because he did not make himself known in the way that they expected: in external glory and majesty.

He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him.

“His own” is literally “his own property/possession,” which probably refers to Israel, who were God’s own above all other people. “His own people,” the Israelites, did not accept him.

But to those who did accept him he gave power to become children of God, to those who believe in his name,

In Semitic usage, “name” is equivalent to the entirety of a person.

who were born not by natural generation nor by human choice nor by a man’s decision but of God.

The author distinguishes between those who were intimately associated with the Word (“his own people”) but rejected him, and those who did accept him and thereby became children of God.

John goes into further detail about how these children of God came into such a privileged position.  It was not through blood relation or the will of man; it is the grace of God that makes us willing to be his.  God is the immediate cause of new spiritual life.

And the Word became flesh

John intends the word flesh to be shocking. Flesh is not evil, but it is transitory, mortal, imperfect. At first glance, this is incompatible with the transcendent God, the source of all life. This is the mystery of the incarnation, by which the Eternal Word took on our exact human nature, becoming one with us in everything but sin (Hebrews 4:15).

and made his dwelling among us,

Literally, “pitched his tent among us.”  This calls to mind the tabernacle in the wilderness where God dwelt among the Israelites in the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34), as well as the tradition about Wisdom establishing her tent in the midst of the people (Sirach 24:8).

The Word of God, who is also the holiness of God and the wisdom of God, now dwells in the midst of humankind. The Incarnate Word is the new mode of God’s presence among his people.

and we saw his glory, 

The gospel writer is giving his own eyewitness testimony.  He and the other apostles witnessed Christ’s glory (that is, his divinity) firsthand.

Just as the sun still emanates light behind a thick cloud cover, or behind an eclipse, so Christ was still gloriously divine after he took on human flesh.

the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.

“Grace and truth” may represent the two Old Testament terms describing Yahweh in covenant relationship with Israel (Exodus 34:6); thus the Word shares Yahweh’s covenant qualities.

John has reached the climax of his introduction; he never again refers to Jesus as the Word.

John testified to him and cried out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, ‘The one who is coming after me ranks ahead of me because he existed before me.’”

Now that John has spoken explicitly of the incarnation of the Word, he now presents the testimony of John the Baptist.  He is the first in a series of witnesses who testify on behalf of the Christ-event.

In all four gospels, John the Baptist gives testimony to Jesus Christ by making it clear that one greater than he is coming. However, in John’s gospel, John the Baptist highlights Jesus’ preexistence.

From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace,

All humankind has been greatly enriched by this divine presence, transformed by the love that first prompted God’s revelation and Christ’s incarnation.

Charin anti charitos, “grace in place of grace,” is a phrase only used here. It has been interpreted in various ways, including an indication that the Old Covenant has been replaced with the New, which is consistent with the verse that follows.  Each interpretation indicates the unsearchable riches of the grace of Christ.  We can understand it as grace for grace’s sake, one grace heaped upon another.

because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

This constitutes the final break of John’s thought with that of Judaism. The revelation of the Old Covenant (the law) was but a foreshadowing of what was to be fully revealed in the New Covenant, through Christ (grace and truth).

With this statement, John demonstrates the reason the almighty God took on lowly human flesh: to give us grace and truth.

No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.

Yet another gift from Christ: a clear revelation of God to us. Jewish belief was firm in that God was an invisible God and could not be seen by man. John may have been referring to Exodus 33:20-23, when Moses was not permitted to see the glory of God, since no one may see God and live.

Now, through the Incarnation, we have an intimate knowledge of God and an acquaintance with him.  This was the grace and truth which came by Christ.  The Incarnate Word has been revealed completely (Colossians 1:15); he is the ultimate and complete revelation of God (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Connections and Themes

Salvation in our midst.  If our eyes are open and alert, we can see marvelous things.  We can see that God has won a victory for us.  The victory is tangible; it is realized in our midst.  What kind of victory is it? It is an overwhelming victory, one that conquers the enemy and conquers permanently.  Strong military language accents this victory.  The power of God brings about a sweeping triumph that is unparalleled.  What is conquered is evil itself, the disruptive powers of sin that choke off life and bring unbearable suffering to weak and strong alike.  God has won victory for us, and blessed are those who have eyes to see the messenger and ears to hear the glad tidings of triumph.  When the victory is experienced, salvation is ours.  We can take it in and make it our own.  By this victory God is glorified, the past is made right, and there is righteousness for all.

A universal salvation.  God’s victory has a profound impact upon every place, every time, and every people.  The birth of an infant, who is a king in David’s line, promises salvation to all who long for it.  This salvation is a new vision of wisdom, one that has been realized in Christ, who is God’s agent of grace in the world.  This means that we humans have another chance at living lives of righteousness.  We are now able to be forgiven and to forgive.  We have been graced with the presence of one who can make a difference in our lives if only we would be attentive to what is in front of us.  It is a new world, one of inclusivity and righteous honor.  It is a new age, ushered in by the child who is leading a victory procession.

The glory of the child-king.  Christ is the source and signal of God’s universal salvation.  The child-king is the reflection of God’s glory, and we are in awe of the wonder made known to us.  What we need are eyes of faith to see this marvel of God’s wisdom, this reflection of God’s glory in the fragility of the child of Bethlehem.  The clouds of heaven are opened for just a moment, but it is enough time for us to catch a glimpse of the divine character of this mysterious child.  He is the exact representation of God; he sits at God’s right hand; he is God’s Word made flesh.

The Word of God made flesh.  Ultimately, the eyes of faith allow us to see the fullness of God’s revelation.  The glory of the infant king is the very presence of God made flesh.  Jesus is the eternal incarnate Word who has pitched his tent among us.  Ours is not a distant God.  Rather, the incarnate wisdom of God is among us, and we are called to a change of heart that will allow us to see this wonder.  But something more happens.  In this turn of events, the participation in the mystery can be so complete that we can know a deep communion in the reality offered to us in Christ.  The marvel is that the child who was born among us can be born again and again in those who believe.  The divine Word continues to draw close to those who seek to live lives of sincerity and truth.  We, too, can be children of light.  Grace becomes incarnate in those who believe, for the salvation of God is made flesh in us.  The tent of God is pitched wherever salvation is offered, and the ways of evil and death are overturned.  All of this takes place right before our eyes.