Christmas Midnight Mass
Cathedral of the Risen Chris
Bishop James Conley
December 25, 2018
For 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 people. For today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord."
These words of the angel, spoken to the poor shepherds who were tending their flocks that night outside of Bethlehem, capture for us the true essence of what we celebrate tonight. "A Savior has been born for us, who is Christ the Lord."
At a certain place and in a particular time, God definitively entered into the world and forever changed the course of human history. This is what we celebrate tonight.
And the historical dimension of the Incarnation and birth of Jesus is extremely important. For our faith is not a mere philosophy or simply a theory. Our faith is rooted in historical events that, yes, took place a long time ago, but are still remembered and celebrated each year with great love and joy.
We heard just before Holy Mass began, the Solemn Proclamation of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. This proclamation is taken from the ancient Roman Martyrology and draws upon Sacred Scripture to declare in a formal way the birth of Christ. This proclamation situates the birth of Jesus in the context of salvation history.
And then we heard the gospel tonight, taken from Saint Luke, which began with the decree from Caesar Augustus announcing a census, calling everyone in the whole world to return to their own home towns to be enrolled. This unique census is attested to by the Jewish historian, Josephus, in his first century historical classic: Antiquities of the Jews.
And so Joseph and Mary leave their home in Nazareth in Galilee and travel down to Judea, to the city of David, to Joseph's hometown of Bethlehem, just a few miles south of Jerusalem.
These are all real places and real towns – and this is the historical context in which God chose to enter the world definitively.
But the greatest mystery of all, the most wondrous truth of the entire story of the Incarnation of God into human history, is that he chose to come to us as a newborn child in his mother's arms. This is the wonder of Christmas. This is the joy of this night. And this is the mystery of God's infinite love for us.
Many writers over the years have pondered the paradox of this mystery, the irony and contrast of this marvelous fact of our faith.
The King of the universe was born into poverty; God was made flesh in a poor, humble stable made for animals. The Light of the World came in utter darkness; the ruler of the nations, had no place to lay his head. The Son of God, the Lord of Lords, a tiny, vulnerable infant; the long-awaited Messiah - required feeding, comfort, warmth and care. The second Person of the Blessed Trinity was born amidst the hay in a stable with an ox and a donkey; a God with a human face! The Bread of Life, whom we will consume in a few moments, was laid in a place where animals consume grain!
The ironies abound. The paradoxical wonder of the Incarnation boggles the mind. And all of this points to what it means to be both fully human and fully divine; and to enter into human history, time and space, when and where, and in the condition that he did.
No other religion in the history of the world makes this claim regarding its founder. It's no wonder that the Incarnation is met with such skepticism and denial.
And our only proper response; the only way to truly respond to this great gift from God, is joy.
Pope Saint Leo the Great, in a homily he preached on Christmas nearly 1500 years ago in the 5th century, spoke about this profound "joy" of Christmas:
"Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly beloved, and rejoice with purest joy… [for] today the Maker of the world was born of the Virgin's womb, and He, who made all natures became the Son of her, whom He created! Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and That which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels' voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul."
And so, we rejoice with the poor shepherds tonight for unto us a Savior is born – indeed good news of great joy!
In a few moments we will all genuflect on our knee as we proclaim these words in the Creed: "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man."
Let's accompany this simple and humble bodily gesture with deep joy in our hearts and think of those famous words of Saint Paul: "for every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."
For today the whole universe pays him homage.
May you and your loved ones experience a deep and profound joy this Christmas.