Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Nativity of the Lord

It is fairly well known that the word “Christmas” is derived from the Middle English “Christ’s Mass.”  While this name for the holiday still resonates with most people today, this name, along with many of its modern traditions are derived from England and English speaking countries.  But even though the name is fairly modern, the purpose of the celebration, giving recognition to the birth of Jesus, or the Nativity, goes back to the early 4th century.  In pagan Rome, it was not unusual to celebrate the birthdays of their gods.  The early Christians, therefore, in an ironic twist, took this opportunity to celebrate the day when our God was born into this world as a man.  To this day the celebration of the birth of Our Lord remains a major feast day, but the Church has begun to abandon the old Middle English name for the holiday in favor of a more accurate translation of the old Latin name for the feast:  The Nativity of the Lord.

Isaiah 62:1-5
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25 or Matthew 1:18-25

Isaiah 9:1-6
Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14

Isaiah 62:11-12
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Luke 2:15-20

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
Hebrews 1:1-6
John 1:1-18 or John 1:1-5, 9-14

As you can see, our readings for the Nativity of the Lord will vary depending on which Mass you attend, an though the overarching theme still has its focus on the birth of Christ, each set of readings has its own unique theme.

If you attend the Vigil Mass, our readings remain reminiscent of those we heard during Advent with the theme of prophesy being fulfilled.  In fact, our Gospel is from the same passage in Matthew which we read this last Sunday on the 4th Sunday of Advent, only in its long form where we hear the genealogy of Jesus (if the priest of deacon reads this optional text).  Our first reading from third Isaiah takes on an urgency that cannot be ignored when he says, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent…”  In our second reading Paul is so filled with the Spirit he walks into the synagogue and proclaims Jesus as the heir to David.  Our theme lets us know that the signs are obvious, God has promised a savior and this savior is Emmanuel… Jesus.

If you attend Midnight Mass, our readings focus on the moment of Christ’s birth.  Our Gospel from Luke gives us his well known narrative as we hear how Mary gave birth, “wrapped him in swaddling cloghes and laid him in a manger.”  This is the Nativity… the spirit of Christmas, and our other readings share in the joy.  Our first reading going back to first Isaiah proclaiming that “the people in darkness have seen a great light.”  Our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus reminding us that “the grace of God has appeared,”  Jesus, in the flesh, to save us all.

If you attend Mass at Dawn, our readings pickup the story from where we left off at Midnight Mass.  From Luke’s Gospel, the angels have just left the shepherds who were in the field.  Inspired by the angel’s message, they say to one another, “let us go to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place.”  They are moved with amazement and must seek out this child.  Our first reading, bouncing back over to third Isaiah proclaims with excitement, “your savior comes!” while our second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus proclaims “When the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared, not because of an righteous deeds we had done but because of his mercy.”  Our readings take on a simple humility that makes the birth of Christ an intimate and personal experience.

If you attend Mass during the day of the Nativity, our readings take on a much loftier tone (if not somewhat esoteric for the average listener attending Mass on Christmas Day).  Here our Gospel consists of the poetic and deeply theological opening stanzas from John’s Gospel.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  As is typical for most major feasts, the high Christology of John’s Gospel helps us to see the majesty in these events.  Similarly our first reading from second Isaiah takes on a majestic tone as he proclaims “Your God is King!  Hark!  Your sentinels raise a cry, together they should for joy.”  In our second reading from the letter to the Hebrews, the tone settles down a bit by reminding us all the ancient prophecy has become clear… that this savior is more than just an angel, but is above the angels taking his seat at God’s side.

Final thoughts:
Regardless of whichever Mass you attend to celebrate the Nativity of the Lord, one message is clear:  Jesus is the Christ, the fulfillment of prophecy, come to us in the most humble of ways.  But it is a bittersweet holiday as the destiny of this little infant is to die on a cross for our sins.  This is love.  The love of a God seeking to understand his children.  The love of his Son willing to lay down his life to save us.  The love of the Holy Spirit that carries through each one of us as we share the joy of that moment of Jesus’ birth.  God’s love incarnate.

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