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.
Psalm 89:4-5, 16-17, 27, 29
Acts 13:16-17, 22-25
Matthew 1:1-25 or Matthew 1:18-25
Psalm 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Psalm 97:1, 6, 11-12
Psalm 98:1, 2-3, 3-4, 5-6
John 1:1-18 or John 1:1-5, 9-14
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.
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
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
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.
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.