The ‘true meaning of Christmas’ comes with a special invitation to answer
By Tim Irwin
Sunday, Dec. 25/Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas)
At the Vigil Mass: Isaiah 62:1-15 Psalm 89:4-5,16-17,27,29 Acts 13:16-17,22-25 Matthew 1:1-25
Mass During the Night: Isaiah 9:1-6 Psalm 96:1-2,2-3,11-12,13 Titus 2:11-14 Luke 2:1-14
Mass at Dawn: Isaiah 62:11-12 Psalm 97:1,6,11-12 Titus 3:4-7 Luke 2:15-20
Mass During the Day: Isaiah 52:7-10 Psalm 98:1,2-3,3-4,5-6 Hebrews 1:1-6 John 1:1-18
The phrase “The true meaning of Christmas” seems cliché perhaps because when it is invoked seldom is the true meaning ever explained. The Church offers us the definitive explanation in the four sets of liturgical readings for the various Christmas Masses and each speaks to some facet of the true meaning of Christmas.
The vigil liturgy for the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord features the genealogy of Jesus according to St. Matthew. The genealogy begins with Abraham so Jesus can be counted among the Children of Israel. The list includes King David because it is from among his descendants that the Messiah, the one who would bring salvation, would come according to the prophets.
The Gospel continues with the angel’s message to Joseph concerning the true nature of the child: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
The Gospel for the Mass During the Night begins with St. Luke’s endearing story of the night of Jesus’s birth. Mary and Joseph have traveled from Nazareth in order to register with the Roman census. They found lodging at a kataluma, translated as inn, but we’re not talking the Hilton. More likely it was a cave with space for both people and their livestock.
An army of Angels announces the birth of the Messiah not to emperor or king, but to the lower classes in the person of shepherds tending their flocks. The angels proclaim, “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.”
HOW WILL WE ANSWER?
The Mass at Dawn continues the shepherds’ story. They go to Bethlehem presumably with sheep in tow to find the newborn Messiah. Finding Baby Jesus rewards their curiosity and inspires within them a faith that they excitedly shared with others. Luke says, “When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child. All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.” These weren’t the guys people typically associated with an amazing story — something truly unique had occurred.
The Mass During the Day recounts the prologue of the Gospel according to John. The Divine Word, the second person of the Blessed Trinity, is the one incarnated into the womb of the Virgin Mary. “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 says.
This is no mere arrival of another in the long line of Jewish prophets; this is an event unparalleled in history. Nothing like it has happened before or since.
In these readings, the Church reminds us that a descendent of Abraham in the line of David was born of a Virgin in Bethlehem as foretold in prophecy. The Children of Israel expected a Messiah, but not the Son of God.
Much more than a political restoration had begun and it continues today. The Father sent his Son to invite all of us to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. These readings give us much to contemplate, perhaps beginning with how we might each best answer the invitation to take our places in the Kingdom of God. May we each find our answer and experience the true meaning of Christmas.
TIM IRWIN teaches at Peoria Notre Dame High School, where he chairs the Theology Department. He is a member of St. Mark Parish in Peoria.