Some years ago, when I was recently ordained, it fell upon me to celebrate the Vigil Mass of Christmas at my parish. The pastor, as was his prerogative, always celebrated Midnight Mass, so the other parish Masses were divided between myself and the other associate. The gospel for the Christmas Vigil Mass is the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, which contains the genealogy of Jesus. This can be a challenge for the preacher: some of the names are tongue-twisters (my favorites are Amminadab and Shealtiel), and the passage is long, or at least seems that way. It is hard to imagine a way in which one can proclaim that list of 45 names in a way that can maintain the average hearer’s interest throughout. I can imagine, and I swear I have perceived, a sense of collective relief among congregations when, at verse 18, I finally get to what most people would think of as the story of Christ’s birth.
I tried, in my homily at that Mass, to explain the relevance of that lengthy genealogy, but I must have failed, at least for one parishioner. She came up to me after Mass, with several children in tow, and chided me, saying, “I brought my children to Mass, and I told them all about the shepherds and angels. So after all that, they come to Mass and have to sit through that boring list of names. Why couldn’t you have preached about the angels and shepherds?” I replied that it wasn’t for me to choose the gospel for the Mass, and tried to assuage her, but she left dissatisfied. Nowadays, when preaching about this gospel, I will sometimes try to anticipate this potential sense of disappointment by making a joke about it and suggesting that, if people want to hear the gospel about the angels and shepherds, they should go to Midnight Mass.
This sense of disappointment or dissatisfaction with the genealogy of the vigil Mass of Christmas sometimes leads priests and deacons to choose the “shorter form” of that gospel, which presents only the story of Jesus birth (a legitimate option, but still lacking angels and shepherds—those are only found in Luke’s gospel). In a way, that’s an understandable method of dealing with the perceived problem, but I think it’s a mistake, because it robs the liturgy of its full depth and richness of meaning. It’s not an accident that this gospel is included in one of the Masses of Christmas: Like every aspect of the Church’s liturgy, it is intended to teach us something, or, even more importantly, make present to us sacramentally the mysteries of salvation that they contain.
The genealogy of Jesus in Mathew’s gospel presents to us the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. In each generation we see God advancing his plan: preparing his people, working in and through human history, even in something so seemingly mundane as the succession of generations. The message of the genealogy is, “God has been preparing for this moment for all ages; in all generations, we can see the trace of the divine finger upon human history.” And so, when the proclamation of the gospel reaches the words “Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us,’” we can see that, indeed, God has been with his people, and now that his presence with and among us is completed in the Incarnation, we can be confident that he will always be with us. The message is that God does not merely break through into human history at one isolated instant of time, but that God has always been and always will be at work throughout history to effect his redeeming will.
The Church’s liturgy, particularly upon her major feasts, always in some way presents to us in microcosm the entirety of God’s saving work. Each feast will present it to us from a different “angle” or with a different emphasis, but in some way, in every feast, the whole is there. This is as true of the liturgies of Christmas as of any other.
The Christmas Vigil Mass, though celebrating the Savior’s birth, is still focused on it by way of anticipation. We are on the very cusp or edge of Christmas, but we’re not quite there yet. The prayers of the Vigil Mass bear this out: the opening prayer speaks of us “as we wait in hope for our redemption,” and the prayer over the gifts speaks of us “as we look forward … to the coming festivities.” The Christmas Vigil Mass is the bridge between the anticipation and preparation of Advent, and the realization of our preparations at Christmas. As such, like Advent, it also has reference to the End of Things: we wait in hope of our redemption in the sense of the birth of the Redeemer, but also in the sense of the final fulfillment of Christ’s redeeming work when he comes again. The liturgy of the Vigil is about God’s promise of redemption, and how we have and will yet witness the fulfillment of that promise within our history.
If we are still anticipating at the Vigil Mass, in the Christmas Mass during the Night (or Midnight Mass) the Church now is exultant in the realization of the mystery of God’s presence among us in the birth of the Christ child. Now, as the prayer over the gifts proclaims, our human nature is united to the divine, in the holy exchange (commercium divinum) through which we may be found in the likeness of Christ. At the Mass of Midnight, we can bask, as it were, in the splendor of the true light of Christ. The Church, bathed in the radiance of the Christ child, steps back and, like the angels and shepherds of the gospel for that Mass, gazes in wonder and admiration. The ancient promise has been fulfilled, and we who celebrate this liturgy, as the opening prayer says, are granted the privilege of knowing “the mysteries of his light on earth.”
But we are granted this knowledge of the mysteries of Christ’s light not only for its own sake, not only for our wonder and awe, but that we might be changed by it. Even in the prayers of Midnight Mass, while we are yet enraptured by the radiance of the Christ child, we pray that we will be transformed. In the prayer after communion, we ask that we who celebrate the Redeemer’s nativity may “through an honorable way of life become worthy of union with him.” We who have heard and believed the promise, and have seen its fulfillment, now pray for the fruit of that promise and fulfillment to be borne within us.
In the Masses of Christmas day this desire to experience the fruitfulness of the Incarnation becomes even more pronounced. In the opening prayer for the Mass at Dawn, we pray that the radiance of the incarnate Word, “which illuminates our minds, may also shine through in our deeds.” Now that human and divine natures are united in Christ, the human race once again has the capacity to be truly pleasing to God. The prayers of the Mass of Christmas Day speak of God restoring the dignity of human nature, and the “reconciliation that makes us wholly pleasing in your sight.” The Christmas Masses of the day reveals the full purpose of God’s promise and fulfillment: Now that, in the words of the gospel for the Mass of the Day, “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” human nature has been restored. And that restored nature is capable of being “wholly pleasing” to God, and the light of Christ can shine through our deeds.
As I mentioned above, the Church’s liturgy presents to us in microcosm the whole of God’s saving work. In the Christmas liturgies, we see God’s promise and our anticipation, the fulfillment of the promise and our wonder and awe, and the fruits of that fulfillment in human nature transformed, with the transformation evident in our deeds. The Masses of Christmas present to us the full depth and richness of the truth and beauty of the Incarnation. But to see and experience that depth and richness, we need to take part in these celebrations. If you’re used to going to the same Mass each Christmas, take a look from another angle, see and hear a new emphasis on the Mystery at a different Mass. Or perhaps you might go to more than one of the Christmas Masses. The Mystery of the Savior’s coming is greater than any of us can comprehend. But the Church, through her liturgy, makes that Mystery present to us, and by experiencing it from these different angles, we can enter more deeply into the truth of God-with-us.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Adoration of the Shepherds” was painted by Gerrit van Honthorst in 1622.