Editor’s note: the Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, joined Crisis Magazine as a columnist in January of 1983. He passed away in April. On this second day of Christmas, we honor him by republishing this timely and timelss column, which originally appeared in the December 1995 print edition of Crisis. Requiescat in Pace, Father Schall.
I once acquired from a bookstore a copy of The Book of Common Prayer of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. I have the volume on the Sacraments, Rites, and Ceremonies, which contains the Christmas Service. This book was published in New York with no date. On the inside title page, however, a “Certificate” is signed by Horatio Potter, the bishop of New York, on April 8, 1969, stating that this text was compared with the Standard Book by “a Presbyter, duly assigned.”
I looked up the Christmas Service. It contained a Collect, Epistle, and Gospel, with the same readings that we Roman Catholics have in the Mass of Christmas Day; that is, passages from the beginnings of the Epistle to the Hebrews and of the Gospel of John. Both are accounts, not of the birth of Christ as in Matthew or Luke that appear in the earlier Masses of Christmas in the present Roman rite, but theological accounts of who Christ is. Reading them, I am again reminded of how attentive the Church is in feeding the mind while feeding the soul. I am also reminded of a beauty of language that we seldom have in the Roman English liturgy.
The Epistle to Hebrews begins, “God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he hath made the world…” I leave this sentence in the original, I presume, King James Version. The Father speaks to us by his Son. This Son is not only heir of all things, but he is the one by whom the world is made. The world is made by the Father. It need not exist except for his purposes.
The Son is greater than the angels; “for unto which of the angels said he at any time, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee?” Of course, to none of the angels were these magnificent words spoken. But to the Son, the Word, particular words are spoken. “Thou hast loved righteousness and hated iniquity; therefore God, even thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness above thy fellows.” What words are these! “Gladness.” “Righteousness.”
The Gospel is the beginning of John. In my youth, these words used always to end the Mass, what we called the “Second Gospel.” We have not improved our liturgy by not hearing them each day. But we can hear them on Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” We are created in this Word. Behind each of us is not nothingness, but Word. When we seek the mystery of one another, we find, not nothingness, but the word in which we are 2 made in the image of the Son. This is the romance of what we are.
Today, when we read these beginning words of John, we still come to these unsettling words: “And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not.” Among us there are those who will not “comprehend.” The light shineth. These words are words of judgment, of grace refused. Or perhaps because they are words of grace they are words of ominous judgment. Once we are offered grace, we are no longer free to pretend that the offer is not made to each of us. When the Lord says to us, I have loved thee with an ever-lasting love, we are not the same if we do not love in return.
The Gospel of John speaks of “as many as received him”—which would suggest that there are many who do not receive him. Perhaps it is better to say, many who “will” not receive him. Those who received him were born only of the will of God. To receive God, we must receive the power of God to do so. Yet we can reject. We do reject.
The words that end this Prologue are memorable: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we have beheld his glory, the glory as of the Only-begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” How could we “behold his glory?” We can do so because the Word is made flesh, the Nativity of the Lord.
Image: The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli