Christmas Reflection on the readings for Midnight Mass
Video of America Magazine and American Bible Society
Fr. Thomas Rosica, CSB
Each year on Christmas Eve, the Church presents us with beautiful Scriptural readings for the traditional Christmas Midnight Liturgy. The familiar text of Isaiah 9:1-7, Psalm 96, the selection from Paul’s letter to Titus (2:11-14) and the selection from the Lukan infancy narrative (2:1-14) are filled with rich and powerful images which often do not have justice done to them because of so many other things happening around the celebration of the Savior’s birth! A closer look at the messages of the prophet Isaiah and the evangelist Luke can help us to discover words of hope and consolation offered to a world which lies in waiting for the birth of the Prince of Peace.
Immediately preceding chapter 9, Isaiah’s testimony has built up a frightening picture of the darkness and distress about to descend upon both Judah and the northern kingdom. What is this terrible fate and darkness of the people and why? After King Ahaz and his people have clearly rejected the Word of God (cf. Is 7:10-12; 8:6a) the Lord declares that he will hide his face from the house of Jacob (8:17) as an indication of his dismay and anger. In a time of anguish and panic due to the wrath of God, people have taken recourse only too easily to mediums and wizards (8:19). But Isaiah observes that it is ridiculous to consult the dead on behalf of the living. In chapter 8:16-22 we read of of the terrible fate that could overtake the people: “there is no dawn for this people”(8:20). Instead there is hunger, thirst and misery showing itself in physical as well as spiritual deprivation. People’s hearts are darkened and their spirits are greatly disturbed. They get enraged and curse their sinful king and the God whom they have forsaken.
Chapter 9 stands in total contrast to chapter 8. The opening line of 9:1 forms a transition from the darkness of 8:22. Isaiah now proclaims a message of hope and consolation as darkness and gloom give way to light and joy. The great light comes decisively into this profound darkness. It is a light which tears people away from their confusion and emptiness, from the violence and tyranny of the oppressor.
The symbols of the Assyrian oppression: the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, shall be broken (9:4). The garments of war shall feed the flames (9:5). The destruction of war-like equipment heralds an age of peace…symbolically described in 2:4 “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
The description of the royal birth in 9:6 is similar to those found in coronation rescripts of the Egyptian Pharaohs. The royal child will possess the wisdom of Solomon, the valor and piety of David, the great virtue of Moses and the patriarchs (11:2). Presumably the child spoken of would be King Hezekiah. This beloved verse clearly describes the new roles for the coming King. Contemporary kings of Judah had been disastrously advised and were powerless in warfare.
By the title “Wonderful Counsellor” the new King will have no need for advisers such as those who led Ahaz astray. Former kings of Judah had been anything but fathers to their people, and they had achieved neither peace nor prosperity. “Everlasting Father” describes the quality of his rule. Isaiah portrays a king who will not be a failure in any one of these respects.
This king’s authority shall grow continually and bring about endless “Shalom”, thus fulfilling the promises to David: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever”(II Samuel 7:16).
The birth of this child has consequences both social and political as well. The kingdom of the future will be characterized above all by justice and righteousness– in glaring contrast to Isaiah’s contemporary Judah (cf. 5:7) and indeed to every human kingdom in some degree. The virtues of judgement, justice, and righteousness (9:7) which sustain the Davidic throne are beautifully summed up in the word “Shalom” whose Hebrew root means wholeness, harmony and completion. As a result of this new king’s reign, people will live in harmony with God, each other and nature.
It is no wonder, then, that Christians and the Church have appropriated Isaiah’s exultation of this brilliant light and royal birth for our own celebration of the birth of Jesus. Christian tradition and the Christmas liturgy have applied the royal titles of Isaiah 9:6 to the Child of Bethlehem–presenting him as “Emmanuel”, the One who is our true light and our lasting peace.
We know the Lukan Infancy narrative (Luke 2) so well that we often forget what lies at the heart of its message. It is filled with a very deceptive simplicity. Much more than a charming tale, appealing to the heart and the imagination of the believer, Luke’s story is one of God writing straight with our human, crooked lines. It is a story of poverty and simplicity, excitement and surprises, sadness and joy; a story of military occupation and oppression, a light in the darkness. Beyond the charm of the story, Luke’s message is clear: no event in our shadow-filled history of the world is alien to the coming of the Savior.
No power, however violent and oppressive, escapes the reach of God’s purposes. The Lukan Gospel story of the birth of Jesus calls for the whole world, and not only for Israel, to welcome the birth of the Son of David. We are invited to follow shepherds and kings, saints and sinners, and that long cortège of witnesses of all generations as they seek the light in the darkness and share their message of good news with a world steeped in darkness.
And yet there is a tremendous and rather terrifying paradox at the heart of the gospel story: this great heir to the Davidic line comes to inherit his ancestor’s throne in the form of a tiny, powerless baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger (2:12). There is also the joyful and saving paradox of the power of God manifested in this child…those who accept this paradox are invited to make it, in the light of the cross and the resurrection, the standard of their deepest attitudes.
Luke’s birth of the Child at Bethlehem shows us that the Lord God has indeed been faithful to these words. Our existence is an endless Advent, and these two readings for the Christmas midnight liturgy invite us once again to commit our energies to all that the Child of Bethlehem stands for and is.
He is “Wonderful Counsellor”, deeply concerned with the ultimate good and wholeness of others. His gentle advice to us never leads us into destruction but only into the fullness of life.
He is “Mighty God”, directing our human history, but also living it with us. He is more powerful than any military force or revolution, and yet his force and might are revealed in hearts and eyes meeting.
He is “Everlasting Father”, teaching us what it means to be constantly present to others, giving life, blessing life and celebrating life. He is unable to abandon us, as so many human beings are capable of doing.
He is”Prince of Peace”, the bringer of reconciliation, wholeness, harmony and completion to the human family. He knows how to nourish hope among his people. Because of him, we can live in harmony with God, each other and nature.
Is there room for such a child in our hearts at Christmas? If we allow him to truly dwell within us, then we shall know once again that in the midst of our own deep darkness and fear, from a crib in Occupied Bethlehem and a cross in Jerusalem, God’s vulnerable heart can bring light, healing and salvation to our own.
(CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)