Close to noon on Christmas Day we come together to celebrate the birth of our Savior. The reading from the Prologue of John’s Gospel gives us a different perspective from the readings at last night’s Midnight Mass and this morning’s Dawn Mass.
At the Midnight Mass last night, from the Book of Isaiah the Church recalled, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; among those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone. You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing… For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. His dominion is vast and forever peaceful…” (cf. Is 9:1-6).
The Messiah, the Christ, from the kingly house of David was not born in a royal palace. Rejected by the innkeepers, he was born in a stable. Last night’s Gospel from Luke recalled: his mother, Mary, in the peacefulness of the silent night “gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for him in the inn” (Lk 2:7).
At the Christmas Mass at Dawn this morning, the Gospel recounted how ordinary shepherds “went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they made known the message that the angels on high had heralded about him: “Today, in the City of David a savior has been born to you who is Christ the King” (Lk:11).
It was a silent night. A holy night. But the title given him, “Christ the King”[i] would have consequences. When he had grown in wisdom, age, and grace and had commenced his public ministry, he proclaimed the Kingdom of his Father. But his was a controversial message, telling of a compassionate, forgiving, non-vindictive Father, calling some of his listeners to deep conversion, others to indignant rage. When for his preaching they ultimately crucified and killed him, the sign above him would identify him as, “Christ the King, Jesus Christ the King of the Jews.”[ii]
Further Revelation About Jesus Beyond Imagining
But from the near idyllic story of the birth of the Messiah born to be an unlikely King, the truth of Jesus would be further revealed almost beyond imagining. From the images of the Child lain on the wood of the manger, protected by Joseph and cared for by Mary in that solemn silent night, from the images of the shepherds who had left their flocks in the hillside to come to worship the newly born King, our Gospel in the noonday light of Christmas Day takes us beyond this Child’s birth, growth, ministry, suffering, death on the wood of the Cross and resurrection as our Savior in this earth into its eternal origin, divine nature, and ultimate finality. Our Gospel regards this Child beyond its immediate significance for the Jews, even beyond its immediate significance for the Gentiles and thus ultimately for all of humanity; our Gospel takes us to the origin of this Child “in the beginning” – in the unthinkable beginning because we cannot think the beginning without already breaching it. Nevertheless, our Gospel ultimately proclaims this Child as the divine Word, as the divine Logos, revealing its new ultimate meaning to the Jews, the Gentiles and all of humanity with whom God in the Word relates.
“In the beginning was the Word
And the Word was with God
And the Word was God
He was in the beginning with God” (1:1-2)
In the unthinkable beginning, transcending time and space, through whose categories we alone can think, was the Word. The Word was with God. “The Father and I are one,” Jesus would later say (Jn 14:28). The Word was the Self-Expression of God, not “exhausting” the self-expressing God as he is. Paradoxically, Jesus who said, “The Father and I are one” also said in this context, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn. 10:30). “In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God. And the Word was God.”
From that undefinable “beyond” God created the world in space and time, the here and now, with the Word. “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn. 1: 2)
From that undefinable “beyond,” we can view creation from another perspective. God created the world with the Word in Wisdom. From the Book of Proverbs we have a remarkable revelation about the role of Wisdom, the role of the Spirit, in creation.
“The Lord already possessed me long ago,
when his way began,
before any of his works.
23 I was appointed from everlasting
from the first,
before the earth began.
24 I was born
before there were oceans,
before there were springs filled with water.
25 I was born
before the mountains were settled in their places
and before the hills,
[when the world was made][iii]
30 I was beside him as a master craftsman.
I made him happy day after day,
I rejoiced in front of him all the time,
31 found joy in his inhabited world, and delighted in the human race” (Proverbs: 8:33-31).
Power to Become Children of God
The Word manifesting God’s will with the Wisdom of the Spirit
allows all that has come into being through creation to be. But in John’s Gospel the divine pre-existing Word takes on flesh not only to “make his dwelling among us” in an astonishing Creator-creation, Divine-human solidarity, but to offer those who believe in him the power to become children of God.
“But to those who did accept him
He gave power to become children of God,
To those who believe in his name,
who were born not by natural generation,
not by human choice, nor by man’s decision
but of God.
And the Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us,
and we saw his glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son,
full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:12-14).
On this Christmas day, in the fullness of this day’s light, what we celebrate is this divine incarnation which brings us not only redemption from our sins, but the empowerment to become children of God through faith, the offer of receiving the divine life of the Father in fraternity with Jesus, who “came to bring us life, life in abundance, life to the full” (Jn 10:10). In this way is Jesus “the way, the truth and the life”: he is the Way to the Father; in Truth, the only way to the Father, and so for us the only channel of divine Life.
The Gospel message is appreciated, even as in today’s Gospel and throughout the Gospel of John it is clear there are those who reject Jesus. “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his people did not accept him” (Jn 1:10-11). The signs he would be giving of God’s saving action in the world – like when he fed 5000 (Jn 6:5-14) or when he raised Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45) – would be accepted by some in awe, but rejected by others in hostility. In time, he would be crucified. But part of today’s Good News is: “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:4-5). In his last supper discourse, Jesus would say, “You will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (Jn 16:20). “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (Jn 16:33b).
“And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.” And God dwells among us. In a way no one could conceive without it having been revealed, God is Emmanuel – God with us.[iv]
The highpoint of John’s Gospel comes after Jesus meets the doubting Thomas and says, “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand here and put it into my side. Do not be unbelieving but believing. Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God.”
We can end by repeating the prayer at the beginning of the Mass:
O God who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature
and still more wonderfully renewed it, grant, we pray,
that we may share in the divinity of Christ
who [this day] humbled himself to share in our humanity.
[i] Or “Messiah and Lord” (NAB).
[ii] This recalls Jesus words to Nicodemus during their conversation in the night, “…Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up [on the Cross] so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life.” The newborn Child was the Savior, Christ the King, and his birthday is celebrated as a day of salvation. But being Savior and King would cost him crucifixion and death. For us, however, raised from the dead, he would bring salvation and eternal life.
[iii] The full text of this beautiful passage:
“26 when he had not yet made land or fields
or the first dust of the world.
27 “When he set up the heavens, I was there.
When he traced the horizon on the surface of the ocean,
28 when he established the skies above,
when he determined the currents in the ocean,
29 when he set a limit for the sea
so the waters would not overstep his command,
when he traced the foundations of the earth…”
[iv] cf. Is 7:14 and Mt. 1:23 together.