"From starry skies descending,
Thou comest, glorious King,
A manger low Thy bed,
In winter's icy sting;"
~St. Alfonso Liguori 1732
In a few short days, millions of children will wake up excited to see what is under the Christmas tree. Many will be eager to wake up their families so they can unwrap these gifts. There is a sense of pure joy and excitement that radiates from these children. I have a young Goddaughter, who was explaining to me over Thanksgiving about all the different things she hopes to receive. Her eyes lit up at just the mere thought of Christmas morning. It made me stop and wonder about my own excitement and joy for Christmas. I get caught up in all of the trappings of the season and not the very reason it exists. I started to question if I had that childlike excitement for the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The more and more I thought about it, the more I realized that I have lost part of that joy.
Advent and Christmas provides one the time to stop and think about how the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, the Messiah, did not come in some powerful show of force or splendor. Rather, God chose quite the opposite. He came to us as a child, born in a manger. The human embodiment of love and mercy came to us in the form of a helpless baby. In the middle of the holiday season, you rarely take the time to stop and think about how perfect that is.
Being a godfather has taught me about the amazing ability of a child's capacity to love and forgive. Many a family function, I will walk in and my goddaughter drops what she is doing and runs over to give me a big hug. Her face lights up with joy and excitement. One can only imagine a young Jesus showing the same sort of love to Mary and Joseph.
The beauty of this simplicity has inspired the Church for two thousand years. A wonderful example of this is the Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. At the end of Mass, the pope carries a small statue of Jesus to be placed in nativity scene as the choir sings the carol "Tu Scendi Dalle Stelle". This carol was written by Saint Alphonso Liguori in 1732 and translated from Neapolitan into Italian by Pope Pius IX. This hymn is about Christ as a child who descends from heaven out of love for us.
"Dearest, fairest, sweetest Infant, Dire this state of poverty. The more I care for Thee, Since Thou, O Love Divine, Will'st now so poor to be."
I think it is the perfect hymn for these last few days of Advent.
For these next few days, I invite you to join me in a quest to be like a child. A quest to seek the joy of Christ's birth of in a pure, whole hearted, and simple way. Pope Francis tweeted about a year ago "to be friends with God means to pray with simplicity, like children talking to parents." For the next few days, as prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, let us embrace peace, love, joy, and mercy just like a child who runs to greet you with open arms and an open heart.
For more information on Advent, check out our resources and devotional material here.
Each year, I look forward to attending Midnight Mass on Christmas. It is one of those Catholic "hallmarks" that helps us to ring in the celebration of Christmas. This year was no different, and I was able to assist at my Cathedral's celebration of Midnight Mass. As we continue on in the great octave of Christmas, I would like to look back on the readings and texts from the "Mass During the Night," more commonly known as Midnight Mass.
“O God, [you] have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light…” (Collect, Christmas Mass During the Night). Sometimes I scratch my head trying to make sense of the Collect prayer, the “opening prayer,” used during the Mass. The Collect prayer that we prayed during Midnight Mass, though, is quite fitting for this particular celebration of the Eucharist, as the Church throughout the world gathered together in the quiet stillness of the night to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the “infant [found] wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). This “most sacred night” is indeed “radiant with the splendor of the true light," the light of Christ, the light that brightens not only the darkness of the night sky but also the darkness of our world, the darkness that often creeps its way into our own lives and our own hearts.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! When we find ourselves in a dark room, or when the sun begins to set at the end of the day, what do we do? We turn on a lamp; we turn on the lights. When we find ourselves in internal times of darkness, what do we do? We should turn to Jesus Christ, who, as we hear so beautifully articulated in the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ, is the “eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence…”
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! The words that the prophet Isaiah addressed to us in the first reading from this Mass are so filled with meaning for us, especially as we fumble and flounder in the darkness of our world and in our own lives. For upon us all, “a light has shone” (Is 9:1). We often walk in darkness: the darkness of our own worries and anxieties, the darkness of our own sins and shortcomings, the darkness of loneliness and isolation. Whatever burdens us, Isaiah invites us to be brought from darkness into God’s most marvelous light, which is found in the person of Jesus Christ.
Isaiah tells us that “upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Is 9:1). The light that shone in the time of Isaiah is the same light that shone on the “shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock” (Lk 2:8). As the shepherds were keeping watch, “the angel of the Lord appeared to them” (Lk 2:9). On that holy night in Bethlehem, only the humble shepherds were aware of the Word becoming flesh—of Jesus being born of the Virgin Mary. Today, the whole world knows of the Light of the World, Emmanuel—“God-is-with-us,” “Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5)…our “savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness” (Ti 2:14), to deliver us and grant us peace and consolation from all that causes chaos or disorder or stress in our lives.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reflecting on these beautiful words, talks about light—the permeating theme of the great solemnity that we celebrate at Christmas. Our Holy Father says, “The people who walked–caught up in their activities and routines, amid their successes and failures, their worries and expectations–have seen a great light. The people who walked–with all their joys and hopes, their disappointments and regrets–have seen a great light. In every age, the People of God are called to contemplate this light. … A light meant to shine on every corner of this city, on our fellow citizens, on every part of our lives” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015).
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! As we continue to celebrate the great Nativity of the Lord—Christmas—we rejoice with Isaiah: “For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5). The Psalmist invites us to “exult before the LORD, for he comes; for he comes to rule the earth. He shall rule the world with justice and the peoples with his constancy” (Ps 96: 13).
The Lord is forever faithful. We are called to “[proclaim] the marvels of the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Eternal Father, the Prince of Peace” (Homily of Pope Francis, 25 September 2015). We do this by serving as beacons of light amidst the darkness of our world, radiating the light, the “abundant joy” (Is 9:2), the love, the “blessed hope” (Ti 2:13) of Jesus Christ, proclaiming with “great rejoicing” (Is 9:2) the “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Is 9:1)! “Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Savior has been born in the world. Today true peace has come down to us from heaven” (Entrance Antiphon). Let us join our hearts and voices this Christmas night and proclaim: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Lk 2:14).
“Silent night, holy night, wondrous star, lend thy light; with the angels let us sing, Alleluia to our King; Christ the Savior is born, Christ the Savior is born!” (Stille Nacht, Fr. Joseph Mohr)
Ever since I was a little kid, I have loved Midnight Mass. As a student of the Church's liturgy, some of the externals certainly contribute to this: darkness, incense, singing, a full church. Yesterday was no different. The outside air was cold, the church full, the music beautiful as always. With the exception of a blaring fire alarm because of of a smoking thurible being placed too close to a sensitive smoke detector, Mass went off without a hitch!
But why do we gather in the middle of the night on one of the longest nights of the year? Why do we celebrate this great solemnity year after year? What can we continue to learn from "Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father...born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary" (Proclamation of the Birth of Christ)?
The collect (opening prayer) from the "Mass during the Night" beautifully illustrates the reason that we gather on that holy night:
O God, who have made this most sacred night
radiant with the splendor of the true light,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries
of his light on earth,
may also delight in his gladness in heaven.
God's light came to earth as an infant over two thousand years ago. The Incarnation is miracle and pure gift, but it is also human. "Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis—And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." The Word, Christ himself, was, as the Nicene Creed says, "incarnate of the Virgin Mary and became man."
In his Midnight Mass homily, Pope Francis said, "The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey." Emmanuel, God with us, was born in a manger fully human and fully God. Jesus Christ is not some distant, historical figure. He experienced the joys and sorrows of daily living just as we do today, and is as alive today as he was in Bethlehem two thousand years ago.
As we celebrate the octave of Christmas, let us not forget the great miracle of the Incarnation of the light of the world. "The Word became flesh, and we have seen his glory" (John 1:14). May the glory and joy of Christmas remain alive in our hearts and in our lives today and every day.
Alex R. Boucher is the Program & Operations Manager for the Catholic Apostolate Center. Follow Alex on Twitter at @AlexBoucher.