There are all sorts of reasons why we choose the Mass we usually go to: maybe it’s the music, or the lack of it, or the bells and smells, or the lack of them… On a normal Sunday, whatever Mass we choose and for whatever reasons, we will at least hear the same readings. It is not so, however, when we choose our Christmas Mass. I am quite sure no one decides which Christmas Mass to attend on the basis of what the readings are going to be, but nevertheless our choice makes a difference. There are actually four Masses of Christmas, with different prayers as well as different readings, and each of them will fulfil your obligation: the first is the Vigil Mass, for the evening before; the second is the Midnight Mass, the third the Dawn Mass and the fourth the Daytime Mass, which might be used several times if your church has lots of Masses on a Sunday.
So I thought it might be helpful to look at the four Gospel readings we might hear and see how they fit together: this way, whatever decision we make about our Christmas observance, we need not miss out on the bigger picture.
The Gospel for the Vigil Mass is the beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, culminating in the birth of Jesus but beginning, famously, somewhat earlier in time, with Abraham begetting Isaac. It is obvious that the Evangelist’s purpose is to root the birth of Christ in the story of Israel, to show that the coming of Jesus as the Messiah is the fulfilment of that history of promise and hope. Abraham is the man chosen by God after the scattering of humanity following the attempt to climb to heaven at Babel. He is chosen as a new beginning, the focus of a new human family through which God will restore all mankind to friendship with himself. Christ’s ancestry runs from him through the tribe of Judah, through King David, through the experience of exile, and through a series of remarkable but also controversial women.
But the pattern breaks just as it reaches its conclusion. Instead of “Jacob was the father of Joseph and Joseph was the father of Jesus”, we read “…Joseph, the husband of Mary; of her was born Jesus”. Matthew makes it perfectly plain that Jesus had no human father. He still belongs to the history of his ancestors, yet he also shatters that history, at once fulfilling and confounding the expectations of Israel and of humanity. His coming is of far more significance even than we dared to hope.
Notice also how the emphasis in St Matthew’s telling of the story is on Joseph: it is he who must accept the word of the angel and, by giving Christ the profoundly significant name of Jesus, accept him on behalf of us all as our Saviour.
Joseph remains important in St Luke’s narrative, which we hear at Midnight Mass; as for St Matthew, a key part of this is Christ’s Davidic ancestry, which explains Joseph taking his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, twice referred to as the “town of David”. For both, too, there is emphasis on a contrast between expectation and fulfilment, but St Luke highlights this by drawing our attention to the juxtaposition of Christ’s status – son of David, “Saviour”, “Christ, the Lord” – and his lowly crib and swaddling clothes.
The shepherds, whom we meet halfway through this reading, are told that these marks of lowliness are “a sign for you”. What sort of sign? Well, the next thing the shepherds experience is the “great throng of the heavenly host” singing the Gloria! St Luke tells us that in Christ we see the heavens opened, we see the revelation of the divine; but we must look for it in the lowliest of circumstances.
The end of St Luke’s story must wait until the Dawn Mass. Here, we hear of the shepherds’ visit to the Holy Family, and there are some more key features: the shepherds themselves surely foreshadow Christ’s disciples, hurrying to see Christ, relating what they had been told, glorifying and praising God. Is it too much to wonder whether specifically they foreshadow the role of the pastors of the Church as heralds of the Gospel? Equally important, though, is the astonishment of those who heard their message, foreshadowing the ambivalent role of “the crowd” in St Luke’s Gospel. More important yet, perhaps, is the picture of Mary, who “treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart” – and not for the last time! Luke does not labour the point, but it is clear that the woman whose “let it be” to the angel enabled her to conceive Christ in her womb is now nurturing the ongoing story of Christ in her heart, for every moment of her Son’s life will be a manifestation of his identity as the Word-made-Flesh.
This expression, of course, is not from Luke but from John. The beginning of his Gospel, which we hear at the Daytime Mass, sets the Christmas story within the widest possible context: that of eternity. The story of Christ, from the first moment of his conception to his last appearance to the disciples, is the revelation of his eternal glory. This glory is shown in astonishing and unpromising ways: in the dubious pregnancy of an unmarried woman; in the hardship of a birth far from home with a bed among the livestock. “He came to his own domain and his own people did not accept him”, St John tells us. These are the Christmas stories, or rather than many aspects of the one story, of how in the birth, life and death of one man, we see the perfect and definitive revelation of the divine love.
A note about the first reading at each Mass. Again, they are all different, but all from the Prophet Isaiah. We rightly think of Isaiah as the prophet par excellence of the coming of the Messiah, and the most famous of his messianic passages is the first reading from the Midnight Mass: “the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light… For a Son is given to us.” It’s not surprising that we hear this matched with the Gospel that actually describes Christ’s birth. The first reading at the earlier Vigil Mass, and that at the Dawn Mass, are from Isaiah 62. They speaks of God’s delight in Zion and Jerusalem: “as the bridegroom rejoices in his bride, so will your God rejoice in you.” The coming of Christ is the supreme expression of God’s delight in humanity, to which he gives himself more intimately than a man to his wife.
Finally, the first reading at the Daytime Mass is another well known passage: “how lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” This is first of all about Christ, certainly, but reminds us that we are all heralds of the Gospel. The celebration of Christmas is a renewal of the summons issued to each of us to proclaim Christ’s coming to the whole world.
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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