Christmas Themes

by Joyce Stolberg

When I was growing up Catholic, the one essential theme presented by the liturgy and art of Christmas was, of course, the story about God becoming man, and being born in the most humble of circumstances -- a stable. We always had the manger close to the Christmas tree. Each year we would buy a few more plaster statues to embellish our nativity scene. That shopping trip meant the most to me, because I helped decide what we would add for the year. The singing angels, the adoring shepherds, the miraculously appearing star, the Kings traveling long distances to present gifts used in divine worship, all told me that almighty God became a human being and was born as a baby. That was, is, and always will be the Christmas story.

Now, I suggest that you ask your RCIA group to articulate words that come to mind when you are pondering the readings surrounding Christmas Eve and Christmas. As participants express these words one by one, allow the full richness of the word of God to fill your heart. Some words that have arisen when we have done this exercise include the following.

HOUSE

The term "house" here does not refer to a modest building designed for domestic use, although the Magi did enter the house where the Holy Family was staying subsequent to the first days of Christmas (Matthew 2: 9-11). The real House that defines the Christmas narratives is the House, or lineage, of King David, the man after God's own heart, who united Israel and Judah and reigned for approximately 50+ years sometime between 1000 BC and 900 BC. This house provided Jesus with his humanity. God speaks to David in the first reading for the generally poorly attended morning Mass --- not the vigil --- for December 24.

The LORD also reveals to you
that he will establish a house for you.
And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors,
I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins,
and I will make his Kingdom firm.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your Kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.'" 2 Sm 7:11-13

In the Epistle for the Christmas Eve Vigil Mass (the evening Mass of December 24 which fulfills the Christmas obligation) St. Paul recalls this promise made by God to David that he would always have a descendent on the throne. David was a man after God's own heart: he sinned grievously but he repented and gave God true wholehearted worship. We know that after the Jews returned from exile in 538 BC, although they made Zerubbabel the governor, they never succeeded in reestablishing the kingship in David's line.

Had God's promise come to an end? That Jews never gave up. The expectation of a political Messiah who would free Israel from its enemies and sit on the throne of King David was based on God's unconditional promise that David's sons would sit on the throne forever. But God fulfills his promises in ways that we humans least expect. One descendent would come --- and would reign forever! The Gospel of Matthew relates the comprehensive genealogy of St. Joseph. At some "children's masses" the short form is used --- this form may be better suited to the needs of smaller children, but it falls short of proclaiming the fullness of Jesus' human ancestry. God's promise was fulfilled beyond all expectation with the coming of Jesus Christ, our Savior, who is both David's son and David's Lord.

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
the son of David, the son of Abraham. Mt 1:1

MARRIAGE

The union of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ has often been described as a marriage between heaven and earth. We see this also in the Vigil Mass of the evening of Christmas Eve. This theme has been foreshadowed in the Old Testament, notably in the prophecies of Isaiah. Yes, the people sinned repeatedly, and that sin was identified with harlotry or adultery because, by worshiping alien gods, Bride Israel rendered herself unfaithful to God the divine Bridegroom. Yet God spoke through the prophets, repeatedly calling Israel to repentance. God punished Israel's sins with exile, yet always called the nation back when they repented. God had always been working in the history of the people of the Old Testament, and the joy of God's presence effecting the restoration after exile has been described in terms of marriage. When the Son of God became man, the definitive marriage between God and humankind took place. Heaven is wedded to Earth and God is wedded to man forever.

No more shall people call you "Forsaken,"
or your land "Desolate,"
but you shall be called "My Delight,"
and your land "Espoused."
For the LORD delights in you
and makes your land his spouse.
As a young man marries a virgin,
your Builder shall marry you;
and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride
so shall your God rejoice in you. Is. 62: 4,5

SAVIOR

Jesus Christ came as our Savior: Adam and Eve had plunged humankind into a state of rebellion against God; no mere human being could stretch high enough to reach God and make amends. So God reached down to us by sending his Son to become man in the person of Jesus Christ. Our Midnight Mass begins with the proclamation from Isaiah that a Child is born to us who will free us from the yoke of sin and bring about a reign of peace. This is the announcement we long to hear!

For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed, as on the day of Midian.
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.
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 9:3-5

Both the Epistle from Titus and the Gospel Infancy Narrative from Luke welcome Jesus Christ as our Savior: the bond between God and humankind which was broken by Adam has now been restored in the fully divine, fully human person of Jesus Christ. No, God did not give us a ticket back into original bliss of paradise, but he did give us a pathway back to grace. God has restored his grace to the human race because his Son has become one of us. This is the source of our joy.

Beloved:
The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own,
eager to do what is good. Ti 2:11-14

For today in the city of David
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes
and lying in a manger."
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
"Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." Lk 2: 11-14

LOVE

In the liturgy of the Word for the Mass at Dawn on Christmas day, we share the shepherds' awe and amazement at the message given to them by the Angels. We approach the child Jesus in humility, with a sense of wonder at what God has done for us. In this scene we express our tender love and pour out our affection for Jesus who came to be with us as a baby.

When the angels went away from them to heaven,
the shepherds said to one another,
"Let us go, then, to Bethlehem
to see this thing that has taken place,
which the Lord has made known to us."

So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph,
and the infant lying in the manger. Lk. 2:15, 16

LORD

When we speak of Jesus Christ as Lord, we are referring to his divinity. The Son of God existed as the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity from all eternity. Both our liturgy and our art depict him as pre-existing with the Father, coming down from heaven, taking on a human body, and becoming man. The Christmas Mass of the Day reflects Christ's divinity. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks very clearly of Jesus' divine origin.

Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son,
whom he made heir of all things
and through whom he created the universe,
who is the refulgence of his glory,
the very imprint of his being,
and who sustains all things by his mighty word.
When he had accomplished purification from sins,
he took his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
as far superior to the angels
as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say:
You are my son; this day I have begotten you?
Or again:
I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me?
And again, when he leads the firstborn into the world, he says:
Let all the angels of God worship him. Hb. 1:1-6

The Gospel of St. John is likewise clear about Jesus' divine origin.

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
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;
the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it. Jn 1:1-5

Many other words find their reflection in the liturgies surrounding Christmas. FAMILY: The loving bonds of the Holy Family are celebrated in the liturgy of the Sunday between Christmas and New Year. BLESSING: In the feast of Mary, Mother of God (January 1) the powerful blessing given by God through Moses and Aaron is given to us at the very dawn of the new year. ADORATION: On the feast of Epiphany we see three Gentile kings who came from long distances adoring Jesus as King and Lord. How many other words can you find reflected in the rich liturgies of the season?