Not all of you have the privilege of coming to all four Christmas masses here at Epiphany like I do – I’m so lucky – So you may not know this, but there are four distinct Christmas Masses, each with different readings and prayers. First is the Vigil Mass. A vigil is an anticipation of the actual feast day itself, but it participates in it. Next, we have the Midnight Mass, or if you’re old and weary like I am, the 10pm Mass. On Christmas Day itself is a Mass at Dawn, or if you’re too tired from claiming you went to Midnight Mass the night before and you’re desperate for a cup of coffee before trying to sing or talk in front of other people, we scoot that back a teeny bit to become the 8am Mass. And then we have the actual Christmas Mass during the Day, which we celebrate at 10:30.
Various traditions place the birth of Jesus at midnight, which is where we get the Midnight Mass from. It is called the “Angel’s Mass,” because it focuses on the announcement of the angels to the shepherds. The shepherds, remember, were in the fields with their sheep. It would have been pitch black except for the stars in the sky and perhaps a fire burning low. They may have been asleep or keeping a quiet, tired watch over their flock when, suddenly, the night sky was made as bright as day as angels in all their plenitude burst forth from their invisible hiding places in the fabric of the universe. They tumbled and burned like flames of fire and their glory quickly overwhelmed the inky blackness. I imagine that the shepherds would have been absolutely stunned.
The opening prayer for Midnight Mass highlights the contrast between the darkness of night and the light of Christ. We pray:
“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.”
Christians have always liked to have Mass at dawn, because the sunrise is such a perfect metaphor for the resurrection of Christ. Perhaps this is why Catholic writer GK Chesterton refers to the “sacrament of the sun,” because Our Lord is the light by which we see everything else, by which everything else in the universe makes sense. We believe in Jesus like we believe in the sun, because by his light we awaken, and it is only through the Faith that we break free from a sort of primordial slumber and live a life fully awake to the beauty that surrounds us. The early Christian churches always faced east so that the light would come streaming in through the windows during Mass in the morning and, if it was timed just right, rays of light would pour through the stained glass and illuminate the Blessed Sacrament. The priest, as a humble servant, stands facing east right along with everyone else and gazes at the splendor of Jesus as he holds him aloft.
As we gaze upon Jesus today, we imitate the shepherds, who after they encounter the angels immediately strike out to find the baby Jesus. There at his crib they kneel down and adore him as the sun is rising in the sky. This is why the Mass at Dawn is called the “Shepherd’s Mass.” As the sun steadily rises above the horizon, the shepherds go out and tell everybody the good news, bringing spiritual light to a dark world. The opening prayer talks about this new light, and we pray,
“Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through in our deeds.”
The twelve days of Christmas come to a close at the Solemnity of the Epiphany, which marks the moment the Magi finally arrive at the side of Christ. These Magi were said to be kings, and yet they kneel before Jesus, the true king. The final Mass celebrated at Christmas is called the King’s Mass. It is an invitation to us all to worship the King of Kings, though whom we have been restored our human dignity. The opening prayer focuses on the profound mystery of the Incarnation. We pray,
“O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”
So you see how, if you were to participate in each and every Christmas Mass, two things would happen. First, you would get really tired of hearing me tell the same terrible jokes. Second, you might notice that there is a definable, narrative structure
We are caught up in a great story. A true story. God came to find us and rescue us, and a simple step in his direction, a prayer offered up in a moment of desperation, making a confession after 20 years of absence, wandering into Church on a random morning, that’s all he needs from us. A tiny, halting, unsure gesture in his direction and he will be there.
Life is not one moment after another with no coherence or meaning. It is a search for the mysterious key to the meaning of birth and death, an opening up of the heart to the fragile beauty that surrounds us like angels in the night sky, the discovery that each and every blessed thing positively hums with the indwelling of God’s creative activity, that he is the King and Lord towards which everything is oriented. What is the meaning of Christmas? It is the meaning of the whole of existence – Jesus Christ.
Your life is written into his story. Your life has a logic to it, an unfolding to a climactic event, and that moment, that marked moment by which your story is defined and given meaning, that moment is the arrival of the infant Jesus, who has taken on human flesh. He has become what we are, so that we might become like he is.