Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Christmas Midnight Mass
December 25, 2014
Midnight: Is 9:1-6, Ps 96, Tit 2:11-14, Lk 2:1-14
To listen to an audio recording of the homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
The Uniqueness of This Christmas
This year’s celebration is a unique one in the history of the Church. On the first Sunday of Advent, Pope Francis and the whole Church began the first Year for Consecrated Life in Church history, and like all ecclesiastical holy years — such as the Year of our Redemption in 1983, the Marian year in 1987, the Year of Jesus Christ in 1997, God the Holy Spirit in 1998, God the Father in 1999, the Jubilee of Christ’s birth in 2000, the Year of the Rosary in 2002-3, the Year of the Eucharist in 2004-5, the Year of St. Paul in 2008-9, the Year of Priests in 2009-10, and the Year of Faith from 2012-3 — these years are supposed to have an influence on everything the Church does throughout the year and how Catholics approach the day-to-day reality. That’s why this year for the celebration this Christmas, it’s important for us to look at its meaning through the prism of consecrated life.
This Year for Consecrated Life is not just for cloistered nuns and monks, religious sisters and brothers, consecrated men and women in the middle of the world, consecrated virgins, widows and hermits, but, as Pope Francis said just under a month ago, it “concerns not only consecrated persons, but the entire Church.” Consecration, he said, “is at the heart of the Church, a decisive element of her mission, inasmuch as it expresses the deepest nature of the Christian vocation and the yearning of the Church as the Bride for union with her sole Spouse.” This year is supposed to be for all of us, to help us to focus on what’s essential in our faith, beginning from the consecration of every Christian through baptism. This year is a unique year in which we’re called to look at the Christian life, to look at the mystery of Christmas, from within the lens of consecrated life.
Learning from Consecrated Men and Women How to Prioritize Prayer and Adoration
There would be lots of angles we could from which we could do this. Earlier tonight at the Vigil Mass we examined the mystery of Christmas from within the context of what Jesus teaches us in Bethlehem about the poverty, chastity and obedience that are so characteristic of the consecrated life. We could examine Christmas from the perspective of consecration, that Christ consecrated himself for us coming into the world so that we could be consecrated in the truth. We could look at the communal reality of the consecrated life, that Jesus came down from heaven to earth to found a family, to help each of us to become as united as the persons of the Blessed Trinity are united to live in a loving union with others. We could look at how every Christian is meant to be a sign pointing toward eternity, toward the kingdom, toward God. But what I’d like to do tonight at the Midnight Mass is to ponder what we can learn in Bethlehem about the nature of the prayer of consecrated men and women and what that has to teach all of us who are consecrated to God in baptism.
There is something beautifully symbolic about the tradition of Midnight Mass. It’s the antithesis of the growing tendency to try to make the practice of the faith convenient and easy. Over the course of the last few years there has been a growing trend to change the time of the Midnight Mass to a more acceptable hour, like 9 or 10 o’clock, one that allows people to squeeze it in after Christmas Eve dinner and still allow people to be in bed by 12, so that families can get up earlier in the morning to open up presents. Mass at Midnight is a bulwark, we can say, against the propensity to fit the celebration of Christmas and the worship of God into our crowded life; it is, rather, an annual reminder that we are called to make our lives revolve around the mysteries of faith and that those mysterious realities are worth changing sleep patterns and inconveniencing ourselves.
This is one of the most distinctive elements of the consecrated life that is meant to become ever more a part of every Christian’s life. Monks in monasteries and nuns in cloisters get up in each night, in the very middle of the night, to pray. They’re up praying because they recognize that all of time is God’s and that God wants us to praise him from the rising of the sun to its setting, and from the setting of the sun to its rising. They teach us, in a sense, that prayer is even more important than sleep, that the God who is loving us in the middle of the night is worth loving in return. In our parish we’ve introduced a little bit of this reality into our weekly schedule. Since January, we have been blessed in our parish with around-the-clock adoration of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist from Thursday morning through Saturday morning. Over one hundred parishioners have signed up to spend at least an hour with Jesus over the course of that 48 hour period. They recognize that the same God-with-us who was adored in the cave of Bethlehem is with us still in the monstrance, and they make a weekly commitment to come to be with him who out of love came into our world not just to be with us but to bless us and save us. I’m so grateful to all parishioners who have made adoration possible by their commitment, but I have a particular admiration for all those who, like everyone does in monasteries and cloisters, take the nocturnal shifts. It’s not easy to interrupt one’s normal sleeping patterns to come to pray. I know: I take the 3 am shift every Friday morning. But even if one might not pray at that time as well as one could, there’s something really beautiful about just being there for the Lord who is there for us.
Tonight the Gospel reading focuses on the shepherds awake in the fields to whom the angels appeared with the message of good news of great joy. The Shepherds teach us four crucial lessons that are called to mark not only our celebration of Christmas, not only the consecrated life, but also every Christian life. These are all lessons that can easily be applied to the adoration we give to the Lord Jesus who is still with us in the Holy Eucharist.
The first lesson is their vigilance. The Shepherds were on watch. They were able to hear the message proclaimed by the angels because they were awake and this alertness points to an interior readiness to receive God’s word through the Angel. Their hearts were open. Deep down they were waiting for God and longing for God. They were in a state of Advent waiting for a revelation. They were willing to stretch their imaginations to recognize that God’s highest glory would be found wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger and that such lowliness would be in turn lifted to divine heights. The first Sunday of Advent each year features a Gospel passage that reminds us that we need to awaken and remain alert for the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. The shepherds are models of what it means to be awake and alert for the Lord’s arrival. Like the shepherds, we are all called to be vigilant, to be alert and awake. One great way to determine whether we’re really alert and awake to God, whether we’re able to stretch our imaginations to embrace Christ in the real, real world, is whether we’re able to give up some of our sleep to come to be with him, like we’re doing tonight and like the nocturnal adorers do every night. The truth is that if we’re not awake to the presence of God with us, to his word announced through messengers, then we’re essentially living in a dream world that will make us often miss God’s promptings. Midnight Mass shows us what should be occurring in us spiritually throughout the year, staying awake to God’s promptings, to God’s voice, with interior longing, so that when God speaks and calls, we’re listening and ready.
Making Haste for God
The second lesson the shepherds teach us is how to respond to God’s promptings. The Gospel passage tells us that “they made haste” to go to Bethlehem. This expression calls to mind what we know about Blessed Virgin Mary, who as soon as the angel told her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth was pregnant in her old age, she “went with haste” to care for her. The shepherds, like Mary, did not wait to respond to God when they found open time in their calendars. They responded right away. And like with Mary who didn’t need to be told or even suggested to go help her cousin, neither did the shepherds need to be cajoled: the angels told them that in Bethlehem a Savior was born for them who is Christ and Lord and they said to themselves as soon as the angels had departed, “Let us go, then to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place that the Lord has made known to us.” They considered what God had revealed to them so important that they had to go immediately. There’s a very valuable lesson for this in all of us. When we recognize the essential truth that Jesus is truly present for us on the altar, do we make him a priority or take him for granted, do we rush to be with him or come to him only if we have time after we’ve watched our favorite television shows, or visited other people, or gotten all of our errands done, all things that, let’s be honest, are less important than God? A couple of years ago, Pope-emeritus Benedict published a study on the Infancy Narratives of Jesus that I re-read in preparation for Christmas. He asked in that beautiful work, “How many Christians make haste today where the things of God are concerned?” He said in a Christmas Midnight Mass homily, “It is probably not very often that we make haste for the things of God. God does not feature among the things that require haste. The things of God can wait, we think and we say. And yet he is the most important thing, ultimately the one truly important thing.” For many of us, we don’t give the things of God priority. We squeeze them in if we have time left over after we do all the other important and unimportant things on our agenda, rather than centering our life on God. We believe we can postpone the things of God, like prayer, studying his word, learning our faith, doing works of charity. The reason we do this is that many of us are not really open to God, but have closed our hearts to him. Were not ready to leave the narrow confines of our own insulated world, of our own wishes and whims, to journey to meet the Lord and to worship him.
The shepherds’ example teaches us that God should be our highest priority. They teach us the freedom that comes from faith, the freedom that helps us to put everything else in second place to God, so that we may always respond promptly to God’s inspirations. The Israelites had waited centuries, as we heard in the Christmas proclamation, for the coming of the Messiah, but when he came the vast majority of the Israelites were not alert and were not prepared to change their priorities to be with Him who had taken on our nature to be God-with-us. The inn-keepers had no room for him. The scholars of the law around Herod had no room for him. He came to his own, St. John will tell us tomorrow, and his own people did not accept him, but those who did, he gave power to become children of God. The shepherds accepted the message, made God their priority, went without delay to be with God, and received this power. Mary and Joseph and the wise men also responded in the same, totally adjusting their lives to the reality of Christ’s coming into the world. This is a lesson that consecrated men and women, whether monks or nuns, religious sisters or brothers, consecrated hermits, widows or virgins, members of societies of apostolic life or secular institutes living out the evangelical counsels in the middle of the world all do. They all show us that it’s possible according to our circumstances to do the same.
Journeying Exteriorly and Interiorly for God
The third lesson the shepherds teach us is, in order to encounter the Lord as he wants, we have to move, we have to change. By God’s designs, the Holy Family could have been directed to the cave where the Shepherds were dwelling so that the Shepherds would not have had to move at all. But even though the eternal Son of God traveled the great distance from heaven to earth to be with them, he was born a short distance away, so that the Shepherds, likewise, would have to get up off their fannies and move. They needed to rise and move to get to Jesus. They needed to make a sacrifice. They needed to dare to go beyond their limits. They needed to travel in the middle of the night at the words and songs of angels. The lesson is that we, too, need to get up from where we are and go to Bethlehem. At no point in his public life did Jesus ever say to us, “Stay where you are!” He always told us, “Come, follow me!” Our faith is dynamic. We need to be willing to change. We need to be willing to journey. We need to be willing to go to the Lord where he is, rather than try to get him to accommodate himself to our own preferences. That requires conversion. That requires faith. But those are gifts that God wants to give us, if only we respond.
The Transformation God Intends
The final lesson we learn from the shepherds is that if we really live Christmas well, if we’re vigilant, if we leave where we are and go without delay to the Lord where he is to be found, then we will be changed by him for ever. In the Shepherds’ case, St. Luke tells us that after having adored Jesus, they returned, “glorifying and praise God for all they had heard and seen.” They became evangelizers, taking the good news of great joy that the angels had announced to them, out to others. They became, essentially, like new angels singing glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to all those on whom his favor rests. That’s what consecrated men and women do. They become eschatological signs, living witnesses to the reality of Jesus, who is someone worth getting up for in the middle of the night, someone worth giving up money, or spousal and familial love, or autonomy in order to follow, someone worth all our mind, heart, soul and strength. This transformation is what happens when ordinary Catholics start to imitate the shepherds in prioritizing Jesus more than sleep, in coming to meet him even in the middle of the night, and like the Shepherds falling down in adoration before him.
The annual tradition of Midnight Mass reinforces all of these lessons the shepherds teach us. It is an outward sign that we are awake and alert for the coming of the Lord and so excited for his arrival that we are willing to sacrifice everything else to greet him with joy and love as soon as he arrives. It is a public and personal reminder that Christ needs to be prioritized over our beds, convenience, presents, family members, and other good things. It helps to manifest that God is God in our lives, that he is our highest priority, and that we would rather postpone everything else in life than delay giving him the response of loving adoration he deserves. Even for those who may struggle to live with this type of Christian receptivity and response throughout the year, it is at least an annual occasion to put things back in their proper order and restore God and our relationship with him to their proper places. And by our very coming out at night and returning home, we’re already radiating a little of what began on Christmas night in the lives of the Shepherds.
I would encourage you to reinforce these lessons that God teaches us through the Shepherds by applying all of them each week to the privilege we have of adoring the same Lord Jesus in the monstrance that the shepherds Magi, Angels, animals and Mary and Joseph adored in the manger. Each week, rather than once a year, consider getting up to come to be with the Lord, who can never be outdone with generosity. The greatest thing that ever happened to the shepherds happened because they didn’t go back to bed when the angels appeared but went with haste to Bethlehem. Likewise the greatest blessings we’ll receive will come when we truly make God our priority.
Bethlehem on Eastern Avenue
As we prepare to adore here on the altar the same Christ whom the Shepherds adored in swaddling clothes in the manger, we ask the Lord, born for us today, to work in us the same miracle of faith and love he worked in the Shepherds, so that we may always be alert to how God-with-us is still and always with us, to convert from our present habits and go to him without delay, and then, having been transformed by this encounter, become angels that others will be able to hear from on high tonight, tomorrow and always. The Lord Jesus is about to become truly present on our altar just like he was in Mary’s arms. And he comes here, just like he came to Bethlehem, out of saving love. O Come, Let us Adore Him! O Come, Let us Adore Him! O Come, Let us Adore Him! And let us never cease adoring Him so that one day, with St. Bernadette, St. Joseph, the Blessed Mother and all the saints, we may have the privilege to adore him forever in the eternal Bethlehem where there will be no midnight but only light and life and love forever.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 IS 9:1-6
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
You have brought them abundant joy
and great rejoicing,
as they rejoice before you as at the harvest,
as people make merry when dividing spoils.
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.
His dominion is vast
and forever peaceful,
from David’s throne, and over his kingdom,
which he confirms and sustains
by judgment and justice,
both now and forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
Responsorial Psalm PS 96:1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
R/ Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R/ Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice;
let the sea and what fills it resound;
let the plains be joyful and all that is in them!
Then shall all the trees of the forest exult.
R/ Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
They shall 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.
R/ Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
Reading 2 TI 2:11-14
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.
Alleluia LK 2:10-11
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
I proclaim to you good news of great joy:
today a Savior is born for us,
Christ the Lord.
R. Alleluia, alleluia.
Gospel LK 2:1-14
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment,
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem,
because he was of the house and family of David,
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child,
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,
because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them
and the glory of the Lord shone around them,
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy
that will be for all the people.
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.”