Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Christmas Midnight Mass
December 25, 2013
Is 9:1-6, Ps 96, Tit 2:11-14, Lk 2:1-14
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The text that guided the homily was:
Pope Francis’ Midnight Mass ‘Obsession’
As part of my prayerful preparation for Christmas, I read all of Pope Francis’ Christmas homilies from the time he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires. In almost all of his Midnight Mass homilies he pondered the prophet Isaiah’s words from tonight’s first reading: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” It’s unsurprising therefore that earlier tonight in the Vatican, when he had the chance to preach for the first time as the successor of St. Peter and the holy father of Catholics throughout the globe, that he returned to contemplate much more deeply what that famous phrase means and what reaction it’s meant to provoke in all of us.
The prophecy of Isaiah, he says, “never ceases to touch us, especially when we hear it proclaimed in the liturgy of Christmas Night.” He said this reaction is far more than an “emotional or sentimental matter.” It touches us because it states two fundamental realities of what we means to be a believer, a follower of the Lord Jesus.
A people walking
First, it means that we are a “people who walk.” Life is a journey, a pilgrimage in which, like Abraham, we leave our own comfort zones and make an expedition toward the promised land. We don’t make this journey alone. Christ comes not only to accompany us but to guide us. The journey takes place in the midst of darkness and light around us and within us. But we keep journeying together with Christ, the Good Shepherd, who guides us through the valley of darkness with his comforting rod and staff. Tonight is a night that is meant to strengthen us to keep going on that journey no matter how thick the darkness, and if we’ve gone of the side of the road, to get back on the path with Christ that leads to what he became man in order to win for us once and for all. We are a people who are walking, who are searching, who are moving, but because of the coming of Christ, we are no longer walking like blind men. We are walking together with a guide, specifically a guide that leads us toward the second part of what Isaiah reveals.
A people seeing the light
The prophet tells us that we are not only a people on the move but one to whom God has revealed his light. The people who walk together with Christ through the dark valley eventually see a “great light.” St. John says about the child born today that he is “the light of the human race, the light shining in the darkness, which the darkness has not overcome” (Jn 1:4-5). Christ is the light of the world and he has come to illumine our lives and our journey. In tonight’s Gospel, St. Luke tells us that when the angels appeared, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” They were filled with the light that comes from God and it was in that light that they were able to journey toward Bethlehem. The light of God is the glory of God, in whom there is no darkness. That’s how Titus is able to tell us in the second reading in Christ, the “grace of God has appeared,” because Christ is the “appearance of the glory of our great God.”
The practical consequences of the gift of God’s light
Pope Francis tells us that there are many practical consequences to this light. Christ came not as a sparkle that would eventually fizzle out but as an inextinguishable flame to illumine all our ways until that kingdom where there will be unending light. The Holy Father said that in our lives, “there are times of both light and darkness, fidelity and infidelity, obedience, and rebellion; times of being a pilgrim people and times of being a people adrift . In our personal history too, there are both bright and dark moments, lights and shadows.” Quoting the Apostle St. John, he reminds us, “If we love God and our brothers and sisters, we walk in the light; but if our heart is closed, if we are dominated by pride, deceit, self-seeking, then darkness falls within us and around us. ‘Whoever hates his brother – writes the Apostle John – is in the darkness; he walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has blinded his eyes” (1 Jn 2:11).”
Jesus has come into the world to help open our hearts toward true love of our neighbor. But it order to love him, we need God’s help. That’s what we pray for in this Mass. In the Opening Prayer, we turned to God who has made “this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light” to grant us “who have known the mysteries of his light on earth” so to walk in that light that we may “delight in his gladness in heaven.” The path toward that communion with God is indicated to us in the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer we will pray in a few minutes. We talk first about Christ’s manifestation of grace and light and what that’s supposed to provoke in us. “For on the feast of this awe-filled mystery,” we will chant, “though invisible in his own divine nature, [Christ your Son] has appeared visibly in ours …so that, raising up in himself all that was cast down, he might restore unity to all creation and call straying humanity back to the heavenly kingdom.” The same point is made in the first part of the tri-partite benediction with which God will bless us at the end of this Mass. “May the God of infinite goodness, who by the Incarnation of his Son has driven darkness from the world and by that glorious Birth has illumined this most holy night, drive from you the darkness of vice and illumine your hearts with the light of virtue.”
If we receive Christ’s light tonight, if we resolve to walk in it as children of the light and seek to see all things in its luminescence, then all our behavior changes. The light switch of our life is turned on and we make the Passover from the night of vice into the broad daylight of virtue.
The light switch of humble service
Pope Francis talked about this on Wednesday in his general audience talk to a packed St. Peter’s Square. He said that the light of this Christmas mystery reveals that God is not one “who remains on high and dominates the universe, but as the One who bends down, descends to the little and poor earth.” To be like him therefore, to see what he sees, to walk with him and in his footsteps, “we should not put ourselves above others, but indeed lower ourselves, place ourselves at the service of others, [and] become small with the small and poor with the poor.” Pope Francis says that it is “regrettable to see a Christian who does not want to lower himself, who does not want to serve. … This is not Christian. It is pagan. The Christian serves, he lowers himself.”
The light switch that helps us to see Christ in others
The second thing we see with the clarity of the light of Christ is that “if God, through Jesus, involved himself with man to the point of becoming one of us, it means that whatever we have done to a brother or a sister we have done to him. Jesus himself reminded us of this: whoever has fed, welcomed, visited, loved one of the least and poorest of men, will have done it to the Son of God.” When we are looking at things as they really are with the light of Christ, we begin to see him in others, including in those whom the world seldom notices.
The light switch we see in the Shepherds
The third thing comes from how we look at ourselves and what is truly important. Earlier tonight, Pope Francis contemplated why the shepherds were the first ones to receive the good news of great joy and be invited to go see the manifestation of the “appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” He said that they were first because they were “among the last, the outcast,” the nobodies of society, and God always exalts the humble. The second reason is “because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks.” To see the light, we obviously have to be awake, alert, and ready for the Lord’s appearance and action. We can’t see the Lord while we’re asleep. That’s one of the reasons why Midnight Mass is so important. Even if we come here on a given night when we’re tired, we’re being trained to say that God is worth staying up for. If so many stay up to see a silly ball descend in Times Square in one week’s time, then Christians can stay up to see the glory of God descend from heaven to earth. The practice of rearranging everything, including our normal sleep patterns, to come to celebrate God is a spiritual practice that can help us to remain alert always, so that when the Lord appears in all his light even in the midst of darkness, we may be ready to go with haste to greet him with love.
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” That prophecy, fulfilled two millennia ago when Christ was born, is continually realized in every age. There’s a beautiful significance to the fact that during the Christmas season we put lights — and often hundreds of them or more — on our trees, in our windows, on our houses, in our Churches, even on city light posts. The light that we receive we feel moved to share. Once we’ve seen the light we want others to experience the same totally different way of experiencing the gift of human life. Christ came into the world precisely to illumine our minds, hearts and ways so that we might in turn become the light of the world (Mt 5:14), lights far more brilliant than anything electricity can power. Today we celebrate that Christ, the true light, has taken on our nature, so that our whole humanity can shine with the radiance of his divinity.
Becoming Stars of Fall River
As we prepare to make present on the altar the enduring meaning of Christmas, when the same Jesus whom the shepherds adored in humble swaddling clothes comes to us even more humbly under the appearance of bread and wine, when the Lord who was placed in the manger will be placed within us, let us remember that we are ingesting The light of the World who is capable not only of enlightening all our ways from the inside but also making us not Stars of Bethlehem but Stars of Fall River drawing others to come to adore Christ the Lord where he continues to love, guide and save his people. O Come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
The readings for the Mass were:
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!
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.
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.
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.”