Christmas 2021 – Mass at Midnight
[Isaiah 9:2-4, 6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-16]
Lately, the attention of the world has been riveted upon such things as PCR tests, QR codes, and case counts. As we all know now very well, these are signs or indicators that point in some way to COVID, a very sinister reality. The PCR test indicates the presence or absence of the virus; the QR code points to vaccination status; and case counts signal the rapidity of spread. These signs draw our attention, but, more than that, they give rise to unease, anxiety and frustration as we grapple with a menace that continues to elude our control.
On this holy night, though, the world’s focus turns to other signs that point to a reality, whose presence dismisses gloom and casts aside all darkness and foreboding. If we allow our attention to dwell upon these signs, and accept the truth they announce, we shall find our own personal anxiety and fear slowly vanish, to be replaced by a hope and joy that no difficulty can conquer.
The signs of which I am speaking are the two that indicated to the shepherds the presence of the Christ child. We heard the angel say to them these words: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Every element of the beautiful text from Saint Luke describing the birth of our Lord is familiar and precious to us, so often have we heard it proclaimed at mass and echoed in song. Tonight, I would like to linger with you over just this one particular detail – the swaddling clothes and the manger – because these stand forth as signs that give rise to hope and joy at a time in our history when many other indicators issue in worry and sadness.
Let’s consider first the swaddling clothes. These were strips of cloth customarily used to wrap a newborn infant in order to keep the child warm. They also served – and this is the point I invite us to notice – to restrict the movement of the child’s limbs. When we consider that the weak and vulnerable baby to which these swaddling clothes point is none other than the Son of God made flesh, an astounding and exciting truth emerges: in the person of Jesus, God has stepped into and assumed human limit. The weakness and restrictions of human nature have been made by God the instrument through which He would manifest his power to save the world.
We know all about restrictions and limitations. In the forefront of our minds are those imposed by governments in the attempt to limit the spread of the virus. Yet, we are also painfully aware of other limitations that arise from our own weak and sinful nature. Often, we feel paralyzed, unable to move, by fear, confusion or grief. Not infrequently is freedom constrained by personal struggles with illness or guilt, family pressures arising from unfortunate decisions, or societal movements that erect barriers between peoples and nations. Into these and all other painful experiences of limit God has entered by the Incarnation of his only Son, the child Jesus born of Mary. Though we are powerless to break through the limits imposed by human nature or resulting from our sins and failings, God is not. In Jesus He has taken our limitations upon Himself so that His power will work in and through them to bring about His saving purpose for us and the world.
No wonder the angelic announcement of Christ’s birth was accompanied by brilliant light and joyful song! The darkness of sin and death is dispelled by the light of mercy and salvation. No surprise that the shepherds went in haste to see the child in Bethlehem! In the cloth bands enwrapping and limiting the child, they would see for themselves the sign of God’s solidarity with them in their weakness and draw hope from His wondrous love.
Now, of course, this begs the question: while the shepherds could look to the swaddling clothes as a sign pointing to the Christ, where do we find today a sure indicator of the presence of our Lord among us? This brings us to the manger.
The manger was a feeding trough for livestock. Placing the child Jesus in it was far more than a matter of mere necessity, given the lack of room in the inn. It symbolically foreshadowed the gift that Jesus would make to us of himself as food, whereby he would enter in wondrous fashion into the reality of our weakness and become our very hope and strength. This promised gift became reality in the Eucharist, the Holy Mass. In other words, the indicator that today points us to the presence of the Saviour is simple bread and wine offered at mass, where sign becomes sacrament, the real presence of the Body and Blood of the Lord. The conclusion from this is obvious: just as the shepherds of old joyfully recognized the presence of the Lord in Bethlehem by the signs that pointed to him, so, too, can we gladly acknowledge that the same Jesus Christ is in our very midst today, in the transformed signs that signal his real presence in the Eucharist.
Tonight, therefore, let there be no gloom or fear weighing us down as from this Christmas mass we return to our daily living and meet again the PCR tests, QR codes, and case counts. The far more hopeful indicators of swaddling clothes, manger, and bread and wine announce that the One who at Bethlehem assumed to himself our very weakness and limitations is now the Crucified and Risen Lord, whose power admits of no restriction, whose mercy is without bounds, and who remains present to lead us through any and all difficulty by the might of his love. For this reason, the ancient angelic command to the shepherds is tonight directed to us by the Gospel: Do not be afraid! Christ our Saviour is born for us!
Most Reverend Richard W. Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
December 25th, 2021