December 25, 2012
Reflection by Randy Sachs, S.J.
When I was a boy, “midnight Mass” was still celebrated at midnight. I can still remember what it felt like to walk in the darkness and into the many different parish churches of my childhood. They were all filled with the warm light of so many candles and bursting with the bright color of what seemed like hundreds of red and white poinsettias. I was usually in the choir and before Mass started, there would always be a half an hour of Christmas carols. Back then, the darkness outside and the warm light, color, and carols inside didn’t seem like such a contrast. They seemed to go together. The darkness and quiet of the late hour evoked in a special way the expectation of the joyful celebration in which we would be singing “Silent Night” and “O Holy Night.”
Now that I’m older (much older!), the darkness and light of this great feast are a lot more complex, especially as I have been praying the readings of the liturgy. Now, the darkness of the night in Luke’s Gospel (2:1-14) seems silent and holy, but also ominous, as I imagine Joseph and a completely exhausted Mary, on a journey away from home, sheltered but not safe in a cave or stable, the new-born Jesus lying in a food trough, among the animals and their filth. Nearby, the shepherds are keeping night-watch—because of the wolves. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah (like many other great Old Testament readings, we hear it thanks to the great liturgical renewal of Vatican II) speaks of a darkness and gloom encompassing the whole people, of the yoke of slavery, of the boots and bloodied cloaks of war (9:1-6).
There is nothing charming about this darkness, a darkness I recognize all too quickly in the world around me, whether in places closer to home like Newtown, CT or far away like Syria. I found myself recalling a conversation with my mom a couple of years before her death. I had asked her how she was feeling, and she told me how she had been lying in bed, awake in the stark, silent darkness of the night, her mind and heart filled with worries and fears. I’m old enough to know from my own experience what that can be like. As a priest, I also know how many families experience the darkness of loss and of broken relationships in a deeper way at Christmas; how many families have no home to be in for the holidays.
On the feast of Christmas we celebrate that the light of God’s life-giving love has entered this darkness and shines in Jesus. As an adult I appreciate the words of Phillips Brooks’s beautiful hymn, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” in way I didn’t as a child: “Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting light. / The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” In this holy birth, we see the human face of the Creator of all that is, who has entered into the cosmos, becoming eternally part of it as a human being, to dwell forevermore among us—Emmanuel, God with us. In him is the divine light that our darkness cannot overcome—a light suggested by the glory of the Lord shining around the shepherds as the angel announced,
“You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you—tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a savior has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord. Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.” Suddenly, there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in high heaven, and peace on earth to those on whom his favor rests!” (Luke 2:10-14)
It is the light of a saving power and a promised peace that that will shine forth in Jesus’ life, and will bring about the final victory of God’s healing, mercy and love that has begun in his cross and resurrection. The light of Christmas looks toward the light of Easter. Christ is the light that brings hope into all our darkness because he knows it, has entered into it fully, and is victorious over it. With him, it will not overcome us. We have some sense of how this can be when someone who loves us is willing to be with us, to stay with us, when suffering or tragedy strike. Their presence can transform it, and transform us so that we are not destroyed by it, giving us the strength to endure, the courage to trust that healing will come. Is this not, in fact, how Christ our light often comes—through the power of his Spirit, opening our hearts to one another? Christ is our “blessed hope,” the coming of God’s love that is more powerful than violence, betrayal, despair, and death (Titus 2:11-14). He is the light spoken of by Isaiah for all who walk in darkness and dwell in the land of gloom (9:2), the child born to us, the Prince of Peace who brings justice for all to rejoice in.
For a child is born to us, a son is given us; upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, 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! (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Christ our light comes to us as our blessed hope in the liturgy, in the Word of God and in the Eucharist, but perhaps he comes to us far more often in the ordinary events of everyday life—and, as Luke reminds us, in the most unlikely ways—not among the rich and mighty but among the poor and the displaced. The angelic host and the “glory of the Lord” may have gotten the shepherds’ attention, but that was only a sign, a sign that would lead them to a baby wrapped up and lying in a manger. We, too, need to have our eyes opened and trained by the Word of God and the Eucharist, so that we may see the presence and the light of Christ in persons and places we are yet blind to, or be the presence and the light of Christ to them. This is where the mystery of the Incarnation continues, for once born in Bethlehem as one of us, Christ has identified himself with each and all of us. With joy and gratitude, let us celebrate this great mystery of love, open our lives to it, and see how it opens us up to one another.
I’d like to close these reflections with the text of one of my favorite songs by Bernadette Farrell. Though I can’t recall ever having heard it sung at a Christmas mass, I think the themes of light and darkness in the readings for midnight Mass would make it a perfect choice. There are plenty of recordings on YouTube if you feel like singing along.
Longing for light, we wait in darkness.
Longing for truth, we turn to you.
Make us your own, your holy people,
light for the world to see.
Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts.
Shine through the darkness.
Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today.
Longing for peace, our world is troubled.
Longing for hope, many despair.
Your word alone has pow’r to save us.
Make us your living voice. REFRAIN
Longing for food, many are hungry.
Longing for water, many still thirst.
Make us your bread, broken for others,
shared until all are fed. REFRAIN
Longing for shelter, many are homeless.
Longing for warmth, many are cold.
Make us your building, sheltering others,
walls made of living stone. REFRAIN
Many the gifts, many the people,
many the hearts that yearn to belong.
Let us be servants to one another,
making your kingdom come. REFRAIN