Ordinarily, apart from some pressing pastoral necessity, a priest may offer only one Mass each day. But, today, in each church throughout Christendom, each priest enjoys the great privilege of offering the three Masses of Christmas in celebration of the birth of our Lord. The Missal provides three formulae—three different texts, so that the three Masses are not at all repetitious, but each expresses a different aspect of our Lord’s birth.
The first Mass, at midnight, describes the circumstances of our Lord’s birth in a stable at Bethlehem and the call of the shepherds; and the second has the shepherds—the common people of the countryside—coming to adore the newborn Savior. Together, these two Masses describe the scene that we generally think about at Christmas—unless, perhaps, we envision the three Wise Men (the three Kings) as part of our Christmas scene, which many people do, even though their appearance is still a couple of weeks off.
The third Mass is less like a Christmas card, and gives us a more philosophical description of what we celebrate on this day of our Lord’s Nativity. The Gospel of that third Mass is from the first chapter of Saint John's Gospel, the one we read after almost every Mass—thus, it ought to be very familiar to us—but it takes on an added significance on this very special day. The third Mass speaks of God’s existence, even before the creation of material things, and even before the creation of time itself.
“In the beginning was the Word:
What is this “Word” of which Saint John speaks? In Latin it is “verbum”; in the Greek in which Saint John wrote, it is “Λογοσ (Logos)”—in any language it has a very special significance. We are told that the “Word was God,” and also told that the “Word was” somehow “with God.” This very special “Word” was nothing less than God’s knowledge of Himself. In human beings, our knowledge of ourselves, our introspection, has no independent existence—but, given the creative power of God, His knowledge of Himself gives rise to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. And, since He knew Himself from all eternity, we can say that this Second Person is not like any created being.
“The Word was in the beginning with God.”
Very likely, Saint John adopted this particular terminology, and used the Greek word “Λογοσ (Logos)” because it was the term used by the philosophers of the ancient world—many of whom had reasoned that their had to be some sort of organizing principle in the universe. While human reason is unable to arrive at the knowledge of the Trinity without revelation, the Greeks were able to recognize the need for an intelligent and powerful designer to turn the initial chaos of creation into an ordered cosmos—it turned out that that powerful intellect was the Word of God.
“All things were made by Him:
Yet there is an important difference between the “Λογοσ” of the Greeks and the Christ whose birthday is celebrated so enthusiastically today throughout the world.
“The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us
Christmas is a holy day of the Incarnation—that is what sets Christmas apart from all of the holy days of any of the religions on earth—Christmas celebrates the reality that God took such an interest in His creation that He actually took it upon Himself to enter the history of His creatures. And not only did He choose to enter history, but He chose to do so, in the most personal manner, by adding the nature of His creature “man” to His own divine nature. The infinite God of the heavens took on all of the limitations and liabilities of mankind—He became flesh and blood, body and soul, and was subject to all of our infirmities except sin.
Bishop Fulton Sheen, whom many of you may remember, used to say that in some way—a dim way, at that—the Incarnation was like a man who loved dogs, but loved them so much that he not only did everything he could to help dogs, but took on their very nature and became a dog, so that he could be with them and work with them directly. Sheen was quick to point out that the Incarnation was far more than this, as the difference between God and man was far greater than that between man and dogs.
But Bishop Sheen’s way of putting it does immediately lead us to ask the obvious question: “Why would God become man?” Certainly, the motive had to be love—it is foolish to think that God would have had any motive of profit. No doubt God wanted to heal the damage done to His creation by the original sin of Adam and Eve, for He was a Creator who took a continued interest in His handiwork.
Still, this does not completely answer the question: “Why would God become man?” We have to admit that God could have repaired whatever damage had been done by sin to the human race, simply by an act of His will—after all He is God, and God can do anything He pleases. Did He really have to accept all the limitations of humanity? Or, at least, couldn’t He have been born into the family of a king, in some prosperous and modern country, where He could live comfortably by human standards? Why did He have to be born in a poor country, occupied by a foreign power, to a poor young couple who could not even afford bribe the innkeeper to allow them a place for His birth? Why would God Almighty enter into such a situation in which He later tell Saint Paul: “My strength is perfected in thy weakness”?
God did these things—He placed Himself right in the midst of the common man—so that He could teach by His own example.
“For the law was given by Moses:
God had already given mankind the Mosaic Law, and, at their request, had appointed kings over Israel—even though He knew full well that even the best kings could not bring His salvation down to the level of the common man. In the Incarnation, God elected to do things His own way. Had He come as a king, the vast majority of people would have looked up to Him, but would have honestly told themselves that there was no way for them to emulate the life of a king. Instead, the Son of Man came, not having even a place of His own to rest His weary head, and every man became capable of emulating Him. He took up His abode in the home of a humble carpenter, and his wife most chaste, so that every family could look on Jesus, Mary, and Joseph and identify with them. And by identifying with them and emulating Him, we learn to live the laws of our salvation in a way that could never have been possible under the Law of Moses.
As many as received Him,
The source of our joy at Christmas is, thus, simple. If in our homes and families we live according to the example of Mary and Joseph; if we live our lives in the imitation of Christ—indeed if we even come close to these completely possible ideals—we are made to become the adopted sons and daughters of God.
So when you go home today—when you settle down with your friends and families for Christmas dinner—remember that God is with you. He is not an abstract God, ruling from the obscurity of heaven—rather He is here amongst His people—He is here with us at these three Masses of Christmas, in every Mass, in the tabernacle in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar—He is with us in our families as He was in the Holy Family, He is with us in our friends as He was with His disciples—and finally, He is in each and every one of us individually as we imitate the humility of His life here on earth.
“Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel”—which means “God is with His people.”