Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"For unto us a child is born": Readings for Christmas Mass at Midnight

The lectionary readings for the Christmas mass at midnight focus on the coming of the glory of God in the person of Christ.

Of course, in scripture, God's glory is often associated with the imagery of "light" and "splendor".

As we celebrate the eucharist in the middle of the night ("midnight"), we reflect on the coming of the one who is the "light of the world".

The darkness of night helps us reflect on the state of humanity before the Incarnation. As our first reading explains, we "walked in darkness".

In Christ, we have "seen a great light".

Yet the lectionary selections are also meant to lead us to reflect upon the way Christians are still awaiting the dawning of the day when the fullness of Christ's glory will be revealed; as the Second Reading reminds us, we await "the blessed hope of the appearance" of Christ at the end of time.

The light "has come" yet it is also "still to come" in its fullness. The darkness has not yet been finally vanquished. (Anyone who has been to the mall this season is painfully aware of that!)

With all of this in mind, let us turn to our readings.

FIRST READING: Isaiah 9:1-6
The people who walked in darknesshave seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of glooma 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 taskmasteryou 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 vastand forever peaceful, from David’s throne, and over his kingdom, which he confirms and sustainsby judgment and justice, both now and forever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this!
This passage from Isaiah clearly envisions the future deliverance of God's people and links that deliverance to the coming of an ideal king. Moreover, this king is clearly portrayed as a son of David. 

Throughout the passage we find allusions to the biblical portrait of the original son of David, Solomon. 
  • Solomon's name is based on the Hebrew word for "peace"; the coming king will be "Prince of Peace". 
  • Solomon was the one to whom "wisdom" was given; the future ruler will be "Wonder-Counselor". 
  • Solomon was remembered for reigning over vast regions (cf. 1 Kings 4); Isaiah says of the child to be born that "his dominion is vast". 
Moreover, the prophet refers to the king as"God-Hero" (NAB). I loathe this translation, which makes the messianic deliverer sound more like DC Comics character. I prefer the RSV translation, "Mighty God" ("gibbĂ´r El"). 

It wasn't uncommon for ancient people's to attribute divinity to kings. Most of those familiar with the Exodus will recall that the Pharaoh was identified as a god in Egypt.  In fact, in the Old Testament, the Davidic king is closely identified with God. 

God is understood as the king of Israel, but it also seems to have been understood that he somehow reigned through the son of David. The son of David is, in a sense, the vicar of God on earth. 

Solomon is thus said to sit on the "throne of the Lord" (1 Chr. 29:23: "Then Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord as king instead of David his father. . ."). Psalm 45:6 also seems to speak of the king in divine terms (the translators of the Septuagint and the Targums all certainly took it this way).

In fact, in 1 Chronicles the people are said to worship both God and the Davidic king (1 Chr. 29:20: "they worshipped the Lord and the king"). The Hebrew of this verse is so shocking to some translators that they actually add a word changing the meaning of the text! The RSV, for example, says, that they "worshipped the Lord, and did obeisance to the king". (So, you see, the RSV isn't always preferable.) 

Rulers can be thus described as "Elohim"--they function in the capacity of God. In fact, the word for God, "Elohim", is even applied to Moses in the Old Testament--he speaks for God (cf. Exod. 7:1).  

However, the New Testament reveals that this prophecy has a quite literal fulfillment--the Messiah is nothing less than God himself. As Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) has said, Christ has fulfilled the Old Testament in a transcendent way. 

Certainly, the book of Isaiah makes it clear that God himself is coming to save his people. Moreover, Isaiah 30 speaks of God revealing himself to his people: "your Teacher will not hide himself any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher" (Isa 30:20). And certainly Isaiah 9 points to the idea that the future king himself should be identified with God.

Still, let us not miss the "mystery". Christians often make it sound as if the full "mystery" of Christ is explicitly stated in the Old Testament as if virtually no aspect of his coming was unanticipated. Far from it!  

Let us not ever forget Paul's use of another passage from the book of Isaiah: 
None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him,” God has revealed to us through the Spirit." (1 Cor 2:8-10)
The Gospel is the good news that was announced before by the prophets--but the good news would be much better news than anyone could have ever expected. 

And so, as Isaiah announced, the people of God really shall "make merry"--terminology appropriate for the Christmas celebration.

At the same time, we still await the final fulfillment of this prophecy. The darkness still surrounds us and we long for the day when the Messiah will come (again) and establish his justice forever more. 

RESPONSORIAL PSALM: Ps 96: 1-2, 2-3, 11-12, 13
R/ (Lk 2:11) Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.
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.
Psalm 96 is found in what is known as "Book IV" of the Psalter, namely, Psalms 90-106. Scholars recognize that many of these psalms contain "New Exodus" themes. This psalm in particular is reminiscent of the parting of the Red Sea, after which Moses and the people sang a song to celebrate God's mighty act of delivering them from the Egyptians (cf. Exod. 15:1).

To sing a "new song" is thus to sing a song for deliverance--a New Exodus. Thus, the language of God's "wondrous deeds" and the line "let the sea and what fills it resounds" reminds us of what God did for Israel in the desert. 

Read in the lectionary, this psalm celebrates the coming of God in Christ, who "comes to rule the earth" as a child born in Bethlehem.  

SECOND READING: Titus 2:11-14
Beloved:The grace of God has appeared, saving alland 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.
As I have already remarked, the liturgical celebration of Christmas looks back at the past event of Christ's coming in the Incarnation in anticipation of a future coming--Christ's second coming at the end of time. Advent and Christmas are thus eschatological events in the Christian liturgy--they anticipate what is to happen in the future every bit as much as they celebrate what has taken place in the past. 

This helps us understand why this passage from Titus has been chosen. Here we read about why Christ came in the past--he came to "deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own". But he did this in view of a future hope--so that his people might be prepared for his coming. 

Moreover, given that the First Reading identifies the future king in divine terms, we might point out that there is some ambiguity in the line: "we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ" (Titus 2:13). This could mean that the blessed hope involves awaiting the appearance of (1) the glory of our great God and (2) our savior Jesus Christ. However, it could also be read as describing "our savior Jesus Christ" who is "our great God".[1] 

GOSPEL: Luke 2:1-14
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustusthat 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 highestand on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
So much could be said about the Gospel here. There are, of course, many historical issues often raised. For example, the timeline given for the census, is problematic (e.g., Quirinius seems to have held the position attributed to him here at a later time).

I cannot unpack all of the issues here (those interested should see this helpful discussion). Suffice it to say, Luke wants to underscore the historical nature of the Christian story. The Gospel does not begin, "Once upon a time" or "A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away". The coming of Christ took place in history and, for Luke, it has forever altered the course of history.

However, here I'd like to simply zero in on one aspect of this reading.

As Richard Burridge has shown, the Gospel of Luke is written in the style of a particular kind of literary genre: ancient Greco-Roman biography.[2] In fact, biographies were often written to be read at meals, e.g., as "after-dinner" entertainment.[3]

Now, think hard. . . Was there any special meal the early Christians might have celebrated that could have served as the ideal setting for the reading of the Gospels?

Of course. It's called the eucharist.

Luke explains that Jesus was born in Bethlehem--literally, "House (beth) of Bread (lehem)". And he is laid in the feeding area (the "manger").

Why is he in the manger? Because "there was no room in the inn".

The word for "inn" in Greek is katalyma. That word appears later in the Gospel of Luke. It is found at the end of the Gospel where Jesus celebrates his last meal in a special "guest room", a katalyma (Luke 22:11). The upper room is a katalyma.

The manger seems to be a kind of stand-in for the "upper room". Or, put another way, where he will later find an upper room prepared for him, on Christmas he is in a manger. The manger is the substitute for the room. 

Above I mentioned that in the liturgy we look backwards and forwards. We look back to the coming of Christ at Bethlehem and we look forward to his coming at the end of time. But Christ is present with us in the liturgy. Christ came to be laid where the food was placed. In the eucharistic meal, he comes to us as our food.

And so it is appropriate for us to sing the song sung by angels that first Christmas night: "Glory to God in the highest. . ." For the same king who came to the House of Bread, now comes to us as our Eucharistic Bread.


[1] See, e.g., George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 322-6.

[2] Richard Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (2d ed.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[3] Burridge, What Are the Gospels?, 298.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Wow! The upper room/inn correlation is super fascinating! Great great commentary! Thank you.
Laudetur Iesus Christus!
Merry Christmas!