Christmas in the Liturgy

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Enrico Cattaneo, SJ

 Enrico Cattaneo, SJ / Spirituality / Published Date:6 January 2022/Last Updated Date:18 January 2022


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“Apart from the annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery, the Church has no more ancient custom than celebrating the memorial of the Nativity of the Lord and of his first manifestations, and this takes place in Christmas Time.”[1] This celebration begins with the First Vespers of Christmas and ends on the Sunday after the Epiphany. The earliest records of the feast of Christmas may be traced back to the middle of the fourth century, and the date of December 25 as the day of Christ’s birth is found in the oldest Roman liturgical calendar of 354.[2]

To nourish our faith and our prayer, we want to be inspired by the current texts of the liturgy: the Roman Missal[3] and the Liturgy of the Hours. Remember that liturgical prayers are always addressed to the Father, through Christ, in the Spirit.

What is Christmas?

La Civilta Cattolica

It is “the annual celebration of the Nativity of your Only Begotten Son,”[4] the “festivities” that make manifest “the beginnings of our redemption,”[5] the “wondrous beginning of the redemption of your people.”[6] It is an “awe-filled mystery”[7] in which “the just adoration of the […] greatness” of God takes place.[8] The nocturnal beginning of the celebrations, inspired by the Gospel,[9] allows us to remember that God has “made this most holy night radiant with the splendor of Christ, the true light of the world.”[10] This “new light of your incarnate Word” must “envelop us”[11] and must then “shine through in our deeds.”[12]

For the Savior “came as a new light for the redemption of the world.”[13] Thus, “the coming of Christ, the true light” has “overcome the darkness of the world.”[14] It is certainly not a question of a material light, but a spiritual one: “In the mystery of the Word made flesh, a new light of your  glory has shone upon the eyes of our mind.”[15]

The theme of light returns also on the second Sunday after Christmas, with a prayer that embraces all peoples: “God, […] light of believers, fill the whole world with your glory, and reveal yourself to all peoples in the splendor of your light.”[16] This light must arise “to renew our hearts always.”[17] The light of Christ not only enlightens but also warms, according to the twofold property of fire: “Enlighten, O Lord, your faithful and inflame their hearts with the splendor of your glory.”[18]

Christmas is therefore a “night of light”[19] to be celebrated “in joy,”[20] “in devout joy,”[21] “with fitting praise”[22] and “renewed fervor.”[23] The theme of joy also dominates Pope St Leo the Great’s sermons on Christmas: “Our Savior, dear friends, is born today: let us rejoice! There is no room for sadness on the day on which life is born […]. No one is excluded from this happiness: the cause of joy is common to all, because our Lord […] came for the liberation of all.”[24]

The new creation

The focus of the liturgy moves to the first creation, with a sense of wonder at the superiority of the work of redemption: “O God, who in a wonderful way created us in your image and in a more wonderful way renewed and redeemed us.”[25] The first creation also recalls the first sin, which introduced death and enslaved us. Now Christ is born “in our mortal flesh,” so that you “may set us free, for ancient servitude holds us bound beneath the yoke of sin.”[26] The salvific significance of Christmas is well emphasized in the second Christmas Preface: the Word became flesh, “raising up in himself all that was cast down,” to “restore unity to all creation.”[27] Thus “the perfect fulfillment of our reconciliation” is brought about,[28] and the “plan of the Father” to “reintegrate the universe” and to bring back to him “dispersed humanity” is brought to completion.[29] This theme returns in a dense prayer: “O God, you wanted the humanity of the Savior […] not to be subjected to the common inheritance of our fathers: grant that, freed from the ancient taint of sin, we too may be part of the new creation, begun by Christ your Son.”[30] With Christmas, therefore, the new creation begins.

This theme is taken up by Leo the Great: “Let us give thanks to God the Father through his Son in the Holy Spirit, because in his infinite mercy, with which he loved us, he had pity on us, and while we were dead because of our sins, he made us alive again with Christ so that we might be in him a new creature, a new work of his hands.”[31]

But who is he that is born?

The liturgy has never been encumbered by Christological disputes, but has always been clear about who is being celebrated at Christmas: he who is born in Bethlehem is not a man who will later be deified, but is the “Word of God incarnate,”[32] the “Savior of the world.”[33] He is the Word, who, “begotten [of the Father] before the ages, began to exist in time.”[34] He is the “invisible Word,” who “appeared visibly in our flesh.”[35] This is the “mystery of faith,”[36] the Son of God, “born a man,” who “also shone forth as God.”[37] Only in prayer is it given to us “to know with fullness of faith the hidden depths of this mystery and to love them ever more and more.”[38] In the birth of Christ, God has thus established “the beginning and the fullness of true faith.”[39]

This faith is also expressed with doctrinal clarity: “Give, O Father, to your people a firm faith, that they may believe and proclaim your only Son true God, eternal with you in glory, and true man, born of the Virgin Mother.”[40] There is a reference here to the creeds, which proclaimed Christ as true God and true man. However, faith is not primarily adherence to statements, but to a person: therefore the liturgy prays that we may grow “in the knowledge of the Savior” and remain “in true communion with him.”[41]

Wonderful exchange

Following the Fathers of the Church, the liturgy conceives of the Incarnation as an exchange: God consents to make himself “visible” in our mortal flesh, so that “as we recognize in him God made visible, we may be caught up through him in the love of things invisible.”[42] The background is Pauline: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:18). As Saint Augustine writes, “life itself became visible in the flesh; it was manifested so that the thing that can only be visible to the heart might also become visible to the eyes and heal hearts.”[43]

Christ, however, has left us something visible in the Eucharist, and it is precisely in the Eucharistic celebration that that “exchange of gifts” of which the liturgy speaks takes place: the bread and wine, which we offer as “fruit of the earth and work human hands,” once consecrated communicate to us “divine life,”[44] they “transform us into Christ.”[45] Thus, the liturgy asks “that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”[46] In him, we are “children”[47] in the Son, “members of Christ.”[48] So it is that in the Eucharist “this mysterious encounter between our poverty and your greatness” takes place. Our poverty is given by offerings  that are already a gift; God’s greatness is given by the fact that he does not give us something, but himself: “We offer you the things you have given us, you give us yourself in exchange.”[49] Our poverty is also manifested in our sin, the evil from which we ask to be purified.[50]

This theme is the proper object of the third Christmas Preface, which celebrates Christ, in whom “the holy exchange that restores our life has shone forth in splendor”: the Word takes on “our frailty” in order to raise it to an “unending honor.” The Word assumes “mortal nature” in order to lead us to share in his “immortal life,” uniting us to him “in a  wondrous union.” The infinite distance between God and the creature is overcome: “God became man so that man might become God.”[51] The theme of this regained dignity is highlighted by Saint Leo the Great: “Recognize, Christian, your dignity and, having been made a sharer in the divine nature, do not return to the sinful state of the past by unworthy conduct.”[52]

Beyond earth and time

The focus of the liturgy always goes beyond the earth and beyond time, toward heaven and eternity: “Grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his happiness in heaven”[53]; and let the Eucharist “communicate to us the gift of immortal life.”[54] Indeed, “our nature has been united” to Christ[55] and we are called to “share in his glory” through an “honorable way of life.”[56] Through the Eucharist, we ask to be able “to gain possession of eternal goods”[57] and to be able to aspire “with serene confidence to the joy that has no end.”[58] For Christ “shows us the way of truth and promises eternal life.”[59] The liturgy reminds us that we need to be firm in the faith to be able to face “the trials of the present life” and to reach “joy without end.”[60] And it asks: “Strengthen our faith, so that, guided by Christ, we may come to the prize of the promised glory.”[61]

The Mother of God

The liturgy of Christmas is all about the Incarnate Word, but it could not fail to mention his mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is true that Mary is present above all in the last week of Advent, but the liturgy of Christmas time dedicates to her a whole day during the octave, on January 1st, under the title of “Mother of God.”[62] It is a title that was proclaimed by the Council of Ephesus in 431, not without bitter arguments. There were  those who thought it more appropriate to call Mary “Mother of Christ” and not “Mother of God.” In fact, for those who adhere to a monotheistic faith, this title could sound blasphemous: to say that God has a mother is something that makes no sense. That is why the Council of Ephesus had to explain: “The holy fathers did not hesitate to call the holy Virgin ‘Mother of God’ (Theotokos), certainly not because the nature of the Word or its divinity originated from the holy Virgin, but, because the holy body endowed with a rational soul was born from her, to which the Word is substantially united, it is said that the Word was born according to the flesh.”[63] In other words, because the Word is “true God from true God,” Mary can be called “Mother of God.”

On the strength of this premise, the liturgy celebrates Mary as the one through whom “we have received the author of life”; thanks to Mary’s “fruitful virginity” we were given “the grace of eternal salvation.”[64] With Mary’s “divine maternity,” God gave “beginning and completion to all the good that is in the world,”[65] and in her we taste “the first fruits of your merciful love.”[66]

In addition to her status as Mother of the Son of God, the liturgy joyfully recognizes Mary as “Mother of the Church.”[67] This title was proclaimed by St. Paul VI during the Second Vatican Council. Many theologians advised against the introduction of a new Marian title for ecumenical reasons. But Paul VI, on November 21, 1964, when the constitution Lumen Gentium was approved, which dedicates chapter VIII to the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the culmination of a thoughtful speech, declared: “To the glory of the Virgin and our comfort, we proclaim Mary Most Holy ‘Mother of the Church,’ that is, of all the people of God, both faithful and pastors.”[68]

For the liturgy, moreover, Mary is Mother “ever Virgin,” virgin in heart and body. She conceived “by the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit,” and “without losing the glory of her virginity, she brought forth into the world the eternal Light, Jesus Christ our Lord.”[69] This text suggests that the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary, called the “wondrous birth,”[70] occurred as an emanation of light.[71]

Conclusion

The texts of the Christmas liturgy immerse us in an atmosphere of light and joy that might seem excessive. Where, one wonders, has all the kenotic Christology gone? Is not the Incarnation, as Paul says, the “emptying,” the kenōsis of the Word, who, “being in the form of God, took the form of a servant,” even “unto death and death on a cross”? (cf. Phil 2:6-8).

In our opinion, the liturgy, maintaining that atmosphere of light and joy, remains faithful to the data offered by the Gospels. Luke, while not ignoring the kenotic aspects of the nativity, such as the lack of accommodation for Mary and Joseph and the birth in a stable, remains seemingly fascinated by the announcement made by the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people, whom he loves” (Luke 2:14). This is the dominant note of the whole story. Even the prologue of John’s Gospel has nothing properly kenotic about it. However much one wishes to accentuate the fact that the Word has become sarx, “flesh” – a term which “designates humanity in its condition of weakness and mortality”[72] – the kenotic reality of sarx remains in the shadows. What is highlighted is that “the true light that gives light to everyone came into the world” (John 1:9), and that the Word “came to dwell among us, and we have contemplated his glory”; and from this “fullness of grace and truth… we have received grace upon grace” (John 1:14-16).

So the liturgy of Christmas, rather than stopping at the person of the Word in his abasement, contemplates him in his becoming man “for us men and for our salvation” (Nicene Creed). Certainly, with the birth of Jesus this work of salvation has only begun, and will only be brought to completion with Easter and the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the news that the Savior has come and that this Savior is the very Son of God is too good to leave us indifferent in our response .[73] The time will come when the Church will stop and look at the extent to which the Word humbled himself, remembering what he himself had taught: “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law;  he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Luke 9:22). Then the disciples “did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (Mark 9:32); but then they understood  to the point of giving their lives for love of their Lord. The joy of Christmas must never allow this to be forgotten. It is not for nothing that the liturgy celebrates on the day immediately after Christmas, December 26, the memory of Saint Stephen, the first martyr.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 7, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.7

[1].    General Norms for the Ordering of the Liturgical Year and Calendar, No. 32.

[2].    Cf. M. Righetti, L’anno liturgico, Milan, Àncora, 1969, 65-70.

[3].    Third edition 2010.

[4].    Nativity of the Lord, Vigil Mass, Prayer after communion. There are no traces of a Vigil Mass on the Eve in the ancient Roman liturgy. Instead, typically Roman is the use of three Masses (night, dawn, day), at first reserved exclusively for the pope (cf. M. Righetti, L’ anno liturgico, op. cit., 72-77).

[5].    Nativity of the Lord, Vigil Mass, Prayer over the offerings.

[6].    Mass on January 5, Collect.

[7].    Christmas Preface II.

[8]  .   December 31 Mass, Over the offerings.

[9]  .   Cf. Luke 2:8: “There were some shepherds in the region who slept in the open air and kept vigil all night.” The celebration of Mass on Christmas Eve in St. Peter’s seems to have been introduced by Sixtus III (432-440).

[10].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Night, Collect. On Christ as “light,” cf. John 1:9; 8:12; 12:46.

[11].   Cf. Luke 2:9: “The glory of the Lord shrouded them in light”.

[12].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Collect. Cf. Matt 5:16: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

[13].   Mass on January 4, Collect.

[14].   Mass of December 29, Collect. The symbolism of the sun, which is biblical, could be implied here: cf. Ml 3:20 (“The sun of justice will rise with beneficial rays”); Luke 1:78-79 (“A sun will visit us from on high, to shine on those who are in darkness and in the shadow of death”). However, the liturgical texts never use the term “sun,” nor do they ever refer to December 25 as an astronomical date, connected with the feast of Sol invictus.

[15].   Christmas Preface I.

[16].   Second Sunday after Christmas, Collect.

[17].   Mass on January 4, Collect.

[18].   January 6 Mass, Collect.

[19].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the night, Prayer over  the offerings

[20].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during night, Prayer after communion. Cf. Luke 2:10: “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you great joy.”

[21].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Prayer after Communion.

[22].   Mass on December 29, Collect.

[23].   Nativity of the Lord, Vigil Mass, Prayer over the offerings.

[24].   Leo the Great, Sermon 1 for Christmas (in Office of Readings for December 25).

[25].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day, Collect.

[26].   Mass on December 30, Collect.

[27].   Christmas Preface II.

[28].   Christmas of the Lord, Mass during the day, Prayer over the offerings.

[29].   Christmas Preface II. Cf. John 11:52.

[30].   Mass of January 3, Collect. Cf. 2 Cor 5:17.

[31].   Leo the Great, Sermon 1 for Christmas (in Office of the Readings for December 25).

[32].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Collect. Cf. John 1:14.

[33].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day, Prayer after communion. Cf. John 4:42; 1 John 4:14.

[34].   Christmas Preface II.

[35].   Christmas Preface II. Cf. 1 John 1:2.

[36].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Collect.

[37].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Prayer over the offerings.

[38].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Prayer after communion.

[39].   Mass of December 31, Collect.

[40].   Mass of January 2, Collect.

[41].   Mass of January 6, Collect.

[42].   Christmas Preface I.

[43].   Augustine of Hippo, Treatises on the First Letter of John 1:1.3 (in Office of Readings, December 27).

[44].   Nativity of the Lord, Dawn Mass, Prayer over the offerings.

[45].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the night, Prayer over the offerings.

[46].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day, Collect.

[47].   Cf. Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the Day, Prayer after communion.

[48].   Mass of December 31, Collect. Cf. 1 Cor 6:15.

[49].   Mass of December 29, Prayer over the offerings. Cf. Gal 2:20: “He loved me and gave himself up for me.”

[50].   Cf. Second Sunday after Christmas, Prayer after communion.

[51].   Augustine, Discourse 13 (in Office of Readings, January 7). This concept is recurrent in the Fathers of the Church. Some see the Incarnation in nuptial terms: “As a bridegroom coming out of the bridal chamber, Christ came down to earth to unite himself with the Church through his Incarnation” (Faustus of Riez, Discourses, in the Office of Readings of January 12).

[52].   Leo the Great, First Sermon for Christmas (in Office of the Readings for December 25).

[53].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass in the night, Collect.

[54].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the day, Prayer after communion.

[55].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the night, Prayer over the offerings.

[56].   Nativity of the Lord, Mass during the night, Prayer after communion.

[57].   Mass of December 30, Prayer over  the offerings.

[58].   Mass of December 31, Prayer after communion.

[59].   Second Sunday after Christmas, Prayer over the offerings. Cf. John 6:47.

[60].   Cf. Mass of January 2, Collect.

[61].   Mass of January 5, Collect.

[62].   This solemnity is new, and is the fruit of the liturgical reform that followed the Second Vatican Council.

[63].   Council of Ephesus, session of June 22, 431 (Denzinger, No. 251). To understand well the title of Theotokos one would have to explain the concept  of “hypostatic union,” which we assume is known to the reader.

[64].   Mass of January 1, Collect.

[65].   Mass of January 1, Prayer over the  offerings.

[66].   Mass of January 1, Prayer over the offerings.

[67].   Mass of January 1, Prayer after communion.

[68].   Cf. Enchiridion Vaticanum 1, 1319. This aspect is amply developed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which devotes an entire paragraph to presenting “Mary. Mother of Christ, Mother of the Church” (Nos. 963-975).

[69].   Preface of the Blessed Virgin Mary I.

[70].   Mass of January 3, Collect.

[71].   Many Fathers draw a parallel between Mary’s wondrous giving birth and the entry of the Risen Jesus into the Upper Room, despite closed doors (cf. John 20:19).

[72].   Jerusalem Bible, Bologna, EDB, 2517, note.

[73].   It should not be forgotten, however, that the feast of Christmas, like all feasts, is celebrated with the Eucharist, the memorial of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.