At Christmastide we hear sounds and voices that seem to be silent the rest of the year. We hear lighthearted, jingling bells that delight us. We sing beloved carols that express messages simple enough for children to understand yet profound enough to challenge us for the rest of our lives. We exchange greetings of peace and joy and love. This is an unusual time of the year, even for the Scrooges among us. But the real meaning of Christmas is the spirit that inspires all of these touching practices. We hear this meaning proclaimed anew in the readings of the day.
The spirit of midnight Mass is captured by Paul: “The grace of God has appeared.” Isaiah announces the birth of a Davidic king who will usher in a time of justice and peace. “The grace of God has appeared.” The child born has come as savior. “The grace of God has appeared.” If we really hear this message and take it to heart, our Christmas greetings might actually be promises to do what we can to bring about this wish for others.
The Mass at dawn, traditionally called the Shepherds’ Mass, contains a phrase from Isaiah that focuses the liturgical themes: “They shall be called the holy people, the redeemed of the Lord.” Shepherds were despised because, on account of their frequent contact with blood, they were regarded as ritually unclean and unfit to participate in liturgical ceremonies. Still, the message of salvation was first announced to them, and they were the first to pay homage to the child. Paul reminds us that we too have been made holy people through our baptism. If we really hear this message and take it to heart, we will be attentive to those who are needy, not simply because we are generous, but because they are often God’s agents of salvation in the world.
Finally, the themes of Christmas Day converge in a phrase from Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings glad tidings, announcing peace, bearing good news.” And what is the good news? “The Lord restoring Zion,” and Baghdad, and Darfur, and Ramallah. The people who have suffered unimaginable devastation are being comforted, and peace is being restored. If we really hear this message, we will realize that the miracles are unfolding before our very eyes, because we are the ones through whom God is accomplishing them. The child was born to begin the work that we now continue, so that all the ends of the earth will see the saving power of God.