The readings for Christmas midnight Mass are a liturgy in poetry that has shaped Christmas devotion through the ages. A mood of joyful surprise runs throughout: Upon those who dwell in the land of gloom, a light has shone; the grace of God has appeared, saving all; I proclaim to you good news of great joy. This is not the superficial feel-good joy marketed by the media from Thanksgiving through Christmas. Isaiah writes during a period of war against Judaea by a coalition of enemies and the expansion of the Assyrian empire, which will spell the downfall of the Northern Kingdom. Yet Isaiah promises the birth of a child-king who will secure the Davidic line, in a way different from war and political alliances. The accoutrements of war will be burned as fuel for the flames, and this child will be Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.
In those days marks the solemn beginning of the Gospel; the census underscores that Jesus’ land is an occupied territory. Joseph and Mary, in the late stages of pregnancy, make an arduous journey from Nazareth to the city of David, and Mary gives birth most likely in a cave or temporary shelter since they could not find a place even in the somewhat primitive travelers’ hostel; the child’s first crib is an animal’s feeding trougha migrant couple, alone and without relatives and friends, gazing on their newborn child.
The Gospel culminates in the message to the shepherds, Do not be afraid, for I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. A savior is born in David’s city, and like the other son of David, Solomon, he is wrapped in swaddling clothes (Wis. 7:4). The names given to Jesussavior, anointed one (Christ), Lordthat celebrate his birth were customarily applied to imperial figures, like Augustus. Jesus’ birth is not proclaimed to regal courtiers but to people of little regard, rural shepherds. In place of a proclamation sent through the empire that a royal birth brings peace, the messengers of God proclaim God’s glory and peace on earth to all people who have now received God’s favor.
Like the heavenly multitude, a multitude of reflections arises. Jesus’ birth is good news for all people; humanity is radically changed; words of hope are proclaimed to a subject people; a peace is offered that casts out fear. Outsiders, shepherds, are the first heralds of Jesus’ birth, as will be Anna in Lk. 2:38. Mary, who does not speak, hears the proclamation and treasures their words in her heart. Like every mother, Mary gazes upon her newborn and wonders what this child will be. She is a model of one who, even in the presence of God’s extraordinary events, ponders their deeper meaning, a task that remains God’s gift to us on Christmas day.