Because of the ancient custom of celebrating three distinct Christmas Masses, the liturgy offers a treasury of readings that bring out different aspects of the celebration. The first readings herald the messianic promises of Isaiah and the good news of salvation, and the psalms echo Israel’s royal enthronement rituals. The Gospels for the Masses at midnight and morning announce in rhythmic cadence Luke’s story of the birth and initial revelation of Jesus, while John’s poetic prologue (Jn. 1:1-18) reaches beyond time to proclaim that the Word that was with God and was God has become flesh and made his dwelling place among us.
Like a dazzling fireworks exhibit, the Christmas readings are almost too much to assimilate at one time. Everyone seems to have a favorite Christmas story and Christmas images, yet all focus around the profound mystery that God’s eternal Word has taken on human flesh. The human is the bearer of the divine, as Jesus reveals the God who is our origin and destiny.
This Christ event (the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, all seen as one act of God) is heralded through the New Testament in forms as diverse as the cadences of the hymn in Philippians (Phil. 2:6-11), early creedal affirmations (Rom. 1:1-2), missionary preaching (Acts 13:26-29) and cries of gratitude (Gal. 2:19-21). Yet only in Matthew and Luke is the origin of this mystery proclaimed in story, in ways that constantly enrich our faith.
Matthew begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus’ origin through saints and sinners and a series of extraordinary births, showing, as Zwingli once observed, the unmerited triumph of God’s grace. Jesus is born into a world of homelessness and violence (there was no room for them in the inn). A wondrous parade of people are touched by his coming: an aging priest and his childless wife, a young woman called to bring forth a child in a way unheard of in human history, the dark night sky shining with God’s glory and shepherd boys hearing good news of great joy, an aging couple living and waiting for God’s anointed. While in Matthew an anointed Jewish king turns out to be a brutal killer, wise men from afar follow a star to kneel before the child and his mother. Jesus begins his life in exile from his land and people, and returns to grow up in an obscure village. The Christmas stories affirm humanity in all its glory and brokenness. They are retold not simply every Christmas, but in the lives of countless unnamed people among whom God’s Word continues to become flesh and dwell among us.