Adoration of the Shepherds by Giorgione.
There are four Masses that we could attend on Christmas. There is the Vigil Mass celebrated in the afternoon on Christmas Eve. Then there is the Midnight Mass. There is a Mass celebrated at dawn. Finally, there is the Mass for Christmas day. Each Mass has a different set of readings and so unless we get to church real early and read them all in the missalette, we will never hear the whole story.
All of the Masses begin with a joyful, exuberant reading from the prophet Isaiah. The reading from the Midnight Mass is typical:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom
a light has shone.
In the gospels we hear the story of the birth of Christ as told by St. Matthew and St. Luke. Little by little the characters in the Nativity scene are introduced. In the vigil Mass on Christmas eve, Matthew presents us with Mary and Joseph and tells us of Joseph's decision to take Mary into his house after finding her pregnant. In the Midnight Mass we find the stable and the manger, and the angels appear to the shepherds. At dawn, the shepherds go down to Bethlehem to find the child "lying in the manger." Finally, the gospel on Christmas Day is the famous beginning of the gospel of John, where John tries to explain the significance of the great event.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
No matter what Mass we attend all the readings testify that something unique and earth shattering occurred 2000 years ago. From Isaiah to John we hear that at that moment the darkness was pierced by a shaft of light and that because this tiny shaft of light entered the world, the world would never be the same.
Years ago I remember reading a novel by a little known Russian author about a day in the life of a prisoner in a Soviet concentration or prison camp. The book was written by a man who had himself spent 20 years in camps such as the one he described. He wrote the book secretly while in prison on little scraps of paper which had to be carefully hidden from the watchful eyes of the prison guards. The book was called "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch" and its author was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who would go on to become one of the greatest authors of the 20th century.
When Solzhenitsyn's book first appeared, it was like a shaft of light cutting through the darkness of the vast Soviet empire. Until that time there were still those who defended that empire as a noble undertaking, or as the dawn of a new era in human history. Once the light appeared it exposed the rottenness, corruption, and brutality of that regime. The world would never be the same. Twenty years later the whole edifice came crumbling down.
Whatever Mass we attend today the readings all say the same--the light has come into the world and the world will never be the same. For each of us this Christmas it can be the same. A light can come into our hearts and we might never be the same. In the Vigil Mass we heard how Joseph after his dream, "did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home." For each of us who will take Mary and her child into their house this Christmas there is the possibility that our world will never be the same.
In today's Masses the story begins. We'll hear the rest of the story in the weeks and months to come.
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 1-5
Reading II. Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
Gospel. Matthew 1:1-25 (Genealogy of Jesus Christ).
Reading 1. Isaiah 9: 1-6
Reading II. Titus 2: 11-14
Gospel. Luke 2: 1-14 (she gave birth).
Reading 1. Isaiah 62: 11-12
Reading II. Titus 3: 4-7
Gospel. Luke 2: 15-20 (the shepherds).
Reading 1. Isaiah 52: 7-10
Reading II. Hebrews 1: 1-6
Gospel. John 1: 1-18 (the Word was with God).