Commentary on the Readings
The Birth of the Lord (Midnight Mass) – Year C
Light for those who live in darkness
The darkness covered the abyss, when “God said: Let there be light” (Gen 1:2-3).
Light is the first word that God speaks in the Bible. That word marks the beginning of creation (Gen 1:3). And since “God saw that the light was good” (Gen 1:4), man has never stopped loving her, to search for her, while he was afraid and shies away from the darkness. Darkness recalls death and from it one wants to get out.
He who is born comes to the light, who dies goes toward the land of deepest night (Job 10:21). “God—Job says—uncovers the deepest recesses and brings the deep darkness into light” (Job 12:22). In the biblical conception darkness are only a temporary condition of light, they are destined to become light.
God is light and permeates his every creature with light: in the poetic image of Isaiah the dew becomes dew of light (Is 26:19); even the clouds, yet so dark and menacing, are laden with light that shines forth, suddenly, when lightning flashes (Job 37:15).
We celebrate the Christmas liturgy during the night to reproduce, perhaps meaningfully, the darkness won by the word of the Creator, the darkness of the human condition illumined by the coming of the Savior.
To internalize the message, we repeat:
“On those who live in darkness, the light of a Child shines.”
The reading begins with the image of light: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”
These words are spoken by the prophet in a dramatic moment in the history of Israel. The Assyrians have just set fire to Galilee and Samaria shedding blood and terror everywhere. The country is full of darkness and the shadow of death (v. 1) when Isaiah intervenes in the name of the Lord, to proclaim peace and instill hope. A day of joy and jubilation is coming up.
To describe the immense joy aroused by the appearance of this light, the prophet introduces two comparisons related to the culture and experience of its people. The first is from the life of the peasants, the other from the experience of war just ended. The people will rejoice, as do the farmers at the end of the harvest and the harvesting of grapes, when the granaries are full and the vats overflow with new wine; they will be happy as the soldiers are when they divide the spoil (v. 2).
What is the reason for this celebration? The war ended—it is true—but another one could break. The momentary ceasure of Assyrian oppression is not enough to justify the explosion of joy. In an exciting crescendo three reasons are put forward.
The first: “For the yoke of their burden, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressors, you have broken it as on the day of Midian” (v. 3). It is the announcement of the end of all forms of slavery. The Lord will intervene on behalf of his people as he did at Midian, where the Israelites did not even have to fight against their oppressors. God puts them to flight causing panic in their camp (Jdg 7:16-23). Rejoice—says the prophet—because an even more amazing liberation will take place. Pride, the frenzy of power, success and domination, greed of property will disappear. There will be no more abuse and harassment.
The second: “Every warrior’s boot that tramped in war, every cloak rolled in blood, will be thrown out for burning, will serve as fuel for the fire” (v. 4). A precarious truce will not be stipulated, but the irrevocable end of all wars will be declared. The weapons and all objects that have some reference to violence and the use of force will be given as fuel to the fire.
The third reason for joy: the birth of a child who will introduce freedom and peace to the world (vv. 5-6). “A child is born for us, a son is given to us.” The verb in the passive—according to the biblical language—shows that it is God who offers. It is sent from heaven. It will be a child with exceptional qualities. He accumulate extraordinary features that characterized and made famous his best ancestors. He will be a father to his people, as were the patriarchs, models of loyalty and attachment to their God. He will be brave like David, “strong warrior like a god.” He will be able to protect his people against any foe. He will be wise as Solomon. He will be a “wonderful counselor.” He shall speak only sensible and prudent words of reconciliation, love, kindness, words that always inspire confidence and hope (1 K 12). He will be the prince of peace. He will not prevent armed conflict with the force of a powerful army, with the fear of punishment and retaliations, but will act on the causes of wars. He will cause social tensions, prevarications and abuses to disappear. His kingdom will consolidate itself through “justice and the law” and not by cunning, deceit and dirty politics.
Mysterious prophecy! It is not easy to tell which child Isaiah is talking about. He certainly thinks of a Davidic dynasty’s descendant, perhaps Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz. But Hezekiah was just a good man … nothing exceptional.
There never was a king in Israel’s history that corresponded fully to this prophecy, in fact, there was not anyone who could even vaguely resemble him. To this it must be added that, in 598 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar took prisoner and deported Joachim to Babylon. He was the last descendant of David. He put an end to the dynasty that reigned in Jerusalem for four hundred years. Has Isaiah therefore been deceived?
The people of Israel was never even touched by this doubt. It cultivated the firm conviction that God would not lie and it learned to wait patiently. Even in the most difficult and dramatic moments in its history it did not lose hope, did not doubt God’s faithfulness.
One day the old man Simeon—a symbol of all those who remained faithful to God in this people—will bless God and will take in his arms the child sent from heaven to enlighten the Gentiles (Lk 2:25-28).
God has kept his promise, but has not gone along with the expectations, petty desires, innocent dreams of people. He caught everyone by surprise: he sent a fragile, weak, humble, helpless, in need of help child. Yet it is from him that peace, like an unstoppable river, spills on the world (Is 66:12).
“For the grace of God has appeared!”—says the author of the Letter to Titus.
It is an irrepressible cry of joy for what God has already accomplished by sending his Son into the world. Grace is a biblical term that indicates the tenderness, love and goodness of God. This benevolence of God was made visible, was manifested in Jesus to proclaim salvation to all people (v. 11).
If in this holy night the Son of God were to come down from heaven to announce a message of salvation for the good, for those who faithfully keep the commandments, we would not have reason to rejoice, we would not be bathed by a new light. We heard reiterated what for centuries had been repeated: those who respect the law of Moses and his precepts are loved by God; the others are contemptible and base.
The joy instead becomes overwhelming when we realize that the Son of God speaks of salvation for all people. We got it right: salvation for all, because it is grace, a free gift and does not depend on our faithfulness, but on his.
The reading goes on showing the moral consequences of this manifestation of God’s goodness (vv. 12-14). For a long time it was thought that the fear of God was the best deterrent to prevent evil and push people to do good. It was a poor pedagogical choice. This fear has never produced anything good and was the cause of pathological condition and abandonment of faith. Only contemplating the love of God, people learn “to reject an irreligious way of life and wordly greed and to live in this world as responsible persons, upright and serving God” (v. 12).
Grace also instills hope. “Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” will certainly manifest himself (v. 13). The renewal of life for all will take place, although the looming danger is that the time of adhesion to his proposal of love can be deferred.
It is almost inevitable that we listen to this night’s Gospel passage conditioned by the Christmas atmosphere around us: lit trees, sounds of bagpipes, snow, shepherds. We will probably let ourselves be taken by emotions. It’s not a bad thing, but this passage is not written to move and even to give information about the birth of Jesus. If that were the case we would be right to complain of Luke being too sober in detail.
It was composed, probably, after the rest of the gospel had already been written. It is a page of theology that, as a wonderful prelude to the rest of the work, wants to present what the Christians of the first generation, led by the Spirit, understand of the Lord Jesus, dead and risen.
The passage begins with a precise historic and geographic ambient. It is the time in which Caesar Augustus reigns in Rome. The prince is known throughout the empire for his “courage, gentleness, compassion and justice.” It is he who, after the endless horrors of civil war, has finally restored peace everywhere. It is the golden age of Roman history sung by Virgil. In a famous inscription dated in the year 9 A.D. at Priene, in Asia Minor, it is written that the year begins on September 23, the birthday of Augustus so that “everyone can consider this event as the origin of his life and existence, as the time after which one needs no longer cry for his own birth. In giving us Augustus, Divine Providence has sent to us and to those who will come after us a savior, the one who had to put an end to wars and rearrange everything. The birthday of the god (Augustus) is for the world, the beginning of the glad tidings received (let. “Gospels”) through him.”
It is the time of the census of all the earth. The census, from the point of view of history, presents many difficulties. However, the intention of Luke takes a definite theological significance. It serves him to declare solemnly that the Son of God has entered into the universal history and has become a world citizen.
Then it indicates the place where Jesus is born: Bethlehem, a city (actually a village of shepherds) of the mountains of Judea. Luke emphasizes that “Joseph belonged, being a descendant of his, to the house of David” and that “Judea, to David’s town of Bethlehem” (v. 4). The reference to this site is important because it is from Bethlehem that the people were waiting for the Messiah (Jn 7:40-43). The prophet Micah had in fact announced: “But you, Bethlehem Ephratah, from you shall rise the one who is to rule over Israel” (Mic 5:1).
With these historical and geographical records Luke wants to say also that the birth of the Savior is not a myth to be relegated to the world of fairy tales—as many of them circulated at his time—but it is a real and concrete event.
“While they were in Bethlehem,” Mary gave birth to her “firstborn” son. Mary acts like all mothers and Luke mentions her caring and attentive gestures: she wraps the child and lays him in a manger. There is no miracle. The birth of Jesus is identical to that of any other man. Since his first appearance in this world he shares in all our human condition.
“There was no place for them in the inn.” If one keeps in mind that hospitality is sacred in the Orient, it is unlikely that Mary and Joseph are forced to find shelter in a cave because they are rejected by all the families of the place.
The term used in the original text does not refer to the hotel or to the caravanserai, but to a room (probably the only one) of the house where Joseph and Mary were received. It was not fitting that the birth should happen in a room that did not offer a minimum of privacy (this is the meaning of the expression, “there was no place for them”). As what normally happened to the poor women in labor in all of Palestine, Mary was also introduced in the inner and hidden angle of the dwelling, usually one where animals were kept.
Although the Gospel text does not speak of the ox and the ass (which have been suggested to popular piety by a text from Isaiah: “The ox knows its master and the ass its owner’s manger” (Is 1:3), it is not unlikely that there were.
Luke emphasizes these details to show that God—as is wont to do—subvert the values and criteria of this world. The God that people, even today, expect is strong and terrible, capable of spreading panic and gaining respect. But this is not God; it is an idol. It is the projection of our petty dreams of greatness and power. The God manifested in Jesus is exactly the opposite: weak, helpless and trembling, trusts himself in the hands of a woman. This is not a passing moment of his revelation, an unhappy parenthesis waiting to resume then all his dazzling splendor and all his might. In Jesus lying in the manger the true, eternal God, “a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor 1:23) is instead present.
In the second part of the gospel (vv. 8-14) the scene changes completely. We are no longer in the privacy of a house, but outside, in the fields and the characters are others: the shepherds and angels.
“There were shepherds camping in the countryside, taking turns to watch over the flock by night.” If this is intended as an information, then Jesus was not born in winter because the flock was kept in the open from March to October. But we do not care much know what month Jesus was born. What is more important is to identify who are the first people to recognize the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, the Savior, the Messiah, the long-awaited Son of David. These are the shepherds.
Why just them? It is not because they were better prepared spiritually. Quite the contrary. The shepherds were not simple, good, innocent, honest folks, respected by all. They were listed among the most impure of people, and there were good reasons to consider them as such. They led a life not very different from that of the beasts. They could not enter the temple to pray. They were not allowed to testify in a tribunal because they were considered unreliable, untruthful, dishonest, thieves and violent. The Rabbis taught that the shepherds, tax collectors and publicans would find salvation almost impossible. Their lives were so evil, they had done so much harm and robbed so many people that they could not keep count of what they stole and therefore could never return what they had stolen. So they were destined to perdition.
The heavenly messenger is sent to them: “I am here to give you good news, great joy for all the people. Today a Savior has been born to you in David’s town. He is the Messiah and the Lord” (vv. 10-11).
The words of the angel echo the inscription of Priene. It was not Augustus—Luke seems to imply—the savior who was to flood the world with joy and establish peace. It’s not his birth, but that of Jesus which marked “the beginning of glad tidings received, thanks to him.”
Since his first appearance in the world Jesus is placed among the last of people. It is they, not the “righteous” who expect from God a word of love, liberation and hope. Growing up, Jesus will continue to live next to these people. He will speak their simple language, use comparisons, parables, images taken from their world, participate in their joys and sufferings, and will always be on their side against anyone who attempts to marginalize them.
The sign given to the shepherds to recognize the Savior is surprising and paradoxical. It is not said that they will find a baby wrapped in light, with the face of an angel, with a halo on his head, surrounded by the heavenly host. None of these: the sign is … a completely normal child, with a unique characteristic: he is poor and is among the poor.
The two groups we will find during Jesus’ life are already defined in the moment of his birth: on the one hand, the poor, the ignorant, the despised people who immediately recognize and welcome him with joy. On the other hand the wise, the rich, the powerful, those who live isolated in their palaces, away from the people and their problems and convinced that they already possess all that make them happy. They do not need a Savior, indeed, a Messiah who does not meet their expectations, their projects and a person they are uncomfortable to deal with and needs to be removed as soon as possible.
The women who helped Mary in Bethlehem during the birth observed that child. They did not certainly realized that the history of the world would be divided into two parts: before and after that birth.