Christmas Midnight Mass
Sermon of the Right Reverend Dom Jean Pateau
Abbot of Our Lady of Fontgombault
Fontgombault, December 25, 2015
Natus est vobis hodie Salvator.
For unto you is born this day a Saviour. (Lk 2:11)
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
My dearly beloved Sons,
Every year, the holy night of Christmas leads us near Bethlehem, so that we may live again the birth of the Divine Child and His manifestation to the shepherds.
The text is restrained. St. Luke places the moment of the birth in the great history of the world. This birth takes place at the time when Emperor Augustus has decreed that a census of the whole world should be taken, as Quirinius was governor of Syria. St. Luke tells the moment of the birth in a few words:
And it came to pass that… her [Mary’s] days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her first born son and wrapped Him up in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger: because there was no room for them in the inn. (Lk 2:6-7)
St. Matthew gives the Child’s genealogy on the side of His foster father, St. Joseph, thus placing Him in the lineage of Israel. St. Matthew merely records the birth as he tells St. Joseph’s dream, during which the Lord had revealed him the miraculous conception of the child that Mary was bearing in her womb:
And Joseph rising up from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him, and took unto him his wife. And he knew her not till she brought forth her first born son: and he called His name Jesus. (Mt 1:24-25)
The birth of Jesus therefore appears as a mere event in the great history of the world. His parents seem to wish to keep for themselves the great secret with which they have been entrusted: But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. (Lk 2:19)
Indeed, to ensure that we should be redeemed, to wipe out the original sin, and to restore friendship between the human race and God, it was not necessary that the birth of Jesus should be announced to the world, it was not even necessary that the Word of God should take upon Him a human nature.
Why the Incarnation? Why the revelation of the Child’s birth? Already, the words of the Gospel according to St. John are coming true: Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (Jn 15:13)
God has wanted that His love should not remained ignored; He wanted that His friends should know that they were truly loved. On this holy night, how many are there who are God’s friends?
Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled, and everybody is asleep:
Hear, O ye heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord hath spoken. I have brought up children, and exalted them: but they have despised me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood. (Is 1:2-3)
Mary finds but a poor stable, and it is in a manger that she lays down her Child. This manger is the arms of the earth that are opening to receive the Saviour. Nine months ago, Mary had said, Yes—today, the world keeps silent. Then, the style of the narrative suddenly shifts. God Himself reveals the birth.
Not far from the Crib, there were shepherds, who were watching over their flocks. The Angel of the Lord appears to them, and the glory of the Lord surrounds them. As Mary before Gabriel on the day of the Annunciation, they are seized with fear: they know wolves and ferocious animals, they don’t fear the shadows of the night—but what about this unearthly light? Perhaps they remember the encounters of the holy patriarchs and prophets with God told by the Scriptures. The Angel addresses them with the same kindliness that had been shown to Mary: “Fear not.” From then onwards, peace has been poured out into the hearts of these men, who have received the good news of the Saviour’s birth. In the Crib, they will acknowledge that the Angel had not misled them. As an answer to their act of faith, they will attend a heavenly concert: “Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will.”
Who are they, these men who are the recipients of the message of Christmas? There are the simple ones: shepherds, men who pay attention to nature, and who are able to marvel. There are also the learned ones, magi who search the stars, and listen attentively to the song of the Universe, whose divine melody they accept to receive.
On this holy night, we might recall the very first words that St. Benedict offers to his monks: Hearken, O my son, to the precepts of thy master, and incline the ear of thy heart, and cheerfully receive and faithfully execute the admonitions of thy loving father. (Rule of St. Benedict, Prologue) Today, these words are told us by Jesus, the Angels, Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds: “Hearken, O my son, to God’s melody, and attune the harp of thy heart to its holy chords.”
Mary lays down the Child in the Crib: let us lay down our lives near Him. There is no greater love than to offer our lives to Him Whom we love. Our lives that we wish to make, with the help of God, ever more corresponding with the message of Christmas: Peace to men of good will.
Let us make of our hearts a crib. In a moment, Christ is going to visit us in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Let us receive this Eucharist, let us receive all Eucharists as a prolongation of the mystery of Christmas. The Lord is ceaselessly showing us His mercy and goodness.
As a conclusion, let us appropriate the words of the Hymn of Vespers during Christmastide: Thus testifies the present day… that Thou, salvation’s source alone, proceedest from Thy Father’s throne. Heavens, earth, and sea, and all that their wide realms contain, praise Him as the Author of Thy advent, and joyfully sing. And we, who by Thy precious Blood have been redeemed from sin, sing a new song on this day that saw Thy birth.
Praise and glory be to Thee, O Lord, born from the Virgin, and to the Father and the Holy Ghost forevermore. Amen.