The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The Mystery of Christmas

Mural in the Shepherds' Cave

Everything is mystery in this holy Season. The Word of God, Whose generation is before the day star (Ps. 109: 3), is born in time—a Child is God—a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin—things divine are commingled with those that are human—and the sublime, the ineffable antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple, in those words of his Gospel, The Word Was Made Flesh, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church—and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent which unites in one Person the nature of Man and the nature of God.

The splendor of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints; nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see how the Church offers this Mystery to Her children, veiled under the symbolism of Her Liturgy.

The four weeks of our preparation are over—they were the image of the 4,000 years which preceded the great coming—and we have reached the 25th day of the month of December, as a long-desired place of sweetest rest. But why is it that the celebration of Our Savior's Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day, whilst the whole liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed and remodeled, in order to yield to that ever-varying day which is to be the Feast of His Resurrection—Easter Sunday?

The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered, even so far back as the 4th century; and that, too, by St. Augustine, in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: we solemnize the day of Our Savior's Birth, in order that we may honor that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week, on which He was born, is void of any mystical signification. And yet we are not to suppose that there is no mystery expressed by its being always on the 25th of December. For firstly we may observe, with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept by turns on each of the days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse which Adam's sin had put upon them. But secondly, the great mystery of the 25th of December, being the Feast of Our Savior's Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God Himself, which is called the Week; but to the course of that great Luminary which gives life to the world, because it gives it light and warmth. Jesus, Our Savior, the Light of the World, was born when the night of idolatry and crime was at its darkest; and the day of His Birth, the 25th of December, is that on which the material Sun begins to gain his ascendancy over the reign of gloomy night, and show to the world his triumph of brightness.

During Advent we saw that, according to the Holy Fathers, the diminution of the physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament; and, with our Holy Mother the Church, we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that He would deign to come and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and it is just after the Winter Solstice—which the Pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings—that He gives us both the increase of the natural light, and Him Who is the Light of our souls.

"On this Day which the Lord has made," says St. Gregory of Nyssa, "darkness decreases, light increases, and Night is driven back again. No, brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created will that this natural change begins on the day when He shows Himself in the brightness of His coming, which is the spiritual life of the world. It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this circumstance of Our Savior's coming. Nature seems to me to say: Know, O Man, that under the things which I show thee Mysteries lie concealed. Hast thou not seen the night, that had grown so long, suddenly checked? Learn hence, that the black night of Sin, which had reached its height by the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward its duration shall be shortened, until at length there shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his position higher in the heavens: learn from this how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now shedding itself over the whole earth."

"Let us, my Brethren, rejoice," cries out St. Augustine, "this day is sacred, not because of the visible sun, but because of the Birth of Him Who is the invisible Creator of the sun... He chose this day whereon to be born, as He chose the Mother of Whom to be born, and He made both the day and the Mother. The day He chose was that on which the light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of Christ, Who renews our interior man day by day. For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in time, His Birthday would necessarily be in harmony with the rest of His creation."

The same holy Father gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St. John the Baptist, who said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3: 30). These prophetic words signify that the Baptist's mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon His. But they also convey, as St. Augustine assures us, a second meaning: "John came into this world at the season of the year when the length of the day decreases (June 24); Jesus was born in the season when the length of the day increases."

Thus, there is a mystery both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summer solstice; and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.

There have been men who dared to scoff at Christianity as a superstition, because they discovered that the ancient pagans used to keep a feast of the sun on the winter solstice! In their shallow erudition they concluded that a Religion could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs originating in an analogy to certain phenomena of this world; in other words, these writers denied what Revelation asserts, namely, that God only created this world for the sake of Christ and His Church. The very facts which these enemies of our Holy Religion brought forward as objections to the true Faith are, to us Catholics, additional proofs of its being worthy of our most devoted love.

Let us now respectfully study another mystery: that which is involved in the place where this Birth happened. This place is Bethlehem. Out of Bethlehem, says the Prophet, shall He come forth that is to be the Ruler in Israel (Mich. 5: 2). The Jewish Priests are well aware of the prophecy, and will tell it to Herod. But why was this insignificant town chosen in preference to every other to be the birth-place of Jesus? Be attentive, Christians, to the mystery! The name of this City of David signifies the House of Bread: therefore did He, Who is the living Bread come down from Heaven (John 6: 41), choose it for His first visible home. Our Fathers did eat manna in the desert and are dead (John 6: 49); but lo! here is the Savior of the world, come to give life to His creature Man by means of His own divine Flesh, which is meat indeed. Up to this time the Creator and the creature had been separated from each other; henceforth they shall abide together in closest union. The Ark of the Covenant, containing the manna which fed but the body, is now replaced by the Ark of the New Covenant, purer and more incorruptible than the other: the incomparable Virgin Mary, who gives us Jesus, the Bread of Angels, the nourishment which will give us a divine transformation; for this Jesus Himself has said: He that eateth My flesh abideth in Me, and I in him (John 6: 57).

It is for this divine transformation that the world was in expectation for 4000 years, and for which the Church prepared Herself by the four weeks of Advent. It has come at last, and Jesus is about to enter within us, if we will but receive Him (John 1: 12). He asks to be united to each one of us in particular, just as He is united by His Incarnation to the whole human race; and for this end He wishes to become our Bread, our spiritual nourishment. His coming into the souls of men at this mystic season has no other aim than this union. He comes not to judge the world, but that the world may be saved by Him (John 3: 17), and that all may have life, and may have it more abundantly (John 10: 10). This divine Lover of our souls will not be satisfied, therefore, until He has substituted Himself in our place, so that we may live—not we ourselves—but He in us; and in order that this mystery may be effected in a sweeter way, it is under the form of an Infant that this Beautiful Fruit of Bethlehem wishes first to enter into us, there to grow afterwards in wisdom and age and grace before God and men (Luke 2: 40, 52).

And when, having thus visited us by His grace and nourished us in His love, He shall have changed us into Himself, there shall be accomplished in us a still further mystery. Having become one in spirit and heart with Jesus, the Son of the Heavenly Father, we shall also become children of this same God our Father. The Beloved Disciple, speaking of this our dignity, cries out: Behold! what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God! (1 John 3: 7)

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