The Christmas Mass Gospels....All Four
NEXT WEEKEND’S GOSPELS:
THE SOLEMNITY OF CHRISTMAS
MASSES BEFORE MIDNIGHT: USCCB link here
MIDNIGHT MASS: link here
DAWN MASS: link here
MASS DURING THE DAY: link here
Before you fly into a panic of confusion about all the directives regarding which Gospel is assigned to your Christmas Mass, whatever time that may be, there are two things to bear in mind. First, the issue of retaining the Roman Missal’s sequence of four different Gospels over the 12-hour period of the Christmas feast remains a debate among liturgical theologians, among others. I have a link here to a fine 2013 journal piece by Thomas O’Loughlin on the nature of the problem, “Which Gospel on Christmas Day?” for those so inclined and who have finished their Christmas shopping.
The second thing to consider is that in deference to the expectations of most of the faithful, and certainly the children, every pastor I have ever known—including this one--has used the Midnight Mass formula for all the Christmas Masses regardless of the hour. This Mass formula includes the powerful narrative of the birth of Jesus in the stable of Bethlehem. My guess is that you would expect to hear this Gospel, too, at any Christmas Mass you attend. But if you attend the 4 PM Vigil on Saturday night this weekend—now becoming the most popular time for Catholics to attend Mass for Christmas in the United States—your missalette has a different Christmas Mass with a different Gospel, notably the first chapter of Matthew including the 42 “begats.” If you trudged in to noon Mass on Christmas Day, your missalette will draw from the first chapter of St. John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Gospel continues with a magnificent hymn on the mystery of the Incarnation, but with no references to specifics of the Christmas event.
St. Mark has the weekend off, so to speak, as events of Jesus’ birth are not essential to the theological heart of his Gospel. In Mark’s text, Jesus appears on page one as an adult with John the Baptist, and Mark is not part of the liturgical discussion.
The reasons we have four different Christmas Masses are complex, but to cut to the chase, there are in the Gospels three distinct theological presentations presented by Matthew, Luke, and John respectively, of the birth of Jesus. Since we are in the A Cycle (St. Matthew) and his infancy text will include the reading of the Feast of the Epiphany on January 8, let’s look at Matthew’s understanding of Christmas. We enjoy a head start, because ironically the Gospel of Christmas Eve is identical to the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Matthew’s Year A, having been read last weekend.
The overarching theme of Matthew’s Gospel is the fulfillment of Israel’s longing for a Savior and the establishment of Jesus’ kingdom in his enduring Church. For centuries, the Gospel of Matthew was known as the “Gospel of the Church.” One of Matthew’s primary concerns, then, is to demonstrate how the New Testament completes the Old Testament. More specifically, Matthew portrays Jesus as the New Moses, coming forth with the final revelation of God’s Law for all time and eternity. The parallel of Moses delivering the Ten Commandments from the heights of Sinai and Jesus delivering the Eight Beatitudes from the mount is no accident; it is a sign of Matthew’s inspired genius.
To accomplish the Spirit’s task, though, Matthew must establish that Jesus is indeed the long awaited one, a true son of Israel, the future light to all the nations as predicted by Isaiah, and of course, worthy of comparison to Moses. All of this he sets out to do in the two “Infancy” chapters at the beginning of his Gospel. Chapter One (the Christmas Vigil reading at Mass) begins with the “begats” which establishes the blood line between Jesus and the father of Israel, Abraham. Of course, the unique divine conception of Jesus in this bloodline demands explanation, and thus Matthew composes vv. 18-25 to explain the intervention of the Spirit and Joseph’s understanding of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy. Matthew gives us no extra detail of the birth except that it occurred, not even where it took place, because such data was not necessary for Matthew’s bigger purposes.
Having established that Jesus is true son of God and son of Abraham, Matthew proceeds to Chapter 2, which begins with the appearance of the star and the wise men in the east. Matthew is setting up the fulfillment of Isaiah 60: 1-6, the first reading of the Feast of the Epiphany, where
Then you shall be radiant at what you see,
your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you.
Caravans of camels shall fill you,
dromedaries from Midian and Ephah;
all from Sheba shall come
bearing gold and frankincense,
and proclaiming the praises of the LORD.
Here is the marriage of Israel with the Gentiles, Jesus the object of worship of the whole world. The wisdom of the Law of Moses meeting the Wise Men of the Gentile world, united in the full wisdom revealed in the preaching of Jesus and ultimately his kingdom on earth.
Complicating the scenario with the wise men is King Herod, and his machinations with “spying” on the future king through the Magi. Herod’s paranoia leads him to a local massacre to kill his “contender,” Jesus. Historically speaking, there is no known record of such a massacre to corroborate Matthew even among historian who hated the king, so we are driven to probe elsewhere to discover Matthew’s intentions here. The better theological explanation is that Matthew is recasting Herod as the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses I, whom many scholars identify as the pharaoh who ordered the massacre of all Hebrew males during Moses’ infancy because Hebrew fertility was proving much greater than Egyptian. Thus, the story line is set for two dramatic rescues in Egypt—Moses, pulled from the Nile by the daughter of the pharaoh, no less; and Jesus, whose “flight into Egypt” to save his life from Herod has been immortalized in the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, not to mention Matthew’s own dramatic account which inspired it.
Thus, Matthew’s Christmas narratives serve an indispensable role in his presentation of the identity and meaning of the Savior Jesus. The Church has done its best, in its liturgical plan, to bring this doctrinal overview before the faithful in the Christmas Cycle of Masses. Human nature being what it is, we tend to gravitate toward St. Luke’s account of the Nativity; there is no disputing that Luke is the better narrator and story teller. When we come around to next Christmas, I will walk through Luke’s theological overview of his Infancy narrative.
I would like to make one final point about the two Christmas narratives in the Gospels. There is a brief but excellent treatment of the Gospel Infancy narratives, An Adult Christ at Christmas, by Father Raymond Brown, a scholar who has had profound impact on my own biblical studies throughout my lifetime. (You can browse the text on-line.) Father Brown treats of these Christmas narratives in a much more comprehensive fashion that incorporates the texts into the full Gospel narratives. I checked this morning, and the book remains a popular seller and can be delivered by Prime before Christmas. It fits in a stocking, too.
Have fun with your missalettes this weekend.
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