With the exception of Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, there is no better place to celebrate the Lord’s Nativity than in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with the Pope. As you approach Saint Peter’s in darkness, you find this magnificent house of the Lord beautifully illumined. This has caused some to remark that the Eternal City is even more spectacular at night. If this is so externally and visually, is there any way that it could be true internally?
At Midnight Mass all over the world, the words of the prophet Isaiah are proclaimed: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Is 9:1) Ever since the summer solstice in June, we have been losing a little bit of light each day. The sun rises later in the morning and sets earlier in the evening. When we set our clocks back in November, this only became more accelerated. Some of us walk out the door in the morning into darkness and then return home in darkness. Our days are framed by darkness and there’s always more of it in the winter.
Our lives are darkened due to sin. With every lie, with every slander, with every false accusation, our lives are darkened a bit more. When we have rationalized enough, we can no longer distinguish the light of grace from the darkness of our sins. So why is it then that a great many of the sins we commit are sins of the tongue?
Speech is God’s way of drawing us into the folds of His love. In former times, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, God spoke to us in partial and fragmentary ways. (cf. Heb 1:1) Now, in the Incarnation, the Lord has spoken to us through His Son. (cf. Heb 1:2)
The Word became flesh and we saw His glory, the glory of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. (cf. Jn 1:14) This is the way Saint John describes the birth of Christ in his Gospel. No stable, no manger, no shepherds in the field. How do we know then if we are in the presence of something glorious? Well, if you have ever been to Rome, you are alerted to the glorious by fountains, obelisks and the like. It’s glorious that antiquity has been preserved and we can revel in its achievements thousands of years later.
The glory of the Incarnation is revealed to us in the One Who speaks truthfully. Jesus speaks truthfully in His birth. But infants do not emerge from their mothers’ wombs speaking; they usually cry. So we must look elsewhere for Jesus’ word on His birth.
Near the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus stands accused before Pontius Pilate. He is accused of being a king. In His own defense, Jesus says, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (Jn 18:37)
After hearing Jesus’ testimony, Pilate is satisfied. He orders that the inscription JESUS OF NAZARETH KING OF THE JEWS be placed on top of the Cross. (cf. Jn 19:39) What we have is a King Who suffers and dies for the truth. More to the point, what we have is the embodiment of Truth suffering and dying. To the question then what good is truth if it results in suffering and death, we have this wonderful reply from Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor (1993):
[Christ’s] crucified flesh fully reveals the unbreakable bond between
freedom and truth, just as his Resurrection from the dead is the
supreme exaltation of the fruitfulness and saving power of a freedom
lived out in truth. (87)
All this would seem to be leading us away from the Baby and Bethlehem. Not really, I submit.
Among the first things babies are taught is how to speak. At the beginning, the words are badly formed, mispronounced and unintelligible even. After a while, after some practice, the words come more easily. Our speech improves and some of us become glib and clever wordsmiths. In time, some of us become accomplished at a kind of verbal gymnastics. As with our bodies which we can bend and shape in different ways, we do the same with our words. We stretch them, we pull them and we manipulate them in such a way that their common meanings are no longer recognizable.
Jesus was born and came into the world to teach us how to speak. He doesn’t teach us how to talk our way out of trouble; He doesn’t teach us how to “spin” things; He doesn’t teach us how to dodge and equivocate.
Jesus teaches us that when we speak, we should let our Yes mean Yes and our No mean No. (cf. Matt 5:37) This does not rule out speaking prudently or speaking tactfully or speaking diplomatically. It does mean, however, that we call things by their right names.
The power to name was given to Adam before the Fall. (cf. Gn 2:19) After the Fall, Jesus, the New Adam, restores our capacity to name things properly. Those who revel in the Messiah’s birth cannot fall a second time, deluded into accepting the myth that all language does is veil things and never reveals things as they are.
Usually, adults teach babies how to talk. On Christmas, we permit a Baby to teach adults how to talk. He is the Babe of Bethlehem and upon his shoulder dominion rests. (cf. Is 9:5)
There is a weighty responsibility which comes when we open our mouths and speak. We decide if our words are going to reflect the dominion of truth or not. We decide if our words are going to validate the euphemisms in vogue for denying what the natural law and revelation tell us are good for the just ordering of society.
Christmas can never be separated from a Virgin who assented to God’s plan and brought forth for us the Christ Whose birth, life, death and Resurrection open up for us the prospect of eternal life. Christmas holds words and their meanings together so that we might not rip apart language from reality.
After proclaiming that He is the Bread come down from heaven and seeing some of the disciples return to their former way of life and no longer accompany Him, Jesus asks the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” (Jn 6:66-67) Out of his mouth, come these words of Saint Peter, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (Jn 6:68)
Jesus possesses the words of eternal life because He is the Word, the Word made flesh. (cf. Jn 1:14) The Holy Eucharist is for each one of us where darkness is changed into light, where falsehood gives way to truth and where our words go silent before the only Word that matters: The Word through Whom the universe was made, the Savior sent to redeem us.
On this solemn occasion of the Lord’s Nativity, we re-dedicate ourselves to the Holy Eucharist from which the refulgence of God’s glory (cf. Heb 1:3) emanates brilliantly. May we who listen so attentively today to the Lord’s word be ever more mindful of that word’s transformative power, especially its power to make us children of God (cf. Jn 1:12) unto eternity.
Praised be Jesus Christ Whose birth we herald today!
Msgr Robert Batule