The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ
Music: O Magnum Mysterium
O great mystery, and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear Christ the Lord.
by Fr. Raphael Frassinetti, 1900
Gospel. Luke ii. 1-14. At that time: There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that the whole world should be enrolled. This enrolling was first made by Cyrinus the governor of Syria: And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem: because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child. And it came to pass, that when they were there, her 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. And there were in the same country shepherds watching, and keeping the night-watches over their flock. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them, and they feared with a great fear. And the angel said to them: Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people; for this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will.
Who does not rejoice with a holy joy on this great feast, when we celebrate with the Church the appearance of the Son of the eternal Father, our most amiable Redeemer! Behold the expectation of ages has at last made His appearance among us! Come then, all ye Christian nations, to see the new-born Messias, and prostrate yourselves in adoration before Him. Adore Him with Mary, His Virgin Mother; with St. Joseph, His foster-father; with the angels who surround the manger, and sing “Glory to God in the highest.” O mystery of divine love, that a God should descend from heaven and become man for us! St. Francis of Assisi, while giving a discourse on this very subject, was so moved that he could not utter another word, and he and his audience wept floods of tears. My dear young people, I also feel moved on this subject, and would rather give a sermon in tears than in words, when I think that God so loves the world that His eternal Son became a mere infant for us. O what can I do to set your hearts on fire for Him? I confess I am not equal to the task; but with the aid of the Child Jesus, I will relate in a few words the history of His birth, and make some humble and loving comments on it. Who knows but that you will be touched by the great condescension of our good Lord, and may offer Him a few tears of gratitude!
Let us go, my dear young friends, to Bethlehem, and ask the shepherds who were so privileged as to hear the first news of the birth of Christ from the angels, what they saw and heard. “Oh joy and gladness!” they will say. “We have seen the new-born King, we have seen the Child, the most beautiful of the world, wrapped in swaddling-clothes; we have heard His childish cries, and falling down in adoration we have kissed His sacred feet with the greatest veneration. O if you could see how beautiful He is! His rosy cheeks, His golden hair, the pearls of tears in His eyes: all more beautiful than an angel of paradise. Above the Child hover angels, His servants, praising Him, singing hymns of glory and announcing peace to men of good will. We have seen Him born and the choirs of angels praising God.” And where is that divine Infant to be found, in a house or in a palace? Oh, He is to be found in a poor stable; He is laid in a manger, wrapped in swaddling-clothes and exposed to the cold air! Two animals, an ox and an ass, keep Him warm with their breath and seem to recognize their Creator. A man with a radiant face, weeping tears of joy, and full of wonder, adores Him. A young mother, in ecstasy, is busied about the little Child’s necessities; she covers Him with what she has about her, to keep away the cold, she kisses His little feet as a recognition that He is her God, and then His face to show that He is her Son. The little Infant holds out His hands toward His Mother, and looks at her with a joyous smile.
Happy shepherds, what were the gifts that you brought to this divine Infant? In our poverty we had but little that we could give; we brought Him fruit, milk, cheese and a young white lamb. If you could have seen that dear Child, with a smile and a grateful look, receive these poor gifts; He appeared to thank us with His cries and to ask us to give Him our hearts with our other gifts. We could hardly tear ourselves away from that dear Child. This is what these poor, simple people would say. But you, my dear young people, what are your thoughts about that holy Child? This poor Child, who is only a few hours old, is the Son of the Most High. Before there was a heaven or an earth, He existed; the home of that Infant is heaven. Though you see Him wrapped in swaddling-clothes, His vesture is a mantle of purest light; though you see Him between two animals, His usual companions are the angels of heaven. This beautiful Child is God; these small members are the strong arms of a God. But if He be God, why is He in such poverty? He is born poor because He wants it so, and to gain our love and confidence. He might have come into the world in a palace, surrounded by servants; but He preferred a manger for His cradle and a little straw for His bed. He wished to begin His infancy in tears. “Oh, truly happy tears,” cries out St. Thomas of Villanova, ” which obtain for us the pardon of our sins; when we were all lost to God, this Child comes to save us.”
But what does this Child of infinite love ask of us in return? He asks gratitude, acknowledgment and love. The shepherds adored Him indeed, but the rest of mankind did not recognize Him. All the inhabitants of Bethlehem turned Him from their doors; “the foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head.” The prophet says, “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel hath not known Me.” Even in our time many Christians do not give Him the honor which is His due; they heap insults on Him, blaspheme His sacred name, and live in enmity with Him, or do not believe in Him.
Yes, my dear good children, you understand now that the Child Jesus, in return for the great love He showed us, should have gained all hearts on this earth. How many sinners are there in the world and how many sins are committed by them still! Does this look as if Christ had conquered our hearts? Perhaps more sins than usual are committed on Christmas day. The feasts of the Church seem to give occasion for sin, such as going to places of amusement that are dangerous to morals. But let me beg of you, my dear young people, no longer to be ungrateful to the Child Jesus. See, this little Child God has already begun to suffer for you; He is doing the penance which you refused to do, and which you should not omit. Do you hear the cry of the Child? He is already making reparation for those wicked conversations in which you sometimes indulge. Go now to the manger in which Our Lord is placed, and take a good look at Him. See in what poverty He is placed all for you, and then give yourself up to God. Will you not give your heart, your affection to Him?
Love this little Jesus with all your heart, with all your mind and with all your soul; no longer give yourself to the devil; be sorry for the past, throw yourself at the feet of Jesus, and make an entire offering of yourself to Him, saying, “Here we are, dear Infant Jesus, at your feet, with our gifts in our hands, the gift of our hearts; but such miserable hearts, that the gift is unworthy of Thee. But, dear Infant, Thou art omnipotent; Thou canst, if we co-operate with Thy grace, make them pure, holy, and acceptable in Thy sight. Thou canst fill them with virtues and then they will be fit gifts for a God that is in search of souls. We volunteer to give our own souls first, and then we will go forth and gather many others. We now leave our hearts at Thy feet; do not despise them. Thou didst not despise the poor gifts of the shepherds; then take also this gift of our hearts, keep them and make their entrance into heaven sure.” (5)
(by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876)
“When shall I come and appear before the face of God?”–Psalms xli, 3.
Five thousand one hundred and ninety nine years after the creation; 2957 years after the flood; 2015 years after the birth of Abraham; 1510 years after the departure of Moses and the children of Israel from Egypt; 1032 years after the anointing of King David; in the 65th week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; 752 years after the building of Rome; in the 42d year of the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when peace prevailed over the whole earth, and in the 6th age of the world, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God, the Son of the Eternal Father,” to bless the world by His coming, was conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months later, was born at Bethlehem, of the Virgin Mary. Hence, today is the human birth of our Lord and Saviour.
In these words the holy Church announces, in the Roman Martyrology, today’s great and glorious festival, the birth of our Saviour. The entire account of this festival cannot be given better than it is related in the Gospel of St. Luke, wherein we read as follows: Octavius Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had given peace to the whole empire by conquering his enemies. Nowhere was war heard of, and peace reigned over all the world. The emperor, desiring to know the strength of his empire, and the number of his subjects, profited by this calm, and gave command to his officers to register the names of all the inhabitants of his dominions. Cyrinus was charged with the census of Syria and Judea. In order that this registering might be correctly made, the command was issued that everyone should be enrolled in the city from which his family came. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, and St. Joseph resided at Nazareth, a small town in Galilee; but as both were descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem, a small hamlet or town in the tribe of Judah, five miles from Jerusalem, they went thither. There they found all the houses so filled with strangers, who had come for the same purpose, that although St. Joseph took all pains to find a lodging for his holy spouse, he could not succeed. As the night approached, nothing was left for them but to repair to a cave in a rock, outside of Bethlehem. Both submitted to divine Providence, humbly worshipping the judgment of heaven, as they recognized that the only begotten Son of God, who became flesh to teach us humility and poverty, had Himself chosen this lowly and miserable stable as His birthplace.
Mary, the Virgin Mother, knew the hour of His birth, and remained deeply absorbed in contemplation of the great mystery which was soon to be fulfilled. At midnight she brought forth, without pain and without detriment to her virginity, Him whom she had conceived of the Holy Ghost, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Heavenly Father, the Saviour of the world. Seeing the Divine Child, she was filled with heavenly joy, and, sinking on her knees, she worshipped Him with deep humility and reverence, while her heart burned with motherly love. To God alone is known the greatness of the devotion and love which the Virgin Mother felt at that most holy moment. She took the Child into her arms, kissed it, and pressed it to her happy heart, wrapped it in poor swaddling-clothes, and, as no better place could be found, laid it in a manger. At that time, an ox and an ass were in the stable, and with their breath warmed the Divine Child trembling with cold. Mary and Joseph, prostrating themselves before the new-born Saviour, worshipped Him most devoutly. The Angels united their adoration with that of Joseph and Mary. They had already adored Him at the first moment of His Incarnation; but St. Paul assures us that they were commanded by the Almighty to adore him again at the time of His birth.
While Mary and Joseph were kneeling before the Child, their souls enraptured with love and awe, the Heavenly Father announced the long-desired birth of the Redeemer of mankind to the heathens and the Jews; to the former, by a star; to the latter, by an Angel. During that night shepherds were watching their flocks in the field, when suddenly an angel, surrounded with wonderful brightness, appeared to them. The men, seized with fear at this apparition, knew not what to say or think. The Angel addressing them, said: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of exceeding great joy, that shall be to all people. For this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.” Hardly had the Angel said this, when a multitude of heavenly Spirits appeared, praising God and saying: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to men of good will.” The pious shepherds heard with astonishment the singing of the Angels, and, after they had seen them return to heaven, they said to one another: “Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us.”
They went hastily to Bethlehem, and found, in the stable, all that the Angel had told them: a lovely new-born Child, wrapped in poor swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger, and the Virgin Mother and St. Joseph kneeling beside it. Knowing from the words of the Angel and still more from a divine light, that this beautiful Child in the manger was the long-desired Saviour of mankind, it is not to be doubted that they worshipped Him with great reverence, and giving due thanks for the grace done to them, offered some gifts according to their station. After this they returned to their flocks, and praising the Lord, they related to others what they had heard and seen. So much is known to us from the Gospel of St. Luke concerning the Nativity of Our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
The further considerations, to which we are led by this birth, are so manifold and so great that whole books filled with them, would not suffice to contain them all. Above all, we should consider the fact, that the only begotten Son of God saw the light of the world in so lowly a place, in the depth of winter and in the silence of the night. No doubt He could have celebrated His visible arrival in this world with grandeur and magnificence in the most noble palace in Jerusalem. But He did not, and why? St. Bernard writes: “Can we then believe that it was by chance that He was born in darkness and in the cold of winter, He who is Lord over winter and summer, day and night? Other children cannot choose the time of their birth, as they have neither reason nor liberty; but Christ, though man, was, as the Son of God, in the beginning with God, and was then the same wise and mighty God He is now. He, as the only begotten Son of God, who could choose for His birth whatever time He preferred, chose what was most painful and hard for a little child, especially the child of a poor mother, who hardly possessed a few swaddling-clothes to wrap it in.” He chose in everything what was most trying to human nature. And for what reason did He do this? The Holy Fathers give the following answers:
First, to show, in the most exquisite manner, His infinite love for us, and to move us to love Him in return. Had Christ been born at another time, in a palace, surrounded by luxuries, He would still have shown great love for us; but it could not have been compared with the love He manifested when born in such a night, in such abject poverty and in so lowly a place. Had He been born rich, we should have great cause to love Him; but how much more reason have we now to love Him, when we consider the manner, so full of love to us, in which He deigned to come into the world. Yes, our beloved Saviour, in the poverty of His birth, evinced His great love, and wishes to gain our entire heart. “He who desired to be beloved by us,” says St. Peter Chrysologus, “would be born in this and in no other manner.”
Secondly, Christ, our Lord, wished to show us, at His birth, the path that leads to heaven, and to teach by his example what later He would teach by words. “He announces in works, what He afterwards teaches with words,” says St. Bernard. Yes, not only He, but the stable, the manger, the swaddling-clothes speak to us, and point to the way we must walk, if we wish to derive benefit from the birth, the passion and death of our Saviour. The immoderate desire of the riches, honors and pleasures of this world, or, as St. John says, “the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life,” are the principal sources of all vice, and the principal causes why so many men forfeit heaven and are cast into the depth of hell. The new-born Saviour teaches us, by his abject poverty, the deepest humility, and by voluntarily bearing so many discomforts of place and time, how we may overcome the three concupiscences, destroy the source of three most hurtful vices, and if we are solicitous about our salvation, to despise all that is temporal, or at least not to fasten our heart on it, but to live in due humility, and, by constant mortification, preserve our purity according to our station. The Saviour teaches all this by His example. Hence, the Holy Fathers called the manger, the pulpit of the Divine Child. We are all obliged to listen to this Teacher, who came down from heaven, and to live according to His precepts. The Heavenly Father says the same words now to us, which He proclaimed from heaven when our Saviour was baptized: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him!”
From these reasons why Christ was born in a stable, at so rough a time of the year, and in such humility, follows a twofold lesson for us, which I will add in the words of St. Bernard. The first is: “Let us love the Child in the manger,” because the new-born Saviour has so loved us, and desires that we should love Him in return. Let us love Him, but with our whole heart, and in works, not only with the tongue and in words, as He has loved us, not only in words, but in deeds. The second is: “Let us endeavor to resemble this Child in poverty, in humility and in despising temporal pleasures.” For here we see the truth of the words which, later in life, Christ spoke to His disciples, when He placed a little child in the midst of them: “If you do not become as this little child, you cannot enter heaven.” It is this we should especially consider, in regard to the nativity of Christ, on to-day’s festival. Besides, it should be remembered, that this is one of the oldest and most sacred feasts in the whole year, and was instituted by the Apostles themselves. The manger in which the Saviour was laid, and the stable in which He was born, have always been kept in great honor. The wickedness of the heathens erected, on the spot, a temple dedicated to Adonis, that the Christians might be prevented from visiting the holy place; but in the course of time, a magnificent Christian church was built in its stead. Many convents were established at Bethlehem, in one of which St. Jerome spent many years.
Later, the manger, sanctified by Christ, was taken to Rome into the Church of St. Mary Major, where it is still honored at this day. In the holy Chapel, at Paris, are preserved the swaddling-clothes in which the Divine Child was wrapped, and which St. Louis received as a gift from the Emperor Baldwin II. (9)
Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger
History of the Forty Days of Christmas
We apply the name of Christmas to the 40 days which begin with the Nativity of Our Lord, December 25, and end with the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, February 2. It is a period which forms a distinct portion of the Liturgical Year; as distinct, by its own special spirit, from every other, as are Advent, Lent, Easter or Pentecost. One same Mystery is celebrated and kept in view the whole 40 days. Neither the Feasts of the Saints, which so abound during this Season; nor the time of Septuagesima, with its mournful Purple, which often begins before Christmastide is over, seem able to distract our Holy Mother the Church from the immense joy of which She received the glad tidings from the Angels (Luke 2:10) on that glorious Night for which the world had been longing 4000 years. The custom of celebrating the Solemnity of Our Savior’s Nativity by a Feast or commemoration of 40 days’ duration is founded on the Holy Gospel itself; for it tells us that the Blessed Virgin Mary, after spending 40 days in the contemplation of the Divine Fruit of Her glorious Maternity, went to the Temple, there to fulfill, in most perfect humility, the ceremonies which the Law demanded of the daughters of Israel, when they became mothers.
The Feast of Mary’s Purification is, therefore, part of that of Jesus’ Birth; and the custom of keeping this holy and glorious period of 40 days as one continued Festival has every appearance of being a very ancient one, at least in the Roman Church. And firstly, with regard to Our Savior’s Birth on December 25, we have St. John Chrysostom telling us, in his Homily for this Feast, that the Western Churches had, from the very commencement of Christianity, kept it on this day. He is not satisfied with merely mentioning the tradition; he undertakes to show that it is well founded, inasmuch as the Church of Rome had every means of knowing the true day of Our Savior’s Birth; since the acts of the Enrollment, taken in Judea by command of Augustus, were kept in the public archives of Rome. The holy Doctor adduces a second argument, which he founds on the Gospel of St. Luke, and he reasons thus: we know from the sacred Scriptures that it must have been in the fast of the seventh month (Lev. 23, 24 et seq.) that the Priest Zachary had the vision in the Temple; after which Elizabeth, his wife, conceived St. John the Baptist (the ‘seventh month’ corresponded to the end of our September and beginning of our October). Hence it follows that the Blessed Virgin Mary having, as the Evangelist St. Luke relates, received the Archangel Gabriel’s visit, and conceived the Savior of the world in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, that is to say, in March, the Birth of Jesus must have taken place in the month of December.
But it was not till the fourth century that the Churches of the East began to keep the Feast of Our Savior’s Birth in the month of December. Up to that period they had kept it at one time on the 6th of January, thus uniting it, under the generic term of Epiphany, with the Manifestation of Our Savior to the Magi, and in them to the Gentiles; at another time, as Clement of Alexandria tells us, they kept it on the 25th of the month Pachon (May 15), or on the 25th of the month Pharmuth (April 20). St. John Chrysostom, in the Homily we have just cited, which he gave in 386, tells us that the Roman custom of celebrating the Birth of Our Savior on December 25 had then only been observed ten years in the Church of Antioch. It is probable that this change had been introduced in obedience to the wishes of the Apostolic See, wishes which received additional weight by the edict of the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinian, which appeared towards the close of the fourth century, and decreed that the Nativity and Epiphany of Our Lord should be made two distinct Festivals. The only Church that has maintained the custom of celebrating the two mysteries on January 6 is that of Armenia; owing, no doubt, to the circumstance of that country not being under the authority of the Emperors; as also because it was withdrawn at an early period from the influence of Rome by schism and heresy.
The Feast of Our Lady’s Purification, with which the 40 days of Christmas close, is in the Latin Church of very great antiquity; so ancient, indeed, as to preclude the possibility of our fixing the date of its institution. According to the unanimous opinion of Liturgists, it is the most ancient of all the Feasts of the Holy Mother of God; and as Her Purification is related in the Gospel itself, they rightly infer that its anniversary was solemnized at the very commencement of Christianity. Of course, this is only to be understood of the Roman Church; for as regards the Oriental Church, we find that this Feast was not definitely fixed to February 2 until the reign of the Emperor Justinian, in the sixth century. It is true that the Eastern Churches had previously to that time a sort of commemoration of this Mystery, but it was far from being a universal custom, and it was kept a few days after the Feast of Our Lord’s Nativity, and not on the day itself of Mary’s going up to the Temple.
But what is the characteristic of Christmas in the Latin Liturgy? It is twofold: it is joy, which the whole Church feels at the coming of the divine Word in the Flesh; and it is admiration of that glorious Virgin, Who was made the True Mother of God. There is scarcely a prayer, or a rite, in the Liturgy of this glad Season, which does not imply these two grand Mysteries: an Infant-God, and a Virgin-Mother. For example, the magnificent Anthem, Alma Redemptoris, composed by the Monk Herman Contractus, continues up to the very day of the Purification to be the termination of the Divine Office. It is by such manifestations of Her love and veneration that the Church, honoring the Son in the Mother, testifies Her holy joy during this season of the Liturgical Year, which we call Christmas.
Our readers are aware that, when Easter Sunday falls at its latest—that is, in April—the Ecclesiastical Calendar counts as many as six Sundays after the Epiphany. Christmastide (that is, the 40 days between Christmas day and the Purification) includes sometimes four out of these six Sundays; frequently only two; and sometimes only one, as in the case when Easter comes so early as to necessitate keeping Septuagesima, and even Sexagesima Sunday, in January. Still, nothing is changed, as we have already said, in the ritual observance of this joyous season, excepting only that on those two Sundays, the fore-runners of Lent, the vestments are violet, and the Gloria is omitted.
Although our Holy Mother the Church honors with special devotion the Mystery of the Divine Infancy during the whole season of Christmas; yet She is obliged to introduce into the Liturgy of this same season passages from the holy Gospels which seem premature, inasmuch as they relate to the active life of Jesus. This is owing to there being less than six months allotted by the Calendar for the celebration of the entire work of our Redemption: in other words, Christmas and Easter are so near each other, even when Easter is as late as it can be, that Mysteries must of necessity be crowded into the interval; and this entails anticipation. And yet the Liturgy never loses sight of the Divine Babe and His incomparable Mother, and never tires in Their praises, during the whole period from the Nativity to the day when Mary comes to the Temple to present Her Jesus.
The Greek Church too makes frequent commemorations of the Maternity of Mary in the Offices of this Season: but they have a special veneration for the twelve days between Christmas Day and the Epiphany, which in their Liturgy are called Dodecameron. During this time they observe no days of abstinence from meat; and the Emperors of the East had, out of respect for the great Mystery, decreed that no servile work should be done, and that the courts of law should be closed, until after January 6. (11)
Image: This beautiful Missal made from parchment originates from East Anglia. It is considered a very important manuscript as it is one of the earliest examples of a Missal of an English source. Sarum Missals were books produced by the Church during the Middle Ages for celebrating Mass throughout the year (16)
Research by REGINA Staff