Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Mass in the Holy Night
Is. 9:1-6; Ps. 96:1-3, 11-13; Ti. 2:11-14; Lk. 2:1-14
Rejoice, heavenly people! And you on earth, echo their joy! The battle is joined: Emmanu-el, “God With Us,” is born in the flesh! The final contest between good and evil is joined!
Our Gospel reading this morning is from the erudite account in Luke, written by a literate, educated man for a literate, educated, thoroughly cosmopolitan, and skeptical Gentile audience. Luke’s gospel is infused throughout with the ancient arts of rhetoric, grammar, and philosophy. Luke himself was deeply imbued with Platonic concepts of the relationship between the supernatural and the earthly planes, between what was above, and what was below. We see this most clearly in contrast with the account of Our Lord’s birth in the Gospel of Matthew, which was written by a Jewish evangelist for a Jewish audience.
Matthew essentially disregards the event that we commemorate tonight/this morning; reporting only the fact of the child’s birth as a terminal point before which Joseph refrained from marital relations with his wife (Mt. 1:25), before segueing into the appearance of the Magi “when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea.” (Mt. 2:1). Luke, on the other hand, treats the Nativity as an event in and of itself – as, indeed, it is – and casts it in Platonic terms. We all know the story, if only from watching “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on TV every year. Linus’s soliloquy, as he attempts to explain the Nativity to Charlie Brown, is Luke’s account:
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flocks.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to them on whom his favor rests.’” (Lk. 2:8-14)
Dear brothers and sisters, the appearance of the multitude of the heavenly host is nothing less than the unrestrained, jubilant exultation of Heaven at the birth of Heaven’s champion, transcending the Platonic barrier between the higher and the earthly planes. We know, from the Old Testament prophetic accounts of Isaiah and Daniel – to name only two – that the heavenly host praise God unceasingly. That’s Heaven; this is earth, and – according to Plato – ne’er the twain shall meet. Yet in this moment, when God is not merely incarnate – as He has been since the Annunciation, nine months ago – but born in the flesh, completing and perfecting the entry of Heaven’s champion into the arena of combat with Evil, “all Heaven breaks loose,” so to speak, in celebration so cacophonous, so raucous, that it transcends the Platonic barrier between Heaven and earth, and is manifest even to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks.
One could argue that the Platonic barrier is a result of, and a sign of, the alienation of Creation from its Creator in the Fall of Man. Before the Fall, there was no barrier between Heaven and earth; Adam and Eve existed in the same state as the heavenly host. With their eyes of vision, they beheld the beatific vision; the Garden of Eden was, literally, Heaven on earth. After the Fall, the fact of the barrier between Heaven and earth constitutes the brokenness of Creation. These arguments, I think, find firm support in a close reading of both creation narratives in Genesis 1 and 2. If these arguments hold, then the heavenly rejoicing at the Nativity of the Lord becomes, from a Platonic standpoint, what orthodox Christian theology asserts that it is: a new Creation, a return to the “status quo ante” when Heaven and Earth were in harmony.
If we see the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as a bridge, or a linkage, between Heaven and Earth – God reigns on His Throne in Heaven; God walks the earth in human form – then we must see, in the Garden of Eden before the Fall, the same linkage between the supernatural realm of God, who is “pure Spirit” (cf. Baltimore Catechism of 1891, Lesson Second, A.13 “God is a spirit infinitely perfect,” and A.16b “[God] is a pure spirit …”) and the earthly plane of material existence. Where the first Creation was marred by original sin, the Nativity of God Incarnate at least sets the stage for a new, better Creation, one in which the final, decisive victory over sin and death will be won.
Thus, the Nativity is, at the same time, both the completion of a process within salvation history, and also the beginning of the next stage of the God-initiated and God-mediated process of redemption of the world. The Nativity is not our salvation – salvation is not completed, it is not perfected, by the Nativity. The humility of the manger at Christmas will have to be succeeded by the scandal of the Cross on Good Friday, and the triumph of the grave on Easter Sunday. The Nativity of the Lord is pointless without His Death; His Death would have been impossible without His Nativity. But, by Our Lord’s being born in the flesh, the battle between good and evil is joined. The competitors are “in the ring,” so to speak. The host of Heaven exults, and earth “echo[es] their joyous strains.”
For me, the most lump-in-the-throat-inducing of all Christmas hymns is “O Holy Night,” the second part of the first stanza of which sets the scene of the Nativity in cosmic terms, situated within the sweep of salvation history: “Long lay the world/ In sin and error pining,/ ’Til He appeared,/ And the soul felt its worth./ A thrill of hope,/ The weary world rejoices,/ For yonder breaks/ A new and glorious morn!” A thrill of hope, at which the weary world rejoices – we feel that thrill. Our world lies groaning in sin and error, pining for salvation. We understand. We are there. The anticipation of the hymn is our anticipation.