The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Midnight Mass



The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ – Midnight Mass

First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-6; Response: Psalm 96:1-3, 11-13; Second Reading: Titus 2:11-14; Gospel: Luke 2:1-14

On the Solemnity of the Nativity, let us take a different approach than the usual explanation of the three readings. Instead of taking apart the readings and presenting their situation in life in the history of the Old and New Testaments, a homiletic meditation is in order. We go back to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century in England. Conditions for the working poor were appalling. Among those who suffered most were the children, many of them working long hours in factories. An Englishman with a strong social conscience was aware of this suffering. He himself had been put to work at age 12 in a warehouse. His job was to paste labels on bottles of shoe polish. His father had, at one time, been put into prison because of his inability to pay his debts. Debtor’s prison was a common penalty.

Eventually the hard times had come to an end for the former label-paster. His name was Charles Dickens. In the 1840s, he wrote this note about himself: “Famous, caressed and happy, I often forget in my dreams that I have a dear wife and children, or even that I am a man, as I wander desolately back to that time of my life, the time when I had nothing.” It was thoughts like these that led him to compose a famous literary work: "A Christmas Carol." He wanted to stir up the social conscience of his fellow citizens to help poor struggling families and the handicapped poor. Out of that wonderful Christmas story come the characters familiar to us all: Scrooge, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim. Dicken’s story quickly became a sensation. It may have played a part in the beginnings of legislation to protect children and to treat the working poor with justice and decency.

Many centuries before Charles Dickens, in the first century of Christianity, there was another man with a social conscience. He lived in a world in which there was a deep divide between rich and poor similar to the century of Charles Dickens. We know this man as Luke. Slavery was widespread. It was a man’s world, and the men with rights were property owners, politicians, and upper caste priests. Slaves, women, children and the handicapped were almost entirely without some kind of social security. Luke had become deeply aware of the vast differences between rich and poor. His awareness stemmed from his acquaintance with a new teaching called “The Way;” that is, Christianity. This teaching spoke of the love of God for the poor, the working people, peasant farmers, women, children, slaves and society’s rejects. Those who spread this teaching spoke of Jesus, who was a man and more than a man. They claimed he was the Son of God, that he brought this message of love from God, his Father in heaven. His message was opposed by most of the upper echelons of society. In fact, he was executed by the Romans at the instigation of the upper caste of priests. His enthusiasts claimed that he had risen from the dead, that he commissioned his followers to continue his work. Their proclamation was called “The Good News.”

We know little about Luke’s background. He was a disciple of St. Paul, and he may have been a physician. He was highly educated in Greek classical literature and its style of writing. We can learn a lot about him through the interests he expresses in a book which we call “The Gospel of Luke.” The book was about Jesus, a divine and human being. Such a document had been written before by a man we call Mark. Luke was not satisfied with what he calls Mark’s “attempt.” Mark’s Christian community had other problems with which he had to deal. Luke decided that his emphasis would be on the poor, the helpless, the hopeless.

We can see these emphases in Luke’s Christmas story – a story so different from that of Matthew’s two Christmas stories and John’s very brief Christmas story (in John 1:1-14). Luke is determined to write in such a way that people would be moved to do something about God’s love for the poor, since the only hands God has are our hands. The Christmas story: Jesus, Son of God, son of Mary, legally a son of Joseph, is born into a working-class family. Shortly before the birth of the child, his parents had to take a long trip from Galilee in the north to Bethlehem in the south. This was in obedience to the authority of the Roman occupying power in the whole Mediterranean world. Caesar wanted a census of the empire. Since Joseph’s origin was from the family of King David, who lived 1,000 years earlier, and since David was born in Bethlehem, to Bethlehem they must go. When they arrived, they could find no lodging. They ended up in a stable or cave for sheltering livestock. The child was born and placed in a manger, a feedbox for animals.

Instead of being surrounded by relatives and friends, they were visited by a band of local shepherds who had just experienced a visit from angels. No one thought much of shepherds. They were generally regarded as thieves for grazing their flocks on pastures not their own. So what we have in Luke’s story is a working-class couple with a new baby born in a poor environment, and visited by society’s lowlife. Through this story, Luke appeals to all generations of Christians to recognize, in these conditions, the poor; the homeless; migrants; and helpless human beings in their own current environment. From New Testament times on, the Church has heeded Luke’s message by collecting alms and food to distribute to the poor; by building homes for the working poor; and building hospitals, eldercare homes, orphanages and shelters. From time to time, God raised up Saints to remind us of Luke’s message. Various examples: Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, Frederick Ozanam. Tradition attributes to St. Francis the first Nativity scene in the year 1223. There must have been a stable, the figures of the Holy Family, the traditional ox and ass, (perhaps representing the clergy, though more likely based on Isaiah 1:3), angels, shepherds, sheep (and dogs?). The message of Francis was the same as that of Luke. The Son of God, a helpless baby in the poorest surroundings, invites us to pick up the helpless poor, to care, to shelter, to feed, to love.