It was in the night that these shepherds beheld a most amazing thing. It was seen first by just a few, those assigned to watch, but then they awoke the others from their deep slumber. At first it made them wonder why the night sky should behave thus, why the normal constellations where eclipsed by a new star, why the heavens shimmered, why the earth glowed. As they gathered together around their small fires the heavens were set ablaze and burned with brilliance unknown. Their wonder turned to fear as they sensed the magnitude of that night, as they sensed the world they knew would never be the same.
Why is it that we so often meet the divine with fear? Do we fear what we must leave behind, or fear more where we must go? Do we fear the unfamiliar and find safety in the old, or do we fear more the uncertainty, the doubts that such a future holds? In this angelic proclamation the shepherds heard the echo of that annunciation Luke had spoken of just a few verses earlier. The same fear that Our Lady knew is now magnified in all mankind; the consoling words of Gabriel are now matched by the consolation of angelic choirs.
Fear not! With what ease did the angels speak these words, so hard for the human heart to hear? Fear not! The Word that Mary bore beyond all telling is now the Word borne to all nations, the joyous tidings told to all peoples. The Word is born amid the night, the Word is born among those dwelling in darkness, the Word is born wrapped in swaddling clothes, wrapped in the frail humanity that is ours.
The Midnight Mass of Christmas is rightly called the 'Mass of the Angels', for - as we see - the Word is heralded to the earth below. We see the shepherd's wonder and fear at their greeting; but more, the story spills over into the Mass at Dawn, properly called the 'Shepherd's Mass', for in those readings we see the shepherds respond and go to the place where Christ is found.
But it is here in the readings of the Mass at Midnight that we find the stuff of their story. For here at the edge of time, where one day bids farewell and gives way to the promise of a new day, where heaven meets earth, do we sense the new possibility. It is a possibility that demands of us a journey. It demands of each one of us the leaving behind our places of safety and journeying to Bethlehem, to the manger. It is hardly a place of prestige or power or privilege, but rather we journey to a place of weakness, of lowliness and want.
Who would have ever thought that the simple wooden manger held not the feed of cattle and beasts, but the Paschal Lamb who, on harsher wood, would shed his blood for us. The fear that first found the shepherds gives way to the promise of this child, to believing and proclaiming the good news, the Word made flesh. It is at the Day Mass, in the third of the Christmas Masses, that we come to the 'Mass of the Divine Word'. For what these celebrations tell us is that this day is no ordinary day, this day escapes beyond the limits of day itself. For Christmas will never be a yesterday, something done, nor ever will it be a tomorrow, something yet to happen, but it is today. Today salvation has come, hodie Christus natus est, Christ is born this day.
Isaiah's prophecy is made real. In darkness a light has shone, a child is born, the Son has been given to us. Hear the prophets promise:
Wonder-Counsellor. What is more assuring?
Mighty-God. What is loftier?
Eternal-Father. What is more caring?
Prince-of-Peace. What is more promising?
Rightly Christmas knows no limit, Christmas knows no day, no night. Christmas knows no yesterday, no tomorrow. No! Christmas knows only the boundless love of God that brings salvation to all. Paul wrote to Titus of this unbounded love. 'God's grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race and taught us what we have to do...'. Like the shepherds we must journey, like the Magi we must leave our placid lands and follow the star to distant shores.
For this is the Christmas message: the Salvation promised is ours. The unbounded love of God calls us to himself. We are saved by our surrender to love. We are set free by our freely loving. Again Paul, in the second reading tells us 'He sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.' In words uttered by angels in the slumber of our nights, we, like the shepherds, must trust the promise, must not allow the harsh light of day to rob us of the promise. We must allow the Word of God to be born in us, born in our world, born in our times.
Though we may grow forgetful, this day cannot be forgotten. Though times and seasons pass us by, this day remains unmoved. Though sin and failings dim our vision of God's love, this day rings out in the coldness of human hearts with the warmth and welcome of a love that never fades, never grows cold, never refuses the call to do good. Now salvation has come, hodie Christus natus est, Christ is born this day.