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Light from Light: the Eternal Word Made Speechless Flesh

These are busy days so let’s plunge right in. Here are a few fast points to enrich your participation at Holy Mass for Christmas and for the Sunday in the Christmas Octave, back to back this year, in the Vetus Ordo, the Traditional Roman Mass, the Mass of our forebears which gave shape to all that we have as Catholics today.

Let’s have context: the lingering, last traces of Advent and the beginning of the next part of the liturgical cycle, the season of Christmas. We have at last arrived at Bethlehem, the turning point of Advent into Christmas.

A few days ago, on 21 December in the traditional Roman calendar, along with St. Thomas the Apostle, Holy Church celebrated the Feast of St. Micah, Old Testament Prophet. Many of the Old Testament figures are venerated as saints by the Church, though they appear only in the less common liturgical book the Roman Martyrology. In the Book of Micah 5:2 we find the prophecy of the place of the Lord’s birth: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

The other place in the history of salvation where Ephrath plays a part is in Genesis concerning Rachel, the second wife of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham. Jacob’s name was changed by God to Israel. When God changes someone’s name, something important is going on. Jacob/Israel was the father of twelve sons who in turn were the fathers of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Rachel, like other matriarchs Sarah (Abraham’s wife) and Rebecca (Isaac’s wife), was at first barren, which in retrospect marked her for God’s favor. In time she bore Joseph, Jacob’s favorite, who was eventually sold to slavers by his brothers and was taken to Egypt. When Jacob decided to return with his family from Mesopotamia to Canaan Rachel died (Genesis 25) giving birth during the journey to the last of the Jacob’s twelve sons, Benjamin. She was buried in Judah at Ephrath, the ancient name of Bethlehem. This is where David was from, the Lord Himself being of the line of David. The Tomb of Rachel is extant and many people visit it. The prophet Jeremiah 31:15 foretold: “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are not.” This is perhaps a reference to the fact that her twelve “sons,” in her capacity as wife of Israel, were scattered by the Babylonians. However, it also would refer to the slaughter by Herod the Great of the Holy Innocents – celebrated on 28 December, during the Christmas Octave – when he was trying to eliminate his perceived rival, the newborn Christ. As a result, Rachel is a kind of intercessory figure foreshadowing Mary, a new Rachel, mother of the tribes regathered in the Lord for their exodus toward the New Jerusalem. In the fullness of time, Mary came to Bethlehem Ephratha, to Rachel, who also had been travelling while in labor.

Penitential Advent now gently explodes into joy. It’s a little different from Easter’s explosion, from perfect dark stillness to a spark and fire that rushes through the Church. Christmas has three Masses, with different formularies: the first being in the night, therefore Midnight Mass, the second at dawn and the third in the full light of day. In the three Christmas Masses we find a progression, a theological explosion of joy; building, but gently.

The three Christmas Masses have Roman Stations assigned, probably in imitation of the practice in the Holy Land. People went to Bethlehem to honor the Lord’s birth with Mass in the night, and then back to Jerusalem by dawn for Mass at the church of the Resurrection, and then again during the day for a third Mass at Jerusalem’s principal church. In Rome, and in our Roman hearts, we are at Rome’s “Bethlehem,” St. Mary Major, where pieces of the Christ’s manger are venerated. At dawn we are in spirit at St. Anastasia, which comes from Greek for “resurrection.”  St. Peter’s Basilica welcomes us for Mass in the day, no matter where in the world we may be.

At Midnight there is a final lingering of Advent anticipation in the Mass (Dominus dixit) with the Gospel about the road to Bethlehem, followed by the concise bullet points of the Lord’s birth and the angels with the shepherds. As terse as the account is, however, in the stillness of the dark we are quiet with Joseph and Mary for their first face to face encounter with Light from Light, the Eternal Word made speechless flesh.

At dawn in the Mass formulary (Lux fulgebit) there is a dawning of realization as Light expands into the world. The Gospel for “the Mass of the Shepherds” at dawn brings the shepherds to the manger, where they begin to grasp what the angels had announced. These were, by the way, not just a bunch of pastoral clodhoppers. These shepherds, in the country at “Bread House,” Bethlehem, were of the priestly cast. These were the shepherds who tended the lambs offered in sacrifice at the Temple for Passover. This is where the Lamb of God was born, and the shepherds came to tend also Him, if only briefly. “And when they had seen, they understood” what the angels and what Mary and Joseph told them. And, as at the Annunciation, and at the Circumcision, Mary pondered these things in her heart, in view of the wood of the crib which foretold the wood of the Cross.

In the day, Holy Mass gives us the Prologue of the Gospel of John, which speaks of the Light of the world coming into the world for the whole of the world, including the gentiles, pagans. At first, we had the Holy Family by themselves. The were expanded by angels with the shepherds. Now the entire world is the focus, and the divine plan from all eternity before the creation of the cosmos, again in view of the Cross. The phrase used by John, “we have seen his glory” is shorthand for saying that he was eyewitness to Jesus’ death on the Cross. Christ will reign. Even in the first chant of the Mass, Puer natus from Isaiah 9:6: the government – imperium – shall be upon his shoulder.

Priests have the right to say three Masses on Christmas even without the canonical tolerance of them doing so on other days for pastoral reasons. And because the Gospel of the Mass in the Day is the same as the Last Gospel, the Prologue of John, at the end of the third Mass the priest omits a Last Gospel. Once upon a time, a Last Gospel from Matthew 2 was read, but by the time the 1962 Missale Romanum came out, I guess they figured that, after three Masses with three different formularies, Father could give it a rest.

That said, what a tragic loss it has been for so many priests who do not know or celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass, the Vetus Ordo, not to have had the formative experience of saying the awesome Prologue of John at the end of every Mass, day in and day out, year in and year out, decade in and decade out. No one was clamoring for the Last Gospel to be cut from the Mass. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council mandated that no changes be made unless they were for the good of the Church and that no changes be made that are not in keeping with previous liturgical forms (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 23). How was removal of the Last Gospel for the good of the Church? Both of those mandates were severely violated in what was eventually produced in the name of the Council.

When there is a wound, steps must be taken to heal it. What happened after the Council produced a wound, a wound in the Church’s very heart, her sacred liturgical worship. A wound in every Catholic, because we are our rites. Benedict XVI took steps to heal the wound. What Benedict did in no way marred the post-Conciliar reforms. He placed the two Rites side-by-side in an irenic way to influence each other through “mutual enrichment.” Benedict wanted to “jump start” the natural, organic, patient development of the Church’s sacred liturgical worship that was wounded and interrupted by the forced imposition of an artificially pasted together Rite. What Benedict did was working. That’s why certain people are attempting to kill it, ironically in the name of the Council whose violated mandates gave us our liturgical heart problems to begin with. What they are doing won’t work. I believe that the wounded liturgical heart of the Church that Benedict defibrillated, converted, will now keep beating with an ever clearer and stronger traditional rhythm, countering the arrhythmia introduced in the 1960s, again being forced today so as to disunify the heart’s chambers even more, and to serve a larger agenda. But I digress.

While the day after Christmas is St. Stephen the Protomartyr’s lovely feast, this year it is Sunday. Christmas has an octave. Holy Church halts the clock and lets it be Christmas for the whole week so that we can contemplate the beautiful mysteries of the Incarnation and Nativity. One day really isn’t enough. During the Octave we have feast of saints. To be brief, as promised, I just mention this for your consideration of St. Stephen and Boxing Day. On the feast of the Protomartyr, we might consider how Christ’s birth into the world, and therefore into our lives, indeed our minds and hearts and all our works, has consequences for our discipleship. Rather, Stephen reminds us of the consequences of discipleship. He is usually depicted surrounded by people who are beating him to death with rocks. Are you ready for the costs of discipleship, especially if the war within the Church against traditional expressions of the Faith continues to heat up? We all need to get our heads into mental places wherein we can imagine even dire consequences. There will be some before things get better. It has ever been so.

Holy Mass on the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas (Dum medium) brings us swiftly, extremely swiftly this year, from the very reason for the wooden crib: the wooden Cross. The Introit sings of the glory of the Lord that John speaks of in the Prologue, the Last Gospel, namely, the glory revealed in the Crucifixion. In the Gospel, we hear the elderly Simeon’s prophecy about Christ “destined for the rise and fall of many” and that a sword would pierce Mary’s heart. We know when that happened. Moreover, the Greek word for sword here is not the usual one, but the unusual rhomphaia, a terrifying, curved Thracian blade on a long handle. The other time it is used is in Revelation 6:8, carried by the rider of the pale horse, Death, and Revelation 19:15, to describe the sword that will smite the nations, coming out of the mouth of the Word of God when He shall “tread the winepress.”  Merry Christmas.

For your full, conscious and active participation at Holy Mass on Sunday, the day after super-charged Christmas, try to keep in mind that the Crib was for the Cross. Christ, as Ven. Fulton Sheen reminds us, had a unique mission.

Every other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. He came into it to die. Death was a stumbling block to Socrates — it interrupted his teaching. But to Christ, death was the goal and fulfillment of His life, the gold that He was seeking. Few of His words or actions are intelligible without reference to His Cross. … The story of every human life begins with birth and ends with death. In the Person of Christ, however, it was His death that was first and His life that was last.

The Scripture describes Him as “the lamb slain as it were, from the beginning of the world.” He was slain in intention by the first sin and rebellion against God. It was not so much that His birth cast a shadow on His Life and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was first, and cast its shadow back to His birth. His has been the only life in the world that was ever lived backward. As the flower in the crannied wall tells the poet of nature, and as the atom is the miniature of the solar system, so too, His birth tells the mystery of the gibbet. He went from the known to the known, from the reason of His coming manifested by His name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Savior’ to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, His death on the Cross.

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