I have been tasked to help you prepare your full, conscious and active participation at Holy Masses on Sundays. This year I am giving primary attention to the first reading in the Vetus Ordo, usually from one of the Letters, or Epistles, in the New Testament. This Sunday presents a happy problem. This year, Christmas falls on Sunday, which means that there are not just one set of Mass texts but three different sets, one each for the three Masses of Christmas, the first Mass in nocte (at night, the famous “Midnight Mass”), the second in aurora (at dawn), and third in die Nativitatis Domini (during the day of the Lord’s Birth). How to choose? My ramblings are already far too long. Tackling all three Epistles this week would have you reading until Epiphany. Hence, my choice. This week we will look at the brief yet rich Epistle reading for the famous Midnight Mass. In most places where the Vetus Ordo is celebrated, it will begin at Midnight.
As always, context helps. Firstly, the Roman Station for the Missa in nocte is St. Mary Major “ad praesepe… at the crib”, for this is where wood from the crib manger of Bethlehem, brought to Rome by the Empress Helena, is preserved beneath the Basilica’s main altar. In the ancient Church of Rome, this was a season of feasts of “manifestations” of the Lord, “epiphanies”. Even in our time, after the first appearance in His Birth, we also have celebrations of revelations of Christ’s divinity in the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord when the Father’s voice is heard, and recollection of the Wedding at Cana when Christ showed his divinity by changing water into wine.
Also, we have just emerged from the joyfully penitential preparatory season of Advent with its two-fold focus on the First Coming and on the Second Coming, the Parousia. Lingering in the ancient St. Mary Major for a moment, we might imagine that we hear this reading from Titus being sung, as it was, in Greek. The word for “appearance” is epipháne.
In very ancient times this first Mass of Christmas was titled “in primo galli cantu … at the first cock crow”. In the Vetus Ordo this first Mass is not to begin before the clock strikes Midnight. In its overall tone and tenor, in the silence of the night at the darkest time of the northern year, it is an extended veneration of the mystery of the Son’s generation by the Father in the unfathomable depths of eternity. Darkness is like a metaphor for a mystery that is veiled. Coming into our churches for this Mass, something of that mystery’s veil is lifted just as something of the mystery of the Eternal Son is unveiled in His Birth into the light of this world. The invisible image of the invisible Father was from that point on and forever more the visible image of the invisible Father. The famous Introit chant Dominus dixit a me (The Lord said to me) … rings with this theme of eternal generation: “Thou art my Son, this day (that is, from eternity) I have begotten thee”. The second Mass of Christmas underscores the Son born in time, rather than eternity. The third Mass might be understood as the Son’s, Christ’s birth into our hearts.
Let us not lose what we have gained in our thoughts about all the ways the Lord comes to us, as in the words of Scripture, the poor, the priest, the consecration during Mass, Holy Communion, and – especially – the Second Coming just because we now move from spareness and somber violet into the bright lights, flowers, and white of Yuletide.
The Letter to Titus, with 1 and 2 Timothy, is one of the “Pastoral Epistles” which chiefly concern church discipline. The recipients – let’s call them bishops – are to make good appointments of elders (let’s call them priests), preach sound doctrine, deal with heresy, and live virtuous lives. Paul wrote it to an individual rather than a community. Paul mentions Titus in Galatians 2 when he said he went to Jerusalem with Titus and Barnabas. Titus later went to Corinth with Paul and Crete. Eventually he evangelized in Dalmatia, which is modern day Croatia.
Two interesting tidbits about Titus. Paul warned Titus (1:12-14) about the people of Crete using the so-called Paradox of Epimenides (as you know, that 7th century BC Cretan philosopher) who said that “all Cretans are liars”, which leads to a logical loop. Moreover, St. Titus head is venerated in Venice in the Basilica of San Marco.
The Epistle for Midnight Mass is from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus 2:11-15. It is short. The Novus Ordo retains it for the First Mass of Christmas, though it omits v. 15. Here it is in the Revised Standard Version:
Brethren: 11 [T]he grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, 12 training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, 13 awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. 15 Declare these things; exhort and reprove [EXCLUDED: with all authority. Let no one disregard you.].
Even as I reminded you not to forget about our gleanings from our Advent preparation and the foci of the two different comings or parousias of the Lord, we note in what Paul wrote to Titus the same connection between the First Coming and the Second: “the grace of God has appeared… the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”.
When John wrote in the Prologue of his Gospel, which is in the Last Gospel of virtually every Vetus Ordo Mass, “we have seen His glory”, he means the Passion and death of the Lord on His saving Cross. Paul, rather, is talking about the return of the Lord in glory. Also, contrasting John’s way of putting things with Paul’s, again in the Last Gospel we hear “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us”. Paul wrote to Titus that “the grace of God has appeared”. The act of going into flesh is “incarnation” (in + caro “flesh”, genitive carnis). Paul refers to the God (theos) as “grace” (cháris) that “has appeared” and that “brings salvation”. So “grace” was made sensible, visible. Charis in Greek means “grace”, but it is also “a benefit, a gift”. Charis is something given that affords joy (chaíro, “to be happy”). This gift, bringing joyful benefit, then manifests in gratitude, thanksgiving (perhaps even eucharistía). In Latin, charis is rendered as gratia, “favor, thankfulness, without recompence, gratuitous”, whence English “grace”, a gift from God with a view of eternal life. For Paul, Christ is saving grace made manifest for our salvation, who appeared at a point in time and who will return in glory.
Christ’s return in glory. Note that phrase, “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ”. This could sound like two distinct persons, God (the Father) and the Savior (Jesus). However, in Greek we have both “great God” and “Savior” with just one definite article. Hence, both terms refer to the one same person, Jesus Christ who both God and Savior.
In view of grace, joy, and gratitude made manifest we have moral imperatives, that is an imperative to live moral lives. We manifest the grateful joy we have received by living proper lives. Thus, Paul writes to Titus that grace instructs us (paideúo) about irreligion and worldly passions (Latin impietas et saecularia desideria – “ungodliness and worldly lusts” (DR)).
The final verse drives this home to Titus: “Thus speak, and exhort, in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In the Latin, and in the English version which you will probably have in your missal or handout, which surely will be read from the pulpit, that is how the Epistle reading ends. However, you saw, above, that the last verse was cut short. I find that last bit, the excised part, both compelling and convicting. “Let no one disregard you.”
This might be my gift to you to unwrap in the midst of our Christmas celebration. There is, in that tiny phrase, a point for an examination of conscience. In my own words and deeds, in which I manifest who I am before the eyes of the world, have I done anything outwardly that would cause anyone to disregard the good news of our Savior God? Who might have otherwise been attracted and led to conversion except that I caused them to turn aside? Is there something I am doing regularly – or not doing that I should – which is a motive for others to turn away from the gift of salvation? How can I better manifest the gift that has been given freely to me so that I “let no one disregard” me? Proper conduct and outward joy are more compelling than shouting, being negative, jumping up and down. I ask these things of myself in view, especially, of “the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” which comes to me in various ways each day, principally in Holy Mass, but is inevitably going to come in my own encounter with the Lord.
Lastly, I thank all of you for your patience and I pray for you and yours many graces and a happy Christmastide.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz