From the rising of the sun
To the world’s furthest edge,
We sing to Christ our Prince,
Born of the Virgin Mary.
Blessed maker of the ages
Now takes up the body of a slave,
So flesh may unfetter flesh,
That what He made is not lost.
This ancient Latin hymn for Christmas Lauds, A Solis Cardine, refers to the dawn and the course of the sun across the sky. It also connects this idea with the saving of our flesh by the coming of Christ in the flesh. We pass from darkness into light, from despair to hope, because Christ enters the darkling earth as the Light of the World.
In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s Letter to Titus we hear that when the kindness and generous love of God our savior appeared . . . He saved us through the bath of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit (3:4-5). Christ ends the night by coming in the flesh and appearing to us as the kindness and generous love of God. And He gives us eternal life by taking upon Himself our mortal life.
It is fitting that Christ should have been born at night, that most of sinful humanity should have slept through the event, and that those who were awake to see it were practiced in vigilance. The shepherds, about whom we read in today’s gospel, kept watch over their sheep through the night. To stay awake was their job, and the angels in a blaze of blinding light appeared to them as they kept vigil. Then they went to find the Babe in the manger who was the Light of the World, and in the morning glow they amazed the people of Bethlehem with their story of the Child who came in the midst of darkness.
One night changed everything. And so night became the enchantment of colored lights and carols in many tongues, and the daystar became a symbol of the Son of God and the hope of the future.
We celebrate Christmas during the very time of year when the night is longest. G.K. Chesterton remarked on this when he said:
Any one thinking of the Holy Child as born in December would mean by it exactly what we mean by it; that Christ is not merely a summer sun of the prosperous but a winter fire for the unfortunate (The New Jerusalem, Ch. 5).
And this is exactly what we do mean: that when the night is longest and the warmth of a new day least expected, God lights a fire on earth and entirely changes the course and meaning of history. And not only is it unexpected, but it is also sudden like lightning falling from the sky. For this reason, Chesterton called the premature celebration of Christmas “a dangerous and disgusting habit,” a vice that he admitted he was guilty of by publishing an article about Christmas before Christmas. In that article he wrote
It is the very essence of a festival that it breaks upon one brilliantly and abruptly, that at one moment the great day is not and the next moment the great day is.
God comes when the night seems longest, and He comes suddenly, though if we sleep, we may just miss it. This is the way of grace. God will not break a bruised reed or quench a dimly burning wick, rather, Isaiah says He will faithfully bring forth justice (42:3). And as we heard in the first reading today from the same prophet, Zion shall be called Frequented, a city that is not forsaken (62:12). God comes in the night suddenly and we have to be ready. But He is also patient with our sleepiness.
So during the last four weeks of Advent, we have kept our watch, and have been rewarded by having heard the story of new life from Our Lady’s lips. At the beginning of his Gospel St. Luke claims that his account of the wondrous works of Christ had been delivered to him by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word (1:2). His infancy narrative comes to us from Our Lady. There is a beautiful painting by Rogier van der Weyden called “St. Luke Drawing the Virgin,” which shows the evangelist on his knees sketching the nursing infant in the Virgin’s arms. The tradition that ancient icons of the Virgin and Child have their origin in St. Luke is a visual representation of the Marian origin of his infancy narratives.
It is St. Luke who tells us twice in the second chapter of his Gospel, once at the adoration of the shepherds and again of the finding of Jesus in the temple when He was twelve that Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart (2:19; cf., 2:51). Much of what we know about that Holy Night is the fruit of Our Lady’s contemplative life. And Our Lady’s enlightenment is the source of our illumination.
In the Collect for this dawn Mass we prayed to God that, “as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through in our deeds.” The icon of this illumination is the Virgin and Child.
St. Bonaventure says that Our Lady bore the price of our redemption, namely Jesus Christ, through Her inviolate chastity, Her prompt obedience and Her fullness of benevolence. We end the night of sin in our lives when we follow the Blessed Virgin’s example, which is reverence, obedience, and mercy. St. Bonaventure also says that just as the center of the large world is the sun, so the center of the small world, which is man, is the heart. This is why the sunrise is so significant to the celebration of this Christmas Mass at dawn. Our hearts are able to rise from the darkness of sin and despair because the beat in unison with the heart of the Word made flesh.
After his long dark night of the spirit, Ebenezer Scrooge wakes up to a morning that seems so far off from the night he spent with the ghosts of past, present, and future. He doesn’t even know what day of the month it is until he asks a boy in Sunday clothes passing by his window. And when he discovers it is Christmas day, he shouts for joy: “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night.” And then Charles Dickens’ records what can happen in the course of a night followed by the sunrise:
[Scrooge] went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows: and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk—that anything—could give him so much happiness.
It is a new day and as the first reading from Isaiah says the LORD proclaims to the ends of the earth: say to daughter Zion, your savior comes! (62:11). Like the blazing sunrise He comes to bring us light and warmth, but He did this by becoming a homeless and shivering Babe.
And so we sing with the Church in today’s responsorial psalm: A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.