Christmas Eve, with its own happy spirit, is drawing to its close. Already has the Church terminated all her Advent Offices, by the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice. In her maternal considerateness, she has permitted her children to break their Fast of preparation for the great Feast, by taking their meal at mid-day. Whilst refreshing their bodies with this repast, to which Abstinence gives merit, the Faithful feel an instinct of gladness which comes as a harbinger, to tell them of that immense joy which this beautiful Night will bring them, by giving them their Emmanuel.
But so great a Solemnity as that of to-morrow could not possibly be an exception to that usage of the Church whereby she anticipates all her Feasts on their Eves. In a few moments the Office of First Vespers, in which is offered to God the evening incense, will call us to the Church, and the splendour of the function, and the magnificence of the chants, will open our hearts to those feelings of love and gratitude which will prepare them to receive the graces of to-night.
Let us spend the interval in endeavouring to gain a clear knowledge of the Mystery of our Feast; and let us absorb well the sentiments and spirit of the Church. We shall be assisted to do both by considering some of the principal traditions which attach to this joyful Solemnity.
Let us begin by listening to the Holy Fathers speaking of Christmas Day with an eloquence worthy of the Feast. And first we have St Gregory the Theologian, Bishop of Nazianzum, who thus opens his thirty-eighth discourse, which is on the Theophania, or Nativity of our Lord.
‘Christ is born - glorify him! Christ comes down from heaven - go ye forth to meet him! Christ is on the earth - be ye lifted up above it! O sing to the Lord, all thou earth! [Ps xcv i] and to say all in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad [ibid. xcv 11], because he that is now born is both of heaven and of earth! Christ has assumed our Flesh - exult in fear and in joy; in fear, because of sin; in joy, because of hope! Christ is born of a Virgin: women! honour holy virginity, that you may become Mothers of Christ!
‘Who would not adore him that is from the beginning? Who would not praise and extol him that is born in time? Darkness is at an end; Light is created; Egypt remains in darkness, and Israel is enlightened by the pillar of fire. The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, now possess the bright light of knowledge and wisdom. The old things are passed away, and lo! all things are made new. The letter has given way, the spirit has triumphed; shadows have faded, the reality is come. ... The laws of nature are set aside; the world of Heaven is to be peopled; Christ commands it - let us obey.
‘O clap your hands, all ye nations! [ibid. xlvi 2] - for a Child is born unto us, and a Son is given unto us. The emblem of his Government is upon his shoulder, for his exaltation shall come by the Cross; and his name shall be called the Angel of the Great Counsel, that is, of the Counsel of his Father [Isa. ix 6].
‘Let the Baptist now cry out: Prepare ye the way of the Lord! We, too, will proclaim the virtues and power of this day. He that is without flesh takes flesh; the Word takes a Body; the Unseen is seen; the Intangible may be touched; the Eternal has a beginning; the Son of God is made the Son of Man - Jesus Christ, yesterday and to-day, and the same for ever [Heb. xiii 8]. Let the Jew take scandal, and the Greek mock, and the heretic prate. They will believe when they shall see him ascending into heaven; and if not even then, at least when they shall see him coming down from heaven, and seated on his judgement-seat.’
It is hard to hear such thrilling eloquence as this, and remain cold. But let us now give ear to a Father of the Latin Church, the devout St Bernard, who, in his Sixth Sermon for Christmas Eve, pours forth his heart's joy in these fervent words:
‘We have just heard the saying, which is full of grace, and worthy of all acceptation: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Juda. At these words my soul melts with love, yea, and my spirit that is within me burns with impatience to tell you, as in other years, of this joy, this thrilling joy. Jesus means Saviour. And what so necessary to them that are lost? what so welcome to them that are in misery? what so precious to them that are in despair? Besides, what salvation, what chance of salvation, was there in the law of sin, in that body of death, in so evil a day, and in such a place of affliction - had not a new and unlooked-for Salvation been born? Say not that thou dost indeed desire salvation, but that, knowing thy delicacy and the grievousness of thy sickness, thou fearest lest the cure be violent. No, fear not: this Jesus is Christ, that is, he is all sweetness; he is meek and plenteous in mercy; he is anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, that is, above them who, though they receive not the fulness, yet receive of his fulness. Yet lest thou shouldst think that because this Jesus is the Anointed with sweetness, he is therefore weak in power, it is added, he is the Son of God. ... Let us, then, be exceeding glad, as we think over within ourselves, or say to each other, this sweet sentence: Jesus Christ - the Son of God - is born in Bethlehem of Juda! ’
Glorious day, indeed, is this of the Birth of the Saviour! It had been looked forward to by the human race for four thousand years. The Church had prepared for it by the four weeks of her Advent, a Season which has ever such a charm about it. Nature, too, longs for this day, on which the Sun begins his yearly victory over the dreary reign of wintry darkness. A Holy Doctor of the Syrian Church, St Ephrem, has written the most admirable words on the beauty and fruitful virtue of this mysterious day. Let us borrow some of these from him and say them with his enthusiasm.
‘Grant, O Lord! that we may now celebrate this the Day of thy Birth, which to-day's Solemnity brings round to us. This Day is like thyself - it is the friend of mankind. It comes to us in its regular course, visiting us each year. It grows old with the old; it is young and fresh with little children. We remember when we were young, how it came and passed away; and here it is again, faithful as ever in its welcome visit. It knows that nature could not do without it; here again like to thee, it comes in search of our fallen race. The whole earth thirsts after thy Birthday, O Jesus! It stands, as it were, between the past and the future, commanding all ages, as thou dost. It is one, and yet it multiplies itself, as thou dost. And since we behold thy past Birthday in this present Feast, make the two resemble each other in this also - that as thy Birthday brought Peace between heaven and earth, when the infinitely High God descended to this low earth; so may this solemnity signify and give us Peace. ... And truly, if every day of the year be rich in thy gifts, how much more ought not this to overflow with them?
‘The other days of the year borrow their beauty from this, and the other Feasts owe to this all their solemnity and loveliness. ... Thy Birthday, O Jesus! is a treasure out of which we all take wherewith to pay our debts. ... Blessed be the Day which has brought us back the Sun, after we had been wandering in the dark night; which has brought us the Divine Sheaf that enriches us with plentifulness; which has given us the Vine-Branch that is to yield us, in due time, the cup of our salvation. ... In the bosom of that Winter which robs our trees of their fruit, the virgin Vine has given forth its divine growth. In the Season of frost, which strips our plants of their beauty, the Root of Jesse has given us its Bud. It is in December, which hides the seed sown in the earth, that the Wheat of our salvation appears from the Virgin’s womb, into which he had entered in that fresh Spring-time, when the lambkins were skipping in our meadows.’ [Third Sermon On our Lord’s Nativity.]
It is not, therefore, to be wondered at, if this day, which, we may say, is an important one even to God himself, has been made a privileged one above those of the rest of the year. We have already seen that the old pagan world paid homage to it, and thus, in their own way, were carrying out the design of God. The Holy Doctors, and the Church herself in her Liturgy, allude continually to the material Sun being the symbol of him who is called the Sun of Justice. Then again, there is the venerable tradition which tells us that the Incarnation of the Son of God having been accomplished on a Friday (March 25), the Birth of Jesus, the Light of the world, must have taken place on December 25, a Sunday. This gives a peculiar sacredness to Christmas Day when it falls on a Sunday, as it was on that day of the week that God began the Creation, and said: Let there be Light! and on the same, also, did our Lord rise from the tomb. St Sophronius of Jerusalem has beautifully treated this mystery in his first homily for Christmas Day.
In order to impress the nations of Europe, that is, of the favoured portion of the Church, with the importance of this ever-blessed day, God, who is the Sovereign Ruler of all things, has willed that on it should happen certain events of intense interest. We will select three of these. To begin with the first in order of time: it was on a Christmas Day that the Kingdom of the Franks was founded; for it was on this glorious Solemnity that King Clovis was baptized at Rheims by St Remigius. The haughty Sicambrian, thus admitted into the Fold of Christ, became a meek and humble Christian, and the founder of the first Catholic monarchy, which is now the nation of France.
A century later, that is in the year 596, our own dearest country was converted to the true faith by the labours of St Augustine, of whom St Gregory the Great, who sent him, says: ‘he was a Monk of my Monastery.’ [Lib. 8, Ep. 30]. This holy Missionary had baptized King Ethelbert, and travelled through the land, preaching everywhere the name and Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Having reached York, he preached the word of Eternal Life to the people, and when he had ended, they seek baptism from his hands. Christmas Day is fixed upon for the regeneration of the Catechumens, and the river which flows through the City is chosen as the Baptismal Font. Ten thousand men, not counting women and children, go down into this stream, whose waters were to cleanse their souls. The severity of the season is unheeded by these fervent disciples of the Babe of Bethlehem, who, but a few days before, knew not so much as his name. From the frozen waters there comes, full of joy and innocence, the long line of Neophytes; and the Birthday of Jesus counts, that year, one nation more as belonging to his Kingdom.
Three hundred years after this, God gives us another glorious event in honour of the Birthday of his Son. It was on this divine Anniversary, in the year 800, and at Rome, in the Basilica of St Peter, that the Holy Roman Empire was created, to which God assigned the grand mission of propagating the Kingdom of Christ among the barbarian nations of the North, and of upholding, under the direction of the Sovereign Pontiffs, the confederation and unity of Europe. St Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor. Here, then, was a new Caesar, a new Augustus, on the earth; not, indeed, a successor of those ancient Lords of Pagan Rome, but one who was invested with the title and power by the Vicar of him who is called, in the Sacred Scriptures, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Thus has God glorified, in the eyes of men, the Divine Babe who is this day born: thus has he prepared, at various times, worthy anniversaries of that Birth which gave glory to God and Peace to men. Time will reveal in what other ways the Most High still wishes to magnify, upon this twenty-fifth of December, himself and his Christ.
Impressed with the extreme importance of this Feast, and justly looking upon it as the beginning of the Era of the world’s regeneration, the nations of the West, for a long time, began their year with Christmas Day, as we find in the ancient Calendars, in the Martyrologies of Usuard and Ado, and in numberless Bulls, Charts and Diplomas. It is evident, from a Council held at Cologne m 1310, that this manner of computing the year was still observed at that time. In several countries of Europe, our own among the rest, the custom has been kept up of wishing a Happy Christmas, which was the ancient salutation when this Feast was the beginning of a new year. Hence too, in these countries, the custom of making presents, of writing letters of good wishes, and other friendly acts. How many of our practices of everyday life have originated from Faith, and yet are looked upon as mere consequences of natural good-feeling, or even compliments which society requires us to pay to each other!
To encourage her children in their Christmas joy, the Church has dispensed with the law of abstinence, if this Feast fall on a Friday. This dispensation was granted by Pope Honorius III, who ascended the Papal Throne in 1216. It is true that we find it mentioned by Pope St Nicholas I, in the ninth century; but the dispensation was not universal; for the Pontiff is replying to the consultations of the Bulgarians, to whom he concedes this indulgence, in order to encourage them to celebrate these Feasts with solemnity and joy; Christmas Day, St Stephen, St John the Evangelist, the Epiphany, the Assumption of our Lady, St John the Baptist, and SS Peter and Paul. When the dispensation for Christmas Day was extended to the whole Church, these other Feasts were not mentioned.
In the Middle Ages, the Civil Law, also, contributed to the people’s love of Christmas, by enacting that no creditor could demand any payment from his debtors during the entire week of Christmas, which was called, on that account, the week of remission - a name which it had in common with the weeks of Easter and Pentecost.
But let us interrupt these interesting details regarding the grand Solemnity, whose near approach makes our hearts throb with joy. Let us repair to the House of our Heavenly Father, for the Hour of Vespers is near; and on our way, let our thoughts be at Bethlehem, where Joseph and Mary are already arrived. The sun is rapidly setting; and our Divine Sun of Justice is still hid beneath the Cloud, the Womb of The purest of Virgins. Night is coming on: Joseph and Mary are going through the narrow streets of the City of David, seeking a shelter. Let our hearts be attentive, and united in love with the two holy Pilgrims. Every heart and voice should now be giving forth to our God the tribute of praise and grateful love. Oh! happy we, that have a tribute of Song and Psalmody ready for our use, worthy of the day and of its ineffable Mystery - it is our Mother that offers us her Liturgy. Let us prepare to join her.