Festive Well-Lit Lanterns Epitomize Christmas Joys in the Philippines

Solemnity of Christmas
December 25, 2008

The fulfillment of something so long-awaited and expected is bound to engender joy aplenty. A promise makes one expectant; gives him or her a lot of excitement and anticipation. But fulfillment suffuses one with overflowing JOY.

Such is the spirit of the Christmas liturgy! It is so full of JOY that traditionally, the Church has four different sets of Masses to do justice to the occasion: Vigil Mass, Mass at Night, Dawn Mass, and the Mass of the Day. Something so richly meaningful, something so effusive of joy deserves no doubt four different celebrations, each with its own emphasis, focus, and set of readings that are bound by a common theme.

The Vigil Mass looks forward to the hour of celebration. It has come because the promises of old are fulfilled in Jesus. Quiet waiting gives way to a cry of joy: “For ever I will sing the goodness of the Lord!” Anticipation is the key to understand the meaning of this mass. A repeat of the Matthean account of Jesus’ genealogy shows that he, indeed, is the most awaited one, the anticipated fulfillment of the promise.

The Mass at Night (often referred to as Midnight Mass) gives us all the “romantic” or the more popular elements of Christmas; the pageantry which revolves around certain material details surrounding the birth of the promised Messiah which have become firmly embedded in lore: the crèche (crib), the angels, the shepherds, the star, and the animals are almost always part of the manger scene. The Mass at Night revolves around the materiality of the STORY of Christmas. This story, everyone knows by heart, including – and, especially – children! Were it not for the late hour, this Mass is the perfect setting for children. They would readily see the familiar images and symbols associated with Christmas in the tender minds of children. This is the high point (the summit) of the nine-day preparation for Christmas. This has traditionally been accorded by the Church corresponding solemnity, as befits what it stands for. This solemn Mass at night is best epitomized by the image of an angel who, “with a multitude of the heavenly host” praised God saying: “Glory to God in the highest…”

The Mass at dawn, very literally, revolves around the obvious idea that the birth of the Son of God made flesh is the dawn of salvation that will shine forth in the glorious manifestation of the Lord, his glorious epiphany. This is made clear in the responsorial psalm: “A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.” (Ps. 97). This more sedate Mass at dawn sees more simple folks – the shepherds – as the focal point of attention. Simplicity, however, was no obstacle to joyful proclamation. Apart from the fact that they “went in haste,” “they made known the message that had been told them about [this] child” (Lk 2:17).

But it is in the Mass during the day that joy is found in greater strength. Not only is joy portrayed more clearly. It is also presented more deeply. The other three Masses tell a glorious and joyful story worthy of proclamation. This Mass during the day tells us the meaning of the whole event – the meaning behind all that joy. And the liturgy tells it from a higher vantage point, so to speak. It soars high theologically speaking. The Letter to the Hebrews speaks of Christ as “the refulgence of [God’s] glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word” (Hebrews 1:3). John, the most theological of all the four evangelists, speaks of the mystery of the Word Incarnate. All through what is known as the prologue to the gospel (Jn 1:1-18), John sings some kind of a contemplative hymn to Christ, the Word made flesh. From the poetic point of view alone, one can sense the depth of John’s words in the beautiful cadence and choice of words: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1).

We would do well today to reflect on the joy that is in us, the joy that has become us, thanks be to God who made it possible for us to bask fully in this joy. The Liturgy of the Mass during the day literally whisks us up to heaven. It fills our minds with lofty ideas and images. But such lofty - theological thoughts, if you will - are really based on concrete, palpable events. Even John says this: “All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:3). The Word was present in the center of creation. “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him…”(Jn 1:10). He is also present in our midst …then and now! “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…” (Jn 1:14).

JOY… this is what Christmas day should be all about! Today, as the Liturgy makes us understand, we ought to be joyful because of God’s presence in our midst. The joy of Christmas is all about presence… the presence of a God who has made his dwelling in our midst. This becomes doubly meaningful when we see the so many forms of absence so many people experience in their personal and communal lives: absent fathers and mothers; absent pastors; absent teachers; emotionally distant fathers; absent leaders, etc. ..even priests absent from their parishes…bosses who hardly show up in the office…mayors who spend more time taping shows for TV rather than attending to the affairs of the city or town…The incontrovertible fact of today’s celebration is this, no less: GOD IS NOT AN ABSENT PRESENCE! He is Emmanuel, God-with-us!

Today, Christmas day, there is no excuse not to be joyful…in fact, not only today, but everyday! William Barclay says that “a gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms.” Louis Evely, for his part says: “If you claim you are a Christian and yet find no reason to be joyful, there is nothing Christian in you!” Indeed, to be Christian is to be joyful. Children today do have an edge over adults like us. Children are the happiest people on earth mostly today. Just see them excitedly going their way to and from their ninongs or ninangs, or their doting titos and titas! (godparents, uncles and aunts).

But Christmas does not belong only to the children! It belongs to all of us. And we know we have learned to appropriate the meaning of this great day, when, among others, we have learned to find JOY and HAPPINESS behind the ordinary, usual trappings of an increasingly commercialized Christmas such as we have now outside of our churches, our homes, our families!


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