What must have been the supernatural ambience that enveloped the most important event in history? Let us raise our hearts beyond the human circumstances and consider the sublimity of the Nativity of the Infant God!
Gospel of the Mass During the Night of the Nativity
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. 2 This was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with Child.
6 While they were there, the time came for Her to have her Child, 7 and She gave birth to her firstborn Son. She wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
8 Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. 9 The Angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. 10 The Angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For today in the city of David a Saviour has been born for you who is Christ and Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the Angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom His favour rests” (Lk 2:1-14).
I – Mysticism Is Given to Everyone
The acquisition of holiness involves treading both the ascetical and the mystical paths. In the first, graces are granted profusely in order to urge the soul to progress in virtue, but these demand an effort. For example, occasions arise in which we are tempted and must take practical measures to avoid sin. At times, people burdened with a particular weakness for a long time are touched by a cooperative grace that prompts them to reflect upon eternity. They then take stock of their relationship with God, and admit they have been acting wrongly. Realizing, however, that they lack the strength to correct themselves, they assume an attitude of vigilance, sacrifice, and prayer, storming Heaven for the energy needed to overcome their bad habit. And God always answers them! Countless individuals over the ages have amended their lives with cooperative grace – that is, through the ascetic way – mastering themselves with divine assistance.
But incomparably higher is the mystical state, in which the actuation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit predominates. In the depths of the soul, the person has an experience of who God is, and of His very strength, through operative and efficacious graces. Since it is God who moves the soul, it is impossible for it to reject these graces, which can so bend human creatures that they are compelled to change their life. The soul favoured in this way must simply let itself be carried “by the touch and the breath of the sanctifying Spirit, who conducts it at will like a finely tuned musical instrument, extracting divine melodies from it.”1
Countless Saints embraced their vocation as a result of graces of this sort. The conversion of St. Augustine is a case in point.2 After a youth marred by grave doctrinal and moral errors – but watered with the tears of his mother, St. Monica – he received, through his contact with St. Ambrose, a grace that completely changed the course of his life.
There is also St. John Bosco, who, a few months before his death, while celebrating Mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, in Rome, broke down in uncontrollable weeping, which obliged him to interrupt the Holy Sacrifice several times. What had happened? During childhood, he had experienced a prophetic dream whose meaning had eluded him, in which Our Lady said: “You will understand all in due time.”3 It was during this Mass, many decades later, reflecting on his past, that the images of that dream came back to him, and he recognized in them the story of his vocation. Providence used this means not only to indicate the path he should follow, but, at the close of life, to transmit a mystical grace which filled him with the joy of seeing the fulfilment of God’s plans in his regard.
While hagiography is replete with similar episodes, mysticism is not an exclusive privilege of Saints of the altar, nor of the great contemplatives. The rest of the faithful also experience such interior stirrings. Who has not felt, at some time or other, the consolations of grace? We sometimes come across individuals who, prompted by a ray of divine light, have renounced sinful habits and adopted new criteria, in line with the Faith. There would be few conversions if such changes depended solely on the human will… And if mysticism did not accompany those who set out on the path of perfection, who would persevere until the end?
God usually pours out such graces when He wishes to prepare souls for great events. What mystical favours must He have shed on those involved in the central event of history, that is, the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ?
On Christmas Eve, at the start of the Midnight Mass, the Child Jesus is born mystically and liturgically – just as He was more than two thousand years ago in Bethlehem – and He will come to us sacramentally, in the Eucharistic Mystery. This is an ideal occasion to meditate on the atmosphere of graces enveloping the manger when Mary “gave birth to her firstborn Son.”
II – Christmas Contemplated from the Mystical Perspective
A reading of St. Luke’s simple narrative, chosen for the Liturgy of this celebration,4 can naturally provoke a question within us: Could God possibly have become incarnate and have been born in such a miraculous manner – leaving the womb of Mary without actually touching this sublime tabernacle – and yet not have surrounded this event with extraordinary mystical phenomena? Must it necessarily have taken place in a setting of utter poverty, in the company only of animals?
Let us consider Our Lady. “What language, even angelic, is capable of worthily exalting the Virgin Mother, She who is not the mother of just anyone, but the Mother of God? […] She was, in fact, worthy of God’s gaze; the King of kings desired her beauty, and She attracted Him with the delicacy of her aromas from the eternal repose in the paternal bosom.”5 Nine months before the Nativity of the Child Jesus, the episode of the Annunciation reveals the elevated mystical plane on which her entire life unfolded. Her infancy and youth were assuredly imbued with consolations, ecstasies and efficacious graces that converged when St. Gabriel visited Her to reveal to Her the Incarnation of the Word.
Accordingly, it would be inappropriate to suppose that, as She awaited the birth of the Divine Redeemer, She was caught up in human preoccupations and the practical concerns related to her state, especially given the fact that She was exempt from original sin and this birth would not follow the norm. Not only was it painless and free of all the inherent complications, but it was accompanied by the maximum degree of grace that this circumstance would admit – as was, indeed, each moment of her earthly existence.
A scene envisioned by God with the greatest possible beauty
Therefore, the inverse of the law that St. Ignatius6 proposes for the meditation on hell, in the Spiritual Exercises, can be applied to this event. He says we ought to imagine that place of torments in the most horrific way, contrary to all our desire and pleasure, and even then, we will lack an exact notion of the terrible reality. Concerning the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, the contrary can be said: the most beautiful scene imaginable will never equal that which in fact occurred, for the human mind cannot fathom the infinite plenitude of the divine intelligence which designed everything with utmost perfection. It would be blasphemous to think that God the Father was negligent in planning the coming of His Son into the world from all eternity!
Another question arises: why, then, did He choose a stable? For the benefit of humanity and the glory of His Only-begotten Son, God wanted to accentuate the contrast between the human and divine aspects of Christmas to prevent excessive attention from being placed on the former. Original sin has so debased human nature that, had the Child Jesus been born in a sumptuous palace, many people would have admired the edifice and relegated the Saviour to a secondary plane. The cave, the ox, the ass, and even the absence of witnesses besides Mary and Joseph, were providential components in making the divinity of Christ shine in a special way.
Mary and Joseph awaiting the arrival of the Infant God
In the absence of a more detailed description of the scene, our sketching it with the imagination is warranted. Let us contemplate St. Joseph, a man endowed with singular graces inherent to his sublime mission, and perhaps, additionally, with discernment of spirits. At a certain moment, he notes that Our Lady is entering a contemplative state, that her earthly sensibility is ebbing away. In this extraordinary state of recollection, She detaches herself from the actual setting: it could just as well be a grotto or a palace, a golden crib or a manger. All that matters is the divinity of the Child in her most pure womb who communicates with Her, telling Her, almost plaintively, that He will soon leave this beloved tabernacle to repose in her virginal arms. Clearly, He will never cease to favour Her, and will always have a most sublime relationship with Her.
Thus, drawn more and more deeply into the mystery of the Incarnation and the birth of the Eternal Word – one of the principal mysteries of our Faith – the Blessed Virgin yearns to look upon the countenance of God made Man. She is the only creature on the face of the earth who can call Him Son and, at the same time, adore Him with all the strength of her soul. She is the only Mother who can have such a relationship with her own Son without falling into idolatry. Indeed, for Her, such an act is one of perfection. St. Lawrence of Brindisi says that “God exalted Mary not only above all earthly and heavenly creatures, above Angels and men, but, even supposing that He had created an indefinite number of other sublime spirits, superior to even the Cherubim and Seraphim, the Virgin Mary, as the Spouse of God and Mother of Christ, would continue to be far superior to all of them.”7 In view of this, Our Lady’s adoration of the Child Jesus, when her eyes first alighted upon Him, was greater than the sum of the acts of adoration paid by the entire assembly of Angels and Saints, and of mortals over the course of history, until the end of time.
It can well be imagined that there was such a celestial atmosphere within the grotto that the material lamps illuminating the area were rendered superfluous… for an indescribable light must surely have emanated from the Blessed Virgin.
St. Joseph joyfully contemplated that light which, faint at first, grew in brightness. His peerless faith allowed him to understand perfectly that the Creator of the sun and the stars could not be born in darkness. Christ is the Light come into the world, and, while yet in Mary’s womb, He illuminated the cave as brightly as the noonday sun. In fact, perhaps this was one of the factors making the grotto necessary… the need to contain some of this brilliance, otherwise it would have awakened wonder over the whole earth! St. Joseph, gripped with awe and enthusiasm, and taken up by efficacious graces, lost his awareness of those meagre surroundings, as had his blessed spouse.
Moreover, would not the Angels who greeted the shepherds with song have done the same for St. Joseph when the Child Jesus was born? Of course they would have! And if Our Lord promised Nathanael: “you will see Heaven opened, and the Angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51), could not St. Joseph have seen the angelic choirs making a path from the grotto to Heaven?
We could continue musing for pages on end about that first Christmas Eve, as Our Lady and St. Joseph prepared to receive the Infant God. To conclude our meditation, let us reflect on the effects produced by this matchless event.
III – He Brings Us Salvation!
The second reading (Ti 2:11-14), from the Letter of St. Paul to Titus, contains a very important concept: “The grace of God has appeared, saving all” (2:11). Although, on one hand, it is difficult to form an accurate notion of the state of humanity before the Incarnation of the Word, on the other, it is enough to have experienced the working of grace to conclude that, just by being born, Our Lord Jesus Christ granted an incalculable blessing to the world. A glance at history reveals the efficacious influence that one saint has over society. How can we gauge, then, the impact of the birth of the Saint with a capital “S”, the Saint in essence, God, our Creator and Redeemer! Jesus could have accomplished the Redemption by offering the Father a smile, a movement of His arm, a blink of the eyes or an act of His will, in reparation for our sins. Thus, the arrival of the Saviour, in itself, rent asunder satan’s dominion over Antiquity and checked the projection of evil over the earth, as St. Andrew of Crete reflects: “He who is mercy by nature justly determined that His Only-begotten Son would manifest Himself with our own nature, to condemn our adversary.”8
Jesus strengthens us that we may change our lives
In the following verses, St. Paul emphasizes the role of the grace brought by Our Lord: “training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ” (Ti 2:12-13). The connotation of the verb train, in the original Greek, transcends the concept of the mere transmission of doctrine, encompassing the notion of bestowal of power, of instilling the capacity to practise what one has learned, much like an eagle training its eaglets to fly. The training afforded by grace forcefully penetrates to the depths of our souls, prompting us to love what we have understood, and enabling us to practise it. The change that Our Lord Jesus Christ introduced on the face of the earth, therefore, cannot be grasped by the intelligence. It would be necessary to have divine eyes to contemplate the scope of the historical process after original sin, from Adam and Eve until the birth of the Redeemer, and, from then on, the outpouring of grace training and instilling fortitude in people so that they might change their mentality. The Apostle highlights this in the last verse of the second reading: “Who gave Himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for Himself a people as His own, eager to do what is good” (Ti 2:14).
The victory won by the Child Jesus in being born in Bethlehem
In this twenty-first century, in which evil is flaunted on the pedestals of the world and is spread with frenetic dynamism, Jesus continues to fulfil His mission. For His work is not subject to the laws of botany, by which a seed is planted, sprouts, gives fruit and, having completed its development, begins to wither. From the divine tree planted by the Saviour, namely, the Church, marvels are continually blossoming and outshining those that preceded them. The decadence we currently face is a sign that we will witness a great –indeed, an unprecedented manifestation of God’s power in our days. The Redemption worked on Calvary will now produce fruits that are more excellent and numerous than at the time when it was consummated.
This should be our state of soul in considering Christmas: one of firm hope – yes, of certainty! – that the Child Jesus wishes to grant each of us the strength to embrace what is good. Weakness should not hold us back, for the feebler we are, the more powerfully He will act upon us. We are a field upon which Our Lord Jesus Christ will manifest His power! When we look upon the Divine Infant represented in the Nativity Scene, we see, on one hand, the frailty of human nature, and on the other hand, His omnipotence. It is the same with us: we are receptacles of God’s power, manifested, above all, through our wretchedness and nothingness. Let us, then, confide joyfully in the voice of the Angel that exclaims: “I proclaim to you good news of great joy”! ◊
1 GONZÁLEZ ARINTERO, OP, Juan. Cuestiones místicas, o sea, las alturas de la contemplación y el ideal cristiano. (Ed.3). Salamanca: San Esteban, 1927, p.664.
2 Cf. ST. AUGUSTINE. Confessionum, L.V, c.13-14, n.23-25. In: Obras, vol. II. (Ed.7). Madrid: BAC, 1979, p.216-219.
3 AUFFRAY, Augustin. Un grand éducateur: le Bienheureux Don Bosco. Paris: Emmanuel Vitte, 1929, p.504.
4 This article complements the previously published commentaries on this Gospel. See: CLÁ DIAS, EP, João Scognamiglio. O Evangelho do nascimento do Menino Jesus. In: Arautos do Evangelho. São Paulo. N.1 (Jan., 2002); p.7-9; “Lux in tenebris lucet”. In: Heralds of the Gospel. Nobleton, ON. No. 2 (Nov/Dec 2006); p.10-17; Gospel Commentaries for the Mass of the Night of the Nativity of the Lord – Years A and C, respectively in Volumes I and V of the collection New Insights on the Gospels.
5 ST. BERNARD. In Assumptione Beatæ Mariæ, Sermo IV, n.5,7. In: Obras Completas, vol. IV: Sermones Litúrgicos (2º). (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 2006, p.371.
6 Cf. ST. IGNATIUS OF LOYOLA. Spiritual Exercises, Second week, n.65-72. In: Obras Completas. Madrid: BAC, 1952, p.173-174.
7 ST. LAWRENCE OF BRINDISI. De Laudibus et Invocatione Virginis Deiparæ, III: ‘Ave Maria’, Sermo III, n.4. In: Marial. Madrid: BAC, 2004, p.187-188.
8 ST. ANDREW OF CRETE. Homilia V: In Sanctissimæ Deiparæ Dominæ nostræ Annuntiationem. In: Homilías Marianas. Madrid: Ciudad Nueva, 1995, p.101.