Gospel – Nativity of the Lord – Mass at Dawn
15 When the Angels went away from them to Heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this Child. 18 All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds. 19 And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them (Lk 2:15-20).
I – Jesus Is Born!
After millennia of expectation, the Child Jesus – true God and true Man – was born in Bethlehem. This union of two natures, divine and human, in one Divine Person, is one of the principal mysteries of our Faith.
How can we look upon a Child in a cradle and know with certainty that He is God? God, yet Man, and Man, yet God! Christmas, then, is the feast that demands the greatest faith; we need special graces to comprehend this magnificent and sublime event, even if through veils. Let us seek to explore it more deeply, within our limitations, counting on the vital aid of Providence.
The “impasse” of the Blessed Trinity
God had no need to create. He is so rich, and yet so simple, that by knowing Himself, He begets a Son, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, who has the same nature and essence as the Father. The two love one another so powerfully that from this eternal love proceeds a Third Person, the Holy Spirit, equal to the First and the Second.
This relationship of knowledge and love is permanent between the Persons of the Trinity, from all eternity and for all eternity.
Now, in this absolute happiness, the Father wished – to use metaphorical language – to benefit the Son in some way; yet He had nothing to give to the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, His perfect likeness. And the Son, contemplating the Father, desired to address Him from a state of real inferiority and to make some return for all that the Father communicates to Him, but could not, as they are identical in divinity. The Holy Spirit, for His part, desired to introduce more beings into this ineffable conviviality, but, alas, this was impossible.
Accordingly, They decided to create… In this way, in addition to Their intrinsic glory – which cannot be enhanced or augmented –, the Blessed Trinity would receive an extrinsic glory, rendered by creatures as they become like their Creator and manifest His goodness. How would such a marvellous plan be carried out?
God’s immutable and most perfect knowledge
Mere creatures that we are, we have difficulty conceptualizing an eternity of future time and, even more, something existing without a beginning. It is a reality that exceeds our intellective capacity. God, however, is the Being par excellence, the necessary Being, the substantial and infinite Intelligence, and as such, He sees and understands all things in Himself, hierarchizing them in an absolute, fixed and unchanging manner.
For Him, there is neither past nor future; everything is present. His comprehension follows no discursive process; He encompasses the order of the universe in a single gaze – including the limitless creatures that could have issued from His hands, had He so willed – in a manner similar to someone who takes in an entire landscape in one look.
Thus, from all eternity, God idealized the spiritual and material world, having, as its centre, the figure of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, in whom divine nature would unite to human nature and to whom all creatures would be completely subject. Inseparable from Him is the Blessed Virgin, for, as theology explains, it was in one and the same decree that God predestined Jesus and Mary: Mother and Son always constituted one single point on the divine horizon.1
Mary, “complement of the Blessed Trinity”
This magnificent plan plays out when the Angel appears to Our Lady to announce to her the Incarnation of the Word, and She responds: “Be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38)! Her “Fiat” encompasses a mystery so magnificent as to be unfathomable. Jesus Christ is conceived in Mary’s maternal cloister without the cooperation of man, by the action of the Holy Spirit; in her, God brings about the most perfect and sublime apex possible in creation.
From this perspective, the happy expression “complement of the Blessed Trinity,”2 takes on life. It was coined in the first half of the fifth century by Hesychius of Jerusalem and applied to the Blessed Virgin by theology, to signify that it was She who “resolved” the impasse, as it were, of the three Divine Persons.
For in her, as Mother of Jesus, it was fitting that the Third Person beget other sons of God, as St. Louis Marie Grignion de Montfort affirms in his Fiery Prayer: “With her and in her, You formed the Head of the predestined, and with her and in her, You will form all His members. Within the Divinity, You beget no divine Person; but outside of the Divinity, You alone form divine Persons, and all the Saints who have been or will be until the end of the world are so many works of Your love, united with Mary.”3
The Second Person, for His part, would give these children to the Father and, with the human nature received from Mary, He could address the Father as an obedient Son. The Father, considering the frailty of human nature in the Son, would exercise dominion over Him and say: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17).
Fr. Nicolas clearly sets forth this theory: “When we say that Mary completes the Trinity, in the sense that her holy maternity establishes new relationships among the Divine Persons, we affirm nothing that a Catholic […] should not uphold.”4 He goes on to explain that “Mary affords the Father new glory, giving Him authority over His Son, and making the Son His subject, for this authority that Mary has over her Son, the Father did not have before her, and does not have except by her.”5
And the Second Person, who possessed glory within Himself, as the Son of God, “will have this same glory, through Mary, as Son of Man; thus, doubly, and in a much more marvellous and glorious manner, if I dare say so, as Son of Man than as Son of God.”6
The Holy Spirit, in Mary and by Mary, becomes fruitful and “acquires over the Son, in His humanity, an authority that He does not hold over the Son in His divinity. This authority became visible on the occasion of the Baptism of Jesus Christ.”7
It is natural, then, that St. Thomas, repeating a sacred medieval hymn, calls Mary Most Holy “totius Trinitatis nobile triclinium – noble place for the Trinity’s repose.”8 In this sense, St. Bernard also affirms: “She opens the bosom of mercy to all, so that all can receive of its fullness: redemption for the captive, healing for the sick, consolation for the afflicted, pardon for sinners, grace for the righteous, joy for the Angels, and finally, glory for the entire Trinity.”9
If the conception of Jesus was extraordinary, His birth was no less so. Just as sunlight passes through stained glass without harming it, and emerges on the other side enriched with colour, the Child Jesus passed through the sacred walls of that most pure shrine, which is Our Lady, sparing her any and every suffering, and preserving His Mother’s virginity intact, through the miraculous working of divine power.10 And the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, without ceasing to be God, became Man to redeem us and to give us an incomparable example of love taken to holocaust.
Thus, Christmas is the apex, the pinnacle moment of history, the realization of all the hopes of the Old Testament:
“Indeed, the birth of Christ is the origin of the Christian people, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the Body. […] After the passing of ages, what had been determined from all eternity was fulfilled; and by the presence of the realities, the signs and images came to an end, the Law and the prophecies came true.”11
Rock of scandal, this voice will resound to the ends of the earth
Since it is around Jesus and Mary that everything gravitates, progresses or regresses, acquires or loses meaning, and furthermore, is judged, rewarded or chastised, this Child is born as a true divortium aquarum, a divider of waters. Those who choose Our Lord are rewarded and glorified; those who reject Him are condemned.
It was impossible for this Divine Infant, so essential in the order of creation, to go unnoticed. Accordingly, in the first reading (Is 62:11-12) for this Mass at Dawn of the Nativity of the Lord, the Prophet Isaiah says: “See, the Lord proclaims to the ends of the earth” (62:11). In one way or another, all men must know Jesus Christ and the salvation He brings. Above all, they must adhere to Him, making their very lives revolve around Him and His Church.
The attitude due toward Jesus and Mary
Now, accepting Our Lord and Our Lady means, first of all, having veneration and enthusiasm for Them; it means adoring Jesus Christ, proclaiming Him as God, Creator, and Redeemer, and offering Him heartfelt praise. At Christmas, as we contemplate a tiny Child lying in a poor manger, this love is translated into a special sentiment of tenderness.
Sadly, the world is progressively losing the sense of admiration that characterizes childhood innocence… The child is enchanted with everything it sees: a ladybug on a leaf, a fluttering butterfly, or a hummingbird extracting nectar from a flower. Why? There is a natural inclination to seek the truth, goodness, beauty, and unum of things, placed by God in the human soul to facilitate man’s ascension to the Creator.12
Accordingly, when a child’s intelligence awakens, like a light that begins to shine in his eyes and illuminate his way, his first movement in encountering the sublime is one of admiration.13 He imagines a fairy-tale world. A positivist mentality might say that this is mere childish illusion, but, on the contrary, the child is searching for lost Paradise, for Heaven’s reflections on earth.
Indeed, God created humans with this instinct ordered toward what is most excellent; but it was necessary, at a certain moment, for there to be a heightened communication of God with men, enabling them to learn what constitutes the very essence and sustenance of the interior light of innocence and of this wondrous vision of the entire universe: Jesus Christ and His Most Holy Mother. This is the meaning of life – the source of our consolation!
Awe leads to the desire to serve
Where this awe exists, it gives rise to the desire to serve, so that the grandeur which has filled us with wonder may thus receive some retribution from us. And since good is inherently diffusive, it tends to spread itself when it is authentic so that others may participate in it.
A woman who goes to much trouble to make a magnificent dessert does not do so with the idea of enjoying it alone. Her pleasure lies in having others savour it with a satisfaction proportional to that which She experienced in preparing it. This is the teaching we find in the Gospel for the Mass at Dawn.
II – The Shepherds: from Jubilation to Proclamation
Bethlehem – “house of bread” or “city of bread” – lived from two main industries: the cultivation of wheat, from which bread was made, and the raising of sheep, in view of the region’s lush pastures.14
This was the shepherds’ means of livelihood, and as the Gospel for the birth of the Child Jesus mentions, they spent their nights watching flocks. By the nature of their occupation, the shepherds were not ambitious folk; they were generally much given to contemplation. Their thoughts were turned to the sky, to the stars, and the beauties of nature.
Why were men of this type suddenly visited by Angels (cf. Lk 2:8-14)? Precisely because they were unpretentious, unfettered by pride, and empty of self. A look at history reveals that when Angels come to announce good news or transmit joy, they only appear to the humble.
In contrast, we might call to mind another scene from this same Christmas night – that of Herod feasting amid an atmosphere of revelry, euphoria, and vainglory, and the Sanhedrin, puffed up for having discovered the secret to salvation in the meticulous fulfilment of the letter of the Law. They were all inflated with pride, and the Angels did not appear to them…
The immediate reaction of the humble shepherds was fear, due to the staggering disproportion between the human and angelic creature. In fact, the superiority of the latter is so marked that an angelic manifestation leaves humans with a feeling of attenuation, of being altogether overwhelmed.
The shepherd children of Fatima, for example, spent weeks beset by a feeling of weakness and lassitude after seeing the Angel of Peace.15
But the shepherds of Bethlehem were immediately reassured by the Angel, who said, “Be not afraid” (Lk 2:10), and relayed the joyous tidings of the birth of the promised Messiah. A multitude of the heavenly host immediately appeared, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Lk 2:14), in melodies that far outshone the finest compositions on this earth. What happened next?
A mystical experience
15 When the Angels went away from them to Heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
When the Angels departed, the shepherds were filled with wonder. These admiring souls, not focussed on self, were readily opened to the things of God.
It is certain that when they heard the words of the messenger they had a mystical experience regarding the Person of the Child Jesus. Instead of contenting themselves with spending the night discussing the occurrence, they immediately set out, for, as previously stated, from this initial wonderment proceed service and dedication.
Haste, a sign of willingness
16a So they went in haste…
After that magnificent apparition, they went “in haste,” according to the sacred text, for service does not brook delay. Likewise, when we are favoured with a communication from on high, we should show our prompt willingness as did the prophet Samuel who, yet a child, responded to the voice that called him: “Præsto sum – Here I am” (1Sm 3:16)!
Such was the disciplinary protocol in place when the author of this text rendered military service: When a superior summoned and transmitted an order to a subordinate, the latter would then request permission to withdraw, make an about face, break step, and set off running to fulfil the order.
Mary manifests her humility
16b …and found Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger.
The shepherds surely had no trouble finding the grotto, for it must have emitted an extraordinary light, as suggested by the refrain of the Responsorial Psalm: “A light will shine on us this day: the Lord is born for us.” It continues: “Light dawns for the just” (Ps 96:11).
This is not to be taken allegorically, but as true light. Would Our Lord Jesus Christ, Our Lady and St. Joseph not have radiated a special light, visible from a distance, which flowed from the sanctity of the Creator of the universe? With great rejoicing, these shepherds arrived before the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, and, seeing the Child, ecstatically broke into hymns of praise and offered Him their very best. Mary was delighted with this simplicity, seeing a design of God behind it.
We can envision her humility on that occasion. It is probable that Our Lady had been holding the Child in her arms, but, when She perceived that the shepherds were approaching, she laid Him in the manger so that their attention would not be centred on her. If – to imagine the absurd – She had wished to draw attention to herself, she need only have said: “Behold my Son!” Instead, She withdrew to the side, together with St. Joseph, to allow the visitors to adore Jesus.
And what would have been His reaction to these innocent adorers? Surely He responded with an unforgettable gaze and smile, which produced an atmosphere of unsurpassed sweetness, tenderness, welcome, and affection.
The desire to linger in the cave of Bethlehem
17a When they saw this…
So the shepherds confirmed what the Angel had announced. And, thus enraptured, none of them gave a thought to their flock or the material concerns of life; in fact, had their staying not meant imposing on the Holy Family, they would have liked to spend the night there.
Would it not have been inadmissible for one of them to step away from this conviviality prematurely to go and tend his flock? In the grotto with Jesus and Mary there is no looking back! We ought to behave in like fashion: when we hear God’s call, we must leave everything to encounter Jesus and never distance ourselves from the spiritual grotto to which Our Lady so frequently beckon us.
17b …they made known the message that had been told them about this Child. 18 All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
Anxious to tell what had happened, the shepherds will serve the Divine Infant, proclaiming His coming, and awakening amazement in others, as Scripture relates. So, too, should we let ourselves be filled with wonder with the myriad reflections of the Creator in the universe, and accept the stirrings of grace in our heart.
The contemplation of the Virgin Mary
19 And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Our Lady pondered these things and, gifted with discernment of spirits, sounded their deepest meaning.
These were surely moments of ecstasy, in which She witnessed the joy of the Angels in Heaven, for everything that God has granted the Saints, and is fitting for Our Lady, was granted to her in greater abundance than to them. This is so, because, “compared with her, all other creatures are like atoms weighed against the universe. […]
Therefore, in her is united all that is beautiful, good and great which has been distributed to each individual creature, and to all creatures taken as a whole.”16 If the shepherds were permitted to see and hear the Angels, would She not also have contemplated them?
From shepherds to apostles
20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.
In manifesting their joy, the shepherds became true apostles of Jesus. They wanted others to share in their happiness and did their utmost to help their neighbour welcome the Good News.
III – May this Voice Be Heard!
We were created to live with God eternally in absolute happiness, and the Liturgy for this Mass at Dawn invites us to imitate the shepherds, following the path traced by the prophet Isaiah.
Since God has become Man, and considering the central character of Our Lord Jesus Christ in the order of creation, He must be the axis of our lives. This Child who comes to us, also draws us to Himself. And true peace of soul on earth is only attained through docility to His call.
Failing this, there will be no end of folly, and of grasping after money and fame! Vainglory is fleeting; what remains and crosses the threshold of eternity is awe for Our Lord and enthusiastic fulfilment of the Law of God. The grace of Christmas convokes us to reject the madness of our era and to kneel before the Child Jesus, who, through a mystery of love, comes to rescue us from sinful ways and to save us.
This Christmas, let us implore an increase of supernatural favours so that, striving toward holiness, we may attain complete union with Our Lord and the matchless reward of eternal happiness.
Then, faith will be transformed into vision, hope into possession, and charity will be perfected and refined, for it will participate in God’s own love for Himself. May we never allow this treasure to be snatched from us! This is the gift that the Child Jesus brings to us this Christmas. ◊
1 Cf. ROSCHINI, OSM, Gabriel. Instruções Marianas. São Paulo: Paulinas, 1960, p.22.
2 HESYCHIUS OF JERUSALEM. De Sancta Maria Deipara, Sermo V: MG 93, 1462.
3 ST. LOUIS MARIE GRIGNION DE MONTFORT. Prière Embrasée, n.15. In: Œuvres Complètes. Paris: Du Seuil, 1966, p.681.
4 NICOLAS, Auguste. La Vierge Marie et le plan divin, vol. I. (Ed.2). Paris: Auguste Vaton, 1856, p.371.
5 Idem, p.371-372.
6 Idem, p.374.
7 Idem, p.375.
8 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Expositio salutationis angelicæ, art.1.
9 ST. BERNARD. Sermo in dominica infra octavam Assumptionis, n.9. In: Obras Completas, vol. IV: Sermones Litúrgicos (2º). (Ed.2). Madrid: BAC, 2006, p.397.
10 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, III, q.28, a.2, ad 3.
11 ST. LEO THE GREAT. In Nativitate Domini, Sermo VI, hom.6 [XXVI], n.2. In: Sermons, vol. I. (Ed.2). Paris: Cerf, 1964, p.139, 141 (SCh 22bis).
12 Cf. ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Summa Theologiæ, I-II, q.94, a.2.
13 Cf. Idem, q.32, a.8.
14 Cf. WILLAM, Franz Michel. A vida de Jesus no país e no povo de Israel. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1939, p.31-33.
15 Cf. WALSH, William Thomas. Nossa Senhora de Fátima. (Ed.2). São Paulo: Melhoramentos, 1949, p.44.
16 ROSCHINI, op. cit., p.15.