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The Liturgy of Christmas

By Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI


Feast of the Nativity of Our Divine Lord
December 25, 1994

Dearly Beloved in Christ,

During this holy season of Christmas, our Holy Mother the Catholic Church celebrates in a singular and wonderful manner the joyous feast of the Nativity of her Divine Savior Jesus Christ. This can be readily seen in particular by the unique permission which is granted to priests to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass three times on the Birthday of Christ, and by the continuation of the celebration of His Birth by an extension of eight days — the Octave of Christmas. As we follow the Church’s liturgy during this Octave and throughout the entire Christmas season, we shall find tremendous significance in all that the Catholic Church does in her official, public worship of God. This is the reason that Pope St. Pius X and Pope Pius XII encouraged the faithful to follow the Holy Mass and the other liturgical ceremonies with their missals.

Pope St. Pius X: “If you wish to hear Mass as it should be heard, you must follow with eye, heart, and lips all that happens on the altar.”

Pope Pius XII: “Place the missal in the hands of the faithful so that they may take part more easily and more fruitfully in the Mass; and that the faithful, united with the priest, may pray together in the very words and sentiments of the Church.”

“The most pressing duty of Christians is to live the liturgical life and increase and cherish its supernatural spirit.”

Furthermore, Abbot Gueranger, O.S.B., in his voluminous work, The Liturgical Year, wrote that the early Christians were spiritually strong and well-educated in their Catholic Faith because of their love and knowledge of the liturgy:

“The prayer of the Church is the most pleasing to the ear and heart of God, and therefore the most efficacious of all prayers. Happy, then, is he who prays with the Church and unites his own petitions with those of this bride, who is so dear to her Lord....”

“It is for this reason that our Blessed Savior taught us to say the Our Father and not my Father; give us, forgive us, deliver us, and not give me, forgive me, deliver me....”

“Thus initiated into the sacred cycle of the mysteries of the Christian year, the faithful, attentive to the teachings of the Spirit, came to know the secrets of eternal life; and without any further preparation, a Christian was not infrequently chosen by the bishops to be a priest or even a bishop, that he might go and pour out on the people the treasures of wisdom and love, which he had drunk in at the very fountain-head (the liturgy).”

What a remarkable statement! The early Christians were so well established in the Faith as to be chosen to be priests or even bishops. This reminds us of the well-known axiom “Lex orandi, lex credendi,” which means: the law of praying is the law of believing. In other words, the manner in which one prays manifests that which one believes.

Lastly, the liturgy of the Church can be beautifully compared to the “manna” by which God miraculously fed His Chosen People in the desert. This manna had a miraculous property — it satisfied everyone’s physical needs and tastes for forty years. It was substantial enough to support grown men and women, yet palatable and digestible to little children. So, too, the liturgy of the Catholic Church is a spiritual manna by which the Catholic faithful, both young and old, learned and unlearned, are fed sacramentally and spiritually. The liturgy is so simple in its significance that even a child can comprehend the truths represented, and yet it is so profound that learned theologians will always have sufficient matter to ponder in the mysteries signified by the prayers and ceremonies.

Let us briefly consider the Liturgy of the feast of Christmas, that we may find therein the tremendous wealth of grace and inspiration it contains.

In the first place, the priest is allowed to celebrate three Masses on Christmas Day: one at Midnight, another at dawn, and still another later in the day. This is to signify the three different types of birth of Jesus Christ: His human birth from the Immaculate Virgin Mary in time, His spiritual birth in our souls by the divine life of sanctifying grace, and His eternal generation or birth in the Bosom of His Father. And when we consider each of the three different types of birth, we find much matter for spiritual and doctrinal instruction.

The first Mass, which is offered at Midnight, honors the human birth of the Son of God in time from the Immaculate Virgin Mary. This was prophesied many centuries before by the Prophet Isaias:

“Behold a Virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and His name shall be called Emmanuel” (Isaias 7:14).

In the first Mass, we find wonderfully outlined the doctrine of the Hypostatic Union of Jesus Christ — the union of the Divine Nature and the human nature in the one Divine Person.

The Introit and the Gradual both establish the Divinity of Jesus Christ from the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament:

Introit: “The Lord said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son; this day I have begotten Thee‘” (Psalm 2).

Gradual: “The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit Thou at My right hand until I make Thy enemies Thy footstool’” (Psalm 109).

Then the Gospel for this Mass, taken from St. Luke, narrates to us the most stupendous event in the history of mankind — the birth of our Divine Savior in the stable of Bethlehem. St. Luke describes in detail all the circumstances which surrounded the birth of Christ — the census of Caesar Augustus, the departure of Joseph and Mary for Bethlehem, the birth of Jesus in the stable “because there was no room for them in the inn,” the wrapping of the Child in swaddling clothes, and the announcement of His birth to the shepherds by an angel. Here we can only marvel at the profound humility and poverty of the Son of God and the wonderful example He shows us of detachment from all worldly goods and honors. But most of all, we see in Our Lord’s Incarnation and Birth the infinite love of God for us His creatures:

“For God so loved the world, as to give His Only-begotten Son” (John 3:16).

The second Mass, which is offered at dawn, honors the spiritual birth of Christ in our souls by the divine life of sanctifying grace. This Mass is offered at dawn to signify that Christ is the Light of the world and that He came to illuminate the hearts and souls of men. This theme brings before our minds the true meaning and spirit of Christmas — that the celebration of Our Lord’s birth should bring us the grace to live a new life, free from sin, and also the grace to understand that Christ, in exchange for the humanity which He takes from us, wishes to make us partakers in His Divinity through sanctifying grace.

The Gospel for this second Mass is also taken from St. Luke and it continues the detailed narration begun in the Gospel of the Midnight Mass. His Gospel is sometimes called Our Lady’s Gospel, for he relates events which could only have been known by the Blessed Virgin. St. Luke notes this well by the phrase, “But Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in her heart.” We read how the shepherds cooperated with the grace of God and “went with haste” to Bethlehem, “where they found Mary and Joseph and the Babe lying in the manger.” There is an interesting point about the shepherds, their journey to Bethlehem, and their finding the Child in the manger. The word “Bethlehem” means in the Hebrew language, “the house of bread,” and it is significant that our Blessed Mother laid the Child in the manger (the place for animal feed). Truly, Jesus is “the Living Bread which came down from heaven,” Whom we receive in Holy Communion. Every time we partake of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, Christmas is renewed spiritually in our souls.

The third Mass is celebrated to honor the Divine Generation of the Son of God from the Father in eternity. This is exactly what we profess in the Nicene Creed at Holy Mass:

“I believe in one God, the Father Almighty... And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only-begotten Son of God. Born of the Father before all ages. God of God; Light of Light; true God of true God. Begotten not made; of one being with the Father.”

This theme, the Divine Generation of the Only-begotten Son from the Father, is powerfully expressed in the Gospel for this Mass taken from St. John:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God; and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was made nothing that has been made... And the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:1-14).

What profound mysteries we celebrate at Christmas — mysteries of our holy Faith which God has revealed to us and which we will never fully comprehend in this life! Let us be resolved to celebrate the birth of our Divine Savior in a fitting manner. Let us always remember that this same Jesus Christ, Who is the Only-begotten Son of God and who was born in Bethlehem nearly 2000 years ago, is ever present on our altars in the Holy Eucharist. When we offer holy Mass and perform the other liturgical functions, we can participate in the divine life of sanctifying grace — that divine life that He came into the world to give us.

Be assured of my prayers for all of you, especially during Holy Mass, and may the peace of Christ be with you during this holy Season and remain with you forever!

In Christo Jesu et Maria Immaculata,
Most Rev. Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI

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