“Christmas Midnight Mass: Of the Father’s Love Begotten, Present Now” (12/25/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
It’s no mistake the Lord Jesus was born at night, in the middle of the night. This night is a time of sacred silence. We are removed from the bustle of our daily activities to encounter the birth of God-made-man. We let all else drop away to fix our attention on the mystery of Christmas.
St. Ignatius of Antioch speaks of three mysteries that occurred in silence. He notes how the virginity of Mary, the Birth of Jesus, and his death were all hidden. He says, “These three mysteries cry out loudly while being accomplished in the silence of God.” (To Ephesus, #19) The birth of the Son of God cries out from the silence of God. St. Ignatius says in this same letter to the Church of Ephesus, “He who possesses the word of Jesus is truly able to hear even His very silence, that he may be perfect, and may both act as he speaks, and be recognized by his silence” (#15).
This is a night of sacred silence, God’s silence. Yet there is a word spoken in this silence. The silence helps us hear this word, this Word that is a Person. The 2nd person of the Trinity, the Word, becomes flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The Word was born of Mary but, even before that, the Word was born of the Father from all eternity.
Our entrance antiphon from Ps 2 says, “The Lord said to me: You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.” This hearkens back to the God the Son’s being born of God the Father from all eternity. In the Middle Ages it was common to reflect on our three Christmas Masses in terms of the three births of the Son. For midnight Mass, it is the eternal birth of the Son from the Father. For Mass at dawn, it is the Son made man’s birth from Mary. And for the Christmas Mass of the day, it is the Son’s birth in our souls. It is a rich a way to reflect on the mystery of Christmas, so we will do the same over these three Masses.
Our entrance antiphon points us to the eternal birth of the Son from the Father. “The Lord said to me: You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.” The beginning of life was here, in this birth. Sisters of Life, this is where we find the beginning of life. The beginning of life was here, in that beginning without beginning, the eternal birth of the Son from the Father. And it is present to us even now.
That is the quality of eternity, not so much that it goes so far back in the past but that it is a gathering up of all present moments. St. Thomas Aquinas calls Eternity the “Nunc Stans,” “The Standing Now,” the now that always remains. So this eternal birth of the Son from the Father is happening even now.
It is as if, on stage, the curtain is being opened for the first time. And the eternal Son is being born of the eternal Father as if for the first time, as if it is just beginning—right now. This is the source of life. And we can always return to it. We can always return to it in silence, in the silence of the night. We can return time and time again to the divine life breaking forth for the first time in the birth of the Son from the Father. And it is a life of love that is born anew each moment, the Son being born from the Father in the communion of the Holy Spirit.
So when we see the Baby Jesus, born in the manger out of love for us, we also see with the eyes of faith his eternal birth from the Father. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten and consubstantial with the Father. The new birth of the new born Jesus, draws us up to the newness of his eternal birth from the Father. And we can enter anew and find life, the life of love for our souls and for the world.
The beautiful hymn of Prudentius from the 4th century captures this too. “Of the Father’s love begotten, before the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the Source, the Ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!”
This newness of the eternal birth of the Son from the Father, we can always enter into anew. When we are caught up in our busy-ness, when we get frustrated with things, when we’re frazzled, when we need to return to the Lord to find rest, we can find this new life of love right now in the Son being born from the Father, in the Father’s complete outpouring of love. He so gives himself in Love that he gives everything to the Son, his whole divine nature. He gives everything to the Son except that of being Father.
We find this complete self-giving love most easily in the Babe in the manger. Then seeing our God made visible, we are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.
St. Alphonsus Ligouri says, “I think God must have said to Himself: Man does not love Me because he does not see Me; I will show Myself to him and thus make him love Me. God’s love for man was very great, and had been great from all eternity, but this love had not yet become visible…Then, it really appeared; the Son of God let Himself be seen as a tiny Babe in a stable, lying on a little straw” (Div. Int., 85).
It’s the way we are: we need to see the Baby Jesus, and God come so close to us, to know in our hearts the love of God. The birth of Jesus manifests to us the eternal birth of the Son in love…Of the Father’s love begotten. And we grasp this in silence, the silence of this Holy Night.
The sacred silence of this night, then, has a couple aspects. First, the silence and the night create a space of openness for God to reveal himself as he is. We all have these notions of God in our hearts that fall short of who he really is. These are idols in a way. Perhaps our relationship with our parents instilled in us a false notion of God. None of us had a perfect relationship with our father or mother and this can still influence the way we approach God the Father, and his love. Perhaps we know better now, intellectually, but our hearts still haven’t taken in the truth. So, the night is a place of darkness, or openness for God to reveal himself as he is. We fall silent in our souls, so the true word of God’s love for us can speak from the silence. We enter the darkness of the Night so the true light can shine.
Blessed John Ruusbroec says, “In the abyss of this darkness in which the loving spirit has died to itself, God’s revelation and eternal life have their origin, for in this darkness an incomprehensible light is born and shines forth; this is the Son of God…It is a new birth and a new illumination” (CWS, 147). This is one of the graces of Christmas, a new birth and a new illumination of who God is and his love for us.
Second, and finally, the silence of the night is one of superabundance. We fall silent because we are overwhelmed by what we contemplate in seeing God’s love made flesh in Jesus. We glimpse not only the human love we can see but are caught up in the divine love we cannot see.
So on this Christmas night, let us bow down and worship with all of creation, this Baby, the Divine Son. Let us marvel over Him: “Of the Father’s love begotten, before the worlds began to be, he is Alpha and Omega, he the Source, the Ending he, of the things that are, that have been, and that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!” Amen.