Christmas Vigil – December 24, 2014

I’m very happy to have the help of a deacon at this Liturgy; reading Matthew’s genealogy almost always makes me laugh out loud. Amminadab, Rehoboam and Zerubbabel sound like Dean Martin muttering after having had too many martinis.

The point of these many unusual names is explained at the end of the genealogy. “Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:17) The author of the Gospel understood the history of the People of Israel as necessarily leading to the birth of Jesus.

The three sets of fourteen generations each signifies perfection in a Scriptural sense: “the fullness of time.” (Galatians 4:4) The “fullness of time” refers to the time at which God chooses to fulfill God’s will. All of those ancient generations of people had to be born and die as preparation for God’s fulfilling of the promise to save God’s People.

There is just one fly in this saving ointment: the third set of names contains only thirteen generations. The missing generation has been the topic of much discussion among interpreters and readers of the Scriptures. Some say it might have been a copyist’s error: someone simply left out a name by accident. Given the unusual nature of the names, that is very plausible. There is, however, a much more obvious explanation.

Matthew’s Gospel is a type of ancient literature called a “manual of discipline.” Manuals of discipline recorded beliefs and practices for individual religious communities. The Qumran community had a manual of discipline; it’s not surprising that ancient Christian communities composed their own. Matthew’s Gospel provides instructions about how to lead a church community. There are instructions about bringing new members into the community, instructions about dealing with dissent and betrayal and instructions about how to face persecution. Paraphrasing a Rabbi friend of mine, I often describe my job as teaching Catholics how to be Catholic. Matthew’s Gospel was written for that same reason.

The simple and obvious explanation of the missing fourteenth generation is that the apparent absence is integral to the purpose of the Gospel. Everything in Matthew’s Gospel was composed in order to teach Church members how to be Church members. The fourteenth generation in the genealogy isn’t missing; it is present in those to whom the Gospel is addressed.

Keep in mind that the purpose of that long list of unusual names is to illustrate that, when the time was right, God’s plan of salvation was born into the world in the person of a lowly infant. In his adult life Jesus proclaimed the proximity of God’s Kingdom, and he inaugurated that Kingdom by his death. The community of his disciples, the Church, lives in an interim period during which we wait for the completion of God’s plan: the day of Judgment and General Resurrection. We believers, every generation of the baptized before us and every one which will follow, are the fourteenth generation – the ones who are necessary to prepare for the Lord’s return in glory.

In American consumer culture Christmas is about looking backward to childish sentimentality, or about looking inward to contemporary material wants. In the Catholic Church Christmas is about looking forward to the glorious return of Jesus, the just Judge of all nations. (Matthew 25:31) The disconnect between our society and our Church has a simple and obvious explanation. We, the necessary final generation before the Lord’s return, have to spend our time and energies fulfilling our obligation to God and one another; we have to spend ourselves in the mission to announce the Good News to all creatures.

A young couple, who I knew as students at the University, now have four young children. It is great fun for me to buy Christmas gifts for their four children, and then listen to the stories of the mayhem of unwrapping gifts on Christmas morning. There can be real joy in the consumer’s celebration of Christmas but, at best, that joy fades after a few hours. If that is all there is to Christmas, we are the saddest of people.

None of us need coaching about how to be consumers on Christmas; that’s a fairly easy thing to figure out. All of us, however, could use some coaching about how to be Catholics on Christmas. Matthew’s Gospel gives us reliable instructions about how to be Catholic on Christmas. Being a Catholic on Christmas means being righteous and fearless as was Joseph (Matthew 1:19-20), humble and obedient as was Mary (Matthew 1:18), and proclaiming that God is with us. (Matthew 1:23)

The first reading in the Liturgy of the Word said, “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.” (Isaiah 62:1) Being a Catholic on Christmas means not being silent, but rather announcing the coming of the Son of God. Of all the joyful noises we will make tomorrow morning, the one that endures is the Gospel.

Christmas, Mass during the Day – December 25, 2014

Translations, by necessity, both reveal and obscure meaning. The translation of the Prologue of John’s Gospel is an excellent example of the limitations of translating one language into another.

The Gospel begins, “ In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The phrase “the Word was with God” is translated in this fashion in order to point to later themes in the Gospel. Further along in the Prologue the Gospel says that the Word “made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)

The first line of the Prologue is translated “the Word was with God” in order to harmonize with the theme of “dwelling” that is repeated throughout the Gospel. Unfortunately, in doing so, the translation obscures part of the meaning of the text. The statement, “the Word was with God” (John 1:1), might be better translated as “the Word was face to face with God.”

The difference might appear slight, but it is significant. The Prologue of the Gospel depicts the Word as being not merely near to God, or in God’s vicinity, but in an intimate and direct relationship with the Godhead. The next line of the Prologue emphasizes this intimacy, “the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

I mention this to you because of something the Prologue says a few lines down from its beginning. The Gospel says, “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him.” (John 1:10) This, too, is a recurring theme in the Gospel of John: some accept the Word, and others reject it.

Peggy Noonan, an editorialist and former speech writer for Ronald Reagan, remarked once that, “We may be an attractive people, but we are somehow terribly sad.” There is a terrible sadness in the world that results from the rejection of the Word. The many sad events that we see playing out in the world, in our local community and in our lives are individual manifestations of this “terrible sadness” of being distant from the Word.

The Word is face to face with God, and offers us the same intimate relationship with himself. Some accept the Word, and others do not. I’d like to propose a way for you to celebrate Christmas in the intimate presence of the Word.

For the rest of the day, each time you have a spare moment, repeat the words of the Gospel, “this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:4) Light and darkness are also recurring themes in the Gospel; they are metaphors for faith and its absence, for presence to the Word and distance from it. The Word of God is Light for our lives, but like any source of light, it benefits us only when we are close enough to it to see it shining.

The Word of God sheds Light into our lives, if we allow the Word to approach us. When you get into your car to drive home after Mass today, you’ll turn on the headlights. Take that opportunity to remind yourself of the source of the true Light of the World. Repeat those words, “this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:4)

When you arrive home, and turn on the house lights, or plug in the Christmas tree, repeat those words, “this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:4) When you turn on the stove or the television, repeat those words, “this life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:4)

The utilitarian lights we use daily can be a reminder of the closeness of God, if we allow the Light to draw near to us. Christmas is always a joyful event, but most of the joy of Christmas fades after a few hours. If you would like a celebration of Christmas day that will be fulfilling and joyful in a way that doesn’t fade, make yourself present to God’s Word in the same way that the Word desires to be present to you. “This life was the light of the human race.” (John 1:4)

2 thoughts on “Christmas Vigil – December 24, 2014

  1. Is that a prophetic statement?…”we, the necessary final generation before the Lord’s return” or as you say the 14th generation, possibly saying that we, as the Evangelicals would say, (dare I mutter it) are in “End Times?”

  2. The “end times” have been occurring since the crucifixion of Jesus, and will continue until his glorious return. The Gospel tells us that no one other than God the Father knows the hour and day of the end. (Mark 13:32) For that reason, it is a waste of the time to obsess over the “end times,” as some do; these times in which we live are given to us in order to proclaim the good news to all.

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