While Gentle Silence Enveloped All Things:
Remarks on the Celebration of Christmas and Epiphany
This post is a translation of “Als mitternächtliches Schweigen das All umfing,” which first appeared in German at CiG 52/2021.
Since the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 and their severe restrictions on worship, social and family gatherings, our concept of the full, two-week, liturgical celebration of Christmas seems somehow less integrated with the whole of the year. And that’s reason enough for a few moments of reflection on its faded message.
Read from Easter
The Christian faith stands and falls with the mysterium paschale (1 Cor 15:17), and thus for the Second Vatican Council it is the center of every liturgy (SC 6 and 61). Written down as post-Easter confessions, the four Gospels that have become canonical proclaim the crucified and risen One in their own way as the God-sent Messiah “from the beginning.” For this, they fall back on the experience of Jesus’s calling at the Jordan (Mark) or the pre-existence of the Logos (John). The other two authors place the beginning of the redemption event with Jesus’s birth in his earthly life: one with the promised descent of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah for Israel and at the same time as the son of Abraham as the father of all nations (Matthew), the other with the extraordinary births of Jesus and of his forerunner (Luke). Of course, these origin narratives we now celebrate as Christmas and Epiphany do not retell the unabridged earthly biography of Jesus in every detail, but sing and celebrate his veiled divinity; not only for his sake, but for the sake of humanity and creation, for the sake of Israel and the nations.
Descent to the manger, to the cross, to Sheol
“Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” (2 Cor 8:9; compare Phil 2:6f) The movement of dramatic descent connects Easter and Christmas: The descensus of the Crucified into the realm of death, in order to disempower that “last enemy” (cf. 1 Cor 15:26), presupposes the descent of the divine Logos into the created world, which is “his own” (cf. Jn 1:11). His coming occurs in the darkness of earthly life under the promise of the Father, “My Son are you, today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7) – as proclaimed in the introitus of the Vigil Mass of Christmas. Thus, in its liturgical use, this psalm is intimately connected with the manger and the cross: in the Liturgy of the Hours, early on the morning of Good Friday, it interprets the death decree on Jesus with the antiphon “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed” (v. 2). Taken together, we hear that this destiny was already intended for the newborn Son (cf. Mt 2:16). In the Gradual Psalm of the Nativity Mass, God Himself reveals the Sonship of the Newborn: Tecum principum in die virtutis tuae … ante luciferum genui te (Ps 110:3) as well as that of the Crucified and Risen One in the Vespers of Easter Day and therefore every Sunday: Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis … „The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand“ So also on every Sunday, the weekly Easter day.
Anthropology: Humanity exalted with Christ
“Your Eternal Word has taken upon Himself our human weakness, giving our mortal nature immortal value.” With these biblically inspired words (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9), the older Preface of Christmas III paraphrases the content of the Christmas feast in Latin tradition: A holy, even paradoxical exchange takes place, a sacred-healing bargain (commercium) in which those who cannot pay become rich! Perhaps as early as 336, the Western Roman Church celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, a birth which has sanctified the world (consecratio mundi) and exalted humankind:
“Recognize, O Christian, your dignity! Do not, after you have become a partaker of the divine nature … return to the old lowliness! Remember what head, what body member you are! … Do not submit again to the bondage of Satan, for the price of your freedom is the blood of Christ.”
This is how Leo the Great († 461) interpreted the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Logos for Christmas. The same is the mystery of salvation given in baptism: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) O admirabile commercium – What a great wondrous exchange!
In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the birth of Christ was celebrated as his Epiphany (Gr.: appearance) in the world “fitting for time and place.” On the afternoon of January 5, the faithful first gathered for a liturgy of the word in the open field to hear the Lucan pericope of the shepherds’ adoration of the child (Lk 2:8-20); then they moved to the crypt of the Basilica of the Nativity, where the Gospel of the birth of Jesus was read (Mt 1:18-25). Finally, the extended night celebration from January 5 to 6 was marked by similar readings as the Paschal Vigil: one heard the stories of creation, of the salvation at the Red Sea, and then the miracle of the integrity of the three young men in the furnace of fire. In the Eucharistic celebration in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on January 6, the focus was once again on the Nativity story according to Matthew.
Universality: Church from all nations
Under the influence of the Roman liturgy celebrating the coming of the Word of God “into the flesh” (incarnation; cf. Jn 1:14) on December 25, the motif of “birth” also moved to this day in the Eastern Church liturgy in the sixth century, which until then had been dedicated to the memory of the patriarchs Jacob and David. The 6th of January, in the East formerly the feast of birth, now the feast of baptism of Jesus, thus drew as feast content (only) one of those three miracles through which the divinity of Jesus manifests itself before the world: the adoration of the child by the wise men (Mt 2:1-12), his baptism in the Jordan (Mk 1:9-11 parr), and Jesus’s first sign at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12).
Only the antiphons for the Benedictus (Lauds) and the Magnificat (2nd Vespers) speak of the tria miracula associated with this day: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.” And “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.”
The faithful, meanwhile, celebrate a popular theology/poor variant of the magi’s worship of the Messiah (“Feast of the Three Kings,” named Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar …). It is easy to forget that these wise men from the East are the ancestors in the faith of most Christians. Probably few baptized people today come from God’s people Israel and are therefore in need of the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” like ourselves (Lk 2:32).
Nights of Salvation: Liberated from the enemy of death, from tramping boots and bloody coats
In the Easter Vigil, the faithful experience the end of the reign of death as soon as they receive the tender light of Christ’s life; likewise, the Christmas Mass stages the darkness of a world in which many people learn not the goodness of creation, but its calamity. When then the longed-for “light of men” breaks in, the darkness has not “overcome” it (cf. Jn 1:4f) – has it not recognized it, not grasped it or not been able to take it by force …? God’s promise (logos) is born as a child, dependent and defenseless and “he was crucified, died, and was buried,” rejected and defenseless.
He is, of course, the very same creating Logos – “the life of men” – who is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12f; cf. Eph 5:13). The same is also the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” who will put an end to violence, despotism, blood and tears when “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa 9:7.5). Whoever is just moved by the birth of the sweet child at Christmas is not looking deeply enough. For He is the same one of whom the Introit Dum medium silentium on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas sings:
“For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.“
The biblical verse continues “… a stern warrior, carrying the sharp sword of thy authentic command and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth” (Wis 18:14f) and identifies the descent of the Logos with that of YHWH during the night of the tenth plague. The liturgical text does not quote the text in full, but its allusion is obvious: The Lord comes into the corrupted world to end the rule of man over man even today. On him rests the hope of all whose nights are now lonely, cold, painfully and deadly dark. Christ, the Savior has come – so that man may finally become man in the image and likeness of God.