Nativity of the Lord

Mass During the Night

The Lord said to me: You are my Son. It is I Who has begotten You today. (cf Psalm 2:7).

O God, Who have made this most sacred night
radiant with the splendor of the true light,
grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries
of His light on earth,
may also delight in His gladness in heaven.
Who lives and reigns with You in the Unity of the Holy Spirit,
on God for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord. (cf. Luke 2:11, Psalm 96).

“While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger (ἐν φάτνῃ, en phatne), because there was no room for them in the inn. Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign (σημεῖον, semeion) for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (ἐν φάτνῃ, en phatne).” (Luke 2:6-12).”

In the Christian world, the Nativity scene is a staple of this Sacred Season. Nativity sets, as some refer to them, come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors, textures and even occasionally appear living, complete with a newborn infant and various animals. Rooted probably in the ministry and preaching of Saint Francis of Assisi, the Nativity scene that appeared in the 13th century was intended to convey the historic reality of the Savior's birth and thereby teach the goodness of human nature and indeed all creation. Over the years, various artistic renderings of the Bethlehem event have taken on a life of its own and one might venture that some distance has grown between the typical Nativity set and life in first-century Bethlehem.

Take, for example, the usual depiction of the manger. Generally you see clean-sawed wood that is even smooth to the touch. Many mangers are small, just big enough to cradle a newborn infant (how convenient) with hay or straw that is not only clean, but nicely arranged to make for a great picture. In the first-century, the φάτνη (phatne) would better be described as a feeding trough for all the animals. It could be wooden or stone and in either case, it had to be big enough and sturdy enough to service the needs of one's animals. For the Evangelist Saint Luke, what is important about the φάτνη (phatne) is what goes into it: food. The φάτνη (phatne) is the sources of food for the animals and the animals are smart enough to be drawn to the φάτνη (phatne) for their daily sustenance. No doubt, the φάτνη (phatne) certainly was not a sterile environment, to say the least. With all the animals helping themselves to what was in the φάτνη (phatne), things were bound to get a bit messy and smelly, not to mention the fact that these animals needed ‘to learn’ how to co-exist with one another at the φάτνη (phatne); instinctively: not an easy thing to do.

Grasping the significance of the φάτνη (phatne) is a vital task of the Christmas event. No less than an “angel of the Lord” (someone you do not want to mess around with in Sacred Scripture!) reveals to shepherds that the φάτνη (phatne) is part of a σημεῖον (sēmeíon, sign). Saint Luke's use of σημεῖον (sēmeíon) recalls words of the Prophet Isaiah to Ahaz ("But Ahaz answered, “I will not ask! I will not tempt the LORD!” Then he said: Listen, O house of David! Is it not enough for you to weary men, must you also weary my God? Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:11-14)” Why did Ahaz protest a sign? Why didn't he want a sign? It seems so contrary to human nature. Even in our day, we cry out in our prayers “Give me a sign, O God!” As corrupt as he was, Ahaz knew that to receive a σημεῖον (sēmeíon) from God required action and change on his part. Biblically, a σημεῖον (sēmeíon) is not passive. Biblical signs are not ‘take-it or leave-it realities.’ The σημεῖον (sēmeíon) calls forth a response from the person or persons to whom the sign is given and often time the response involves some aspect of ongoing conversion on the part of the recipient.

Thus the φάτνη (phatne) of Bethlehem - a σημεῖον (sēmeíon) given by an “angel of the Lord” - is not a nice, warm, fluffy nostalgic ‘take-it’ or ‘leave-it’ object that conjures up memories of Christmas past. “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord,” we chant following the Isaian proclamation. Notice the word today. We gather today to celebrate an event is not confined or locked in the past. Yes, we celebrate a historic event, most definitely - AND - we celebrate an event that is also most present: God-in-the-flesh Who is Emmanuel: God-with-us. What exactly does that mean for each disciple of Jesus? The ‘answer’ to that question requires each to imitate the shepherds who went in haste (Luke 2:16) to Bethlehem (the city whose name in Hebrew means “House (or home) of Bread”). In other words, the shepherds did not procrastinate. The shepherds did not permit their attention to wander off point. The angel said go, and go they did! To go to Bethlehem is to encounter the σημεῖον (sēmeíon) and to be changed. Bethlehem for us is as close as the Altar of our parish Church. It is going to that φάτνη (phatne) where we will be given “our daily Bread” Who transforms our lives by filling them with His joy.

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