The Nativity of the Lord
The Word This Day
The Vigil Mass of Christmas has a particular feel to it, which is perhaps best revealed by looking at the Alleluia verse: ‘Tomorrow there will be an end to the sin of the world, and the Saviour of the world will be our king!’ That word ‘tomorrow’ is the key. To keep vigil is to watch and wait for something, in joyful hope. Understanding this will help in understanding what the readings of this evening are doing. They are about Israel, the people that were watching and waiting for the coming of the promised Messiah: this is why we hear words like ‘Zion’, ‘Jerusalem’, ‘the land’, ‘covenant’, ‘David’, and why we listen to the long genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel. Tonight we are somehow to enter into the longing of Israel, as they wait for the One who was to come. But we wait in the knowledge that ‘tomorrow’ will be the day of salvation, when we rejoice at the birth of the Messiah.
There’s a wonderful way in which the Christmas message emerges from out of the midnight darkness as we gather for this Mass: the first words of Scripture we hear tonight are like the beaming of a star through the blackness of night: ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ The mystery of Christmas is this - a great revelation: a light in the darkness, a star through the night, the birth of the Sun of Justice; the showing to the whole world of the love of God, made visible in Jesus. No wonder there is a great throng of the heavenly host shattering the darkness of the cold night on the hillside outside Bethlehem - because the invisible night of sin and sadness is shattered by the light of the Saviour’s birth. Christmas is a very emotive and (in a sense) romantic feast: many of the congregation this evening will come with childhood memories and their own idea of what Christmas is about. It is important that we are aware of this, so that you we can allow the deepest wonder of this night to penetrate through what can sometimes be rather shallow thoughts about the mystery. Remember it is not about ‘then’ - this is about ‘now’ and our salvation.
Notes for Readers
First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5.
This reading is a prophecy of the restoration of the fortunes of Jerusalem, the Holy City and chosen dwelling place of God. It is great poetry, and should be read as such - pausing after each line and using the colour of the words to create a picture of promise and glory. It starts with a very emphatic line: ‘About Jerusalem I will not be silent.’ there should be a glowing hope in the reader’s voice throughout this, a barely subdued excitement at what is coming, what is going to happen to the Holy City. Enjoy especially the line: ‘for the Lord takes delight in you...’ and the wonderful image of the wedding feast which comes after it. Even though this reading doesn’t actually mention the Messiah, or the Nativity, it still leads us to that mystery, if read as a light of hope coming into the darkness of our night.
Second Reading: Acts 13:16-17.22-25.
Paul stands up before the crowd and sums up the history of Israel: their being chosen by God, David becoming King, the promise and raising up of Jesus, heralded by John. This is the Christmas story, not in terms of a cave in Bethlehem, but in terms of last Sunday’s second reading - the hidden mystery of God now revealed in Jesus Christ. The first paragraph is a matter of fact introduction: then, when Paul begins to speak, your tone should change also. You are telling a story, using Paul’s words. It leads us into the Christmas message from the point of view of the ‘Men of Israel’ Paul is addressing. Imagine how Paul held his listeners’ attention when speaking in Antioch, and try to hold your congregation the same way: imagine Paul almost bursting with the news he wanted to share with them - the Good News, the news of salvation. Look again at the Alleluia verse to get the tone of this reading: Paul is speaking to the crowd so that they can share in the Christmas message: ‘tomorrow there will be an end to the sin of the world!’