Solemn Pontifical Mass
December 28, 2014
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Chalrles
“Dum medium silentium tenerent omnia, et nox in suo cursu medium iter haberet, omnipotens sermo tuus, Domine, de aelis a regalibus sedibus venit.”
“When peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run half of her swift course, your all-powerful Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne.”
Those beautiful verses are the Introit for this Mass and the Mass for the Sixth Day in the Octave of Christmas. They are so prescient that the Church places them before us so that we might pause and immerse ourselves even more into what it is that inspires our faith at Christmas. “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us,” St. John tells us, “and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). As St. Athanasius, in defending this mystery against the Arians, makes the point that the Word of God “… did not come in a man, but rather became man” (Defense Against the Arians, III, 29-30). To appear “in a man” would not necessarily evoke wonder. Here, however, God empties Himself out, taking the form of a slave. He humbles Himself. He refuses nothing. He suffers. He dies, and for what? We should better ask, “For whom?” It is for us. “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (John 1:3). His obedience was an obedience for life.
This point is even more fully emphasized when one considers the context of the words, “… your all-powerful Word, O Lord, leaped down from heaven, from the royal throne” (Wisdom 18:15). That verse is found in Wisdom as a reflection on the death of the Egyptian first-born at the time of the Exodus. God with strength reached down from heaven and slew the first-born of the Egyptians so that all might know that the Hebrew people were His chosen. In this last plague and final trial, God proved victorious and in so doing through death gave life to His People. In the verse that immediately precedes our Introit, it reads, “For though they disbelieved at every turn on account of sorceries, at the destruction of the first-born they acknowledge that the people was God’s son” (Wisdom 18:13).
Now the Church takes that profound and inspired meditation on the victory of life over death and offers it to us as a reflection on what Christ will do. Once Christ is born, a life like no other has entered the world. It is an eternal life that is reflected in every aspect of His birth. Angelic visitors herald His coming. A virgin consents to be His mother. A miraculous birth brings a prophet into the world who will prepare for His arrival. A star points the way for Gentiles to worship Him. As in Exodus, innocents are slaughtered because a king is fearful and out of Egypt a first-born son arises. In Bethlehem we encounter an unconquerable life, a life that is reminiscent of what went on before but surpasses it in power and fullness. As Jesus will later say in the Gospel of St. John, “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). While through Moses came a freedom in this world to live in a land of milk and honey, through Christ there is a more lasting freedom given—the power of Grace to overcome sin. From the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John, we hear, “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:16-17).
We never tire of hearing this message. For that reason, we remind ourselves of it year after year. One could argue that the “culture of death” and the “culture of life” have always been at odds. The human race has always known violence to innocents, evidence the actions of Pharaoh and Herod and in the last century Hitler and Stalin. Today, however, that struggle manifests itself in new and frightening ways. The difference today is that the violence has become customary, normalized and even legal. Add to this the sometimes misguided application of science, and the possibilities for the destruction of life have only become more imaginative and terrifying. It should come as no surprise that reminders of the birth of the Son of God must be removed from the public square. They recall the message of life.
Here in the manger of Bethlehem is a force that is “larger than life.” But in what sense? Its power lies with its humility. Life conquers through its ability to empty itself out. I love the words of St. Jerome in this regard. He writes:
Silver and gold are appropriate for the pagan world: the manger of
baked mud is more fitting for the Christian faith. He who was born
in this manger disdains gold and silver. I do not disapprove of those
who do it to honor him…; rather, I am amazed that the Lord and
Creator of the world was not born amid gold and silver, but in the mud.
Homily on the Nativity of the Lord, 31-40
The power of the Christian faith manifests itself most especially in being what the world is not. To arrogance it counters with humility. To cynicism it reacts with innocence. To deception it responds with truth. To glamour it demonstrates with simplicity. To death it responds with life. Christian faith is simply the opposite of everything that the world would expect and want. It offers “mud,” when the world would want “gold and silver.”
There is great irony in the liturgy of the Church, especially in the Roman and Eastern rites. In celebrating a humble birth, we offer our best. Like the Gentile magi, we bring our gifts of “gold, frankincense and myrrh.” We do so not for ourselves. We enrich the liturgy with the best that we have to offer because our sentiments are those of David’s. “Here I am living in a house of cedar, while the ark of God dwells in a tent” (2 Samuel 7:2). The accoutrements of the rituals manifest the beauty of a world that is not ours and thrusts us forward and upward into an unimaginable beauty. The “gold and silver” of this world become, like the offerings of the magi, a sign of a world to come. Never are they taken for what they are in and of themselves.
By reason of the life that we celebrate at Christmas, we come to the manger offering our best only because we have acknowledged the “mud” of our existence, our sins, our weaknesses and shortcomings yearning for strength to meet the challenges which are numerous and threatening. We take courage from the lowliness of Christ’s birth because here is life. The “mud” of his manger speaks even more eloquently when juxtaposed with the splendor of our offerings. The Word appears in the midst of “mud,” and to us who were formed from dust God gives life. From a royal throne, the Word leapt down from heaven. The world was silent because it was speechless. The Word would say it all.
Solemn Pontifical Mass