Fourth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Solemnity of the Lord’s Nativity (Christmas)
Readings (Mass in the Night): Isaiah 9:1-6; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
Merry Christmas, everyone!
The word “merry” has gotten a bad rap in certain quarters (in other ways than the word “predestination” – see Part 1). And the people associated with it have gotten an even worse rap. Where I live a nearby area is known as Merrymount, so called because its inhabitants back in the day were something of a lewd and seedy bunch – or perhaps were just a bit too loud about it. In a similar fashion, the genteel Victorians of Britain began the custom of saying “Happy Christmas,” in order to disassociate such a supreme feast with the boisterous feasting involved with “making merry” (which, after all, is better left to American papists).
But why should we not make merry? As Isaiah says in tonight’s First Reading, “You have brought them abundant joy and great rejoicing” by driving away the darkness, “as people make merry when dividing the spoils.” And the greeting of the Angel in the Gospel reading speaks of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” When last I checked the dictionary – that is, as I started writing this post – the word “merry” means and is synonymous with joyfulness, cheer, mirth, festivity. If any night is merry, it is this night – the night that “the zeal of the Lord of Hosts” brought forth a Child into the world Who would be the eternal Prince of Peace, the night that even the multitude of heaven’s Angels crowded the sky over Judea singing “Glory to God in the highest!” Yes – Christmas is merry!
But merriment does not come at the expense of solemnity – rather, it is meant to enhance it, and make it live fully in the lives of those observing it. The merriment of the Christmas feast derives from the solemnity of the Christmas mystery, and this is what Saint Paul discusses with his pupil Saint Titus in tonight’s Second Reading when he urges him “to live temperately, devoutly, and justly in this age.” When God’s grace was made manifest to the earth in such an awesome way, the original sanctity of creation was reaffirmed. So what sense is it if “making merry” causes us to behave as we would have before that grace was so shared, as if we still lived in a world where such a thing had never happened? Whether it is the pressured overindulgence that comes with celebrating the holiday, or the so-called “War on Christmas” which most of the soldiers aren’t aware they’re fighting, the reason for the season is lost if our merriment does not derive from its solemnity.
The Incarnation – the literal “making into flesh” of God – is the most unfathomably compassionate act ever recorded in human history. God became human so that Man could become divine. It happened 2000 years ago in a Bethlehem stall, and it continues to happen every hour of every day throughout the world in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We are meant to recognize that great mercy, and to act like those who continually benefit from it by drawing from it, by learning from it, by sharing it, by being “eager to do what is good.” And in that spirit, we should always be making merry – in the temperance that comes from knowing that God has conquered the world and its appetites, in the devotion that comes from receiving so great a grace out of incomprehensible love, and in the justice that comes from extending the same mercy you have been extended.
“His dominion is vast, and forever peaceful,” writes the prophet. May we always wish to live within its borders, and may we live there temperately, devoutly, justly – merrily.