25 December 2018

The Three Christmas Gospels


+JMJ+

There are three masses on Christmas. In fact this has been the case in the West since at least the 7th Century when Pope Gregory mentions it (see below). Each Mass has its own readings and its own prayers. Recently some friends and I, being Church Geeks, were comparing missals and became quite happy to note that these three masses, and their three readings, are transferred fully into the Novus Ordo. The Divine Office for this day (in the Extraordinary Form) is also in a special format, set up to wrap around these three masses.

Matins for Christmas precedes the Midnight Mass. This is a form that Byzantines would recognize: for them the Matins service is always part of the Sunday Morning (or Saturday Evening) rites. This Mass commemorates the Angels' singing. The Gospel stops at "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men." After the midnight Mass, Lauds is prayed. (This is not a separate service in the East where the Laudate Psalms are sung at the end of Matins.) The verses at Lauds ask the Shepherds (as they are coming in from the fields) what has happened. To commemorate the Shepherds at the Manger then, there is a Mass at dawn - when would normally be sung Lauds - and then a Mass after the third hour of the day when the office of Terce has been sung. This Mass, "of the Day", is the most-ancient of the three. At it the Gospel Reading is not from the Christmas Story. Rather it is the opening passage to St John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

In the West the office of Matins often has assigned as a reading the Gospel for the day - especially on Sundays and Major Feasts. Then there is a Patristic commentary or homily on the passage. (This is one of my favourite qualities of the EF office.) This day is no exception - but because there are three Gospels, there are in Matins, three different commentaries:


St Luke 2:1-14 (The Midnight Gospel)

At that time : There went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Gregory the Pope
By God's mercy we are to say three Masses today.  Hence there is not much time left for preaching on this passage of the Gospel.  Nonetheless the Feast of the Lord's Birthday constraineth me to speak a few words.  I will begin at once by asking why this numbering for taxation took place at the Lord's Birth, and why all the world was enrolled?  Was it not to make us mindful that one had now appeared in the flesh who would enroll his elect in the book of life?  And note, on the other hand, how the Prophet saith of the reprobate : Let them be wiped out of the book of the living, and not be written among the righteous.  Note also that the Lord was born in Bethlehem, which same signifieth the House of Bread, and thus was meetly the birthplace of him who hath said : I am the Living Bread which came down from heaven.  The place, then, where our Lord was born was already called the House of Bread because therein was he to appear who would feed the souls of the the faithful unto life eternal.  Not in his Mother's house was he born, but away from home.  And this should make us mindful that our mortality, in which he was born, was not the home of him who is begotten of the Father before all worlds.

St Luke 2:15-20 (The Dawn Gospel)
At that time : The shepherds said one to another : Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Ambrose the Bishop
Behold the beginning of the Church.  Christ is born, and the shepherds keep their watch.  Yea, they keep their watch like as becometh those who would gather together the scattered sheep of the Gentiles (which had hitherto lived like as brute beasts) and lead them into the fold of Christ, that they might need no longer to suffer the ravages of spiritual wolves in the night of this world's darkness.  How wide awake are those shepherds whom the Good Shepherd stirreth up.  Their flock is the people.  The night is the world.  For these shepherds are the Priests.  And perhaps that Angel, too, is a shepherd to whom in the Apocalypse is said : Be watchful and strengthen.  For God hath ordained to watch over his flock not Bishops only but Angels also.

St John 1:1-14 (The Morning Mass - "of the Day")
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  And so on, and that which followeth.

A Homily by St. Augustine the Bishop
Lest ye consider what I have to say as worthless, which is the judgement ye so often pass upon the word of a man, ponder this : The Word was God!  Now perhaps some Arian unbeliever may have the audacity to say the Word of God was made, and is therefore a creature.  How can the Word of God be a creature, since by him all things were made, and he is thus the Creator?  If the Word of God be a creature, then there must be some other Word, not a creature, whereby he was made.  And what Word is that?  If thou sayest that it was by the word of the Word himself that he was made, I answer that God had no Word other than his one only-begotten Son.  But unless thou sayest it was by the Word's own word that the Word was made, thou art forced to confess that he by whom all creaturely things were made was not himself made at all, but is himself the uncreated Maker of everything that was made.  Wherefore, believe the Gospel.

There is also a longer Patristic passage that is really a heart-stirring joy to read. It pairs well with the Paschal Homily of St John Chrysostom.

A Homily from St Leo the Pope
Dearly beloved brethren, Unto us is born this day a Saviour. Let us rejoice. It would be unlawful to be sad to day, for today is Life's Birthday; the Birthday of that Life, Which, for us dying creatures, taketh away the sting of death, and bringeth the bright promise of the eternal gladness hereafter. It would be unlawful for any man to refuse to partake in our rejoicing. All men have an equal share in the great cause of our joy, for, since our Lord, Who is the destroyer of sin and of death, findeth that all are bound under the condemnation, He is come to make all free. Rejoice, O thou that art holy, thou drawest nearer to thy crown! Rejoice, O thou that art sinful, thy Saviour offereth thee pardon! Rejoice also, O thou Gentile, God calleth thee to life! For the Son of God, when the fulness of the time was come, which had been fixed by the unsearchable counsel of God, took upon Him the nature of man, that He might reconcile that nature to Him Who made it, and so the devil, the inventor of death, is met and beaten in that very flesh which hath been the field of his victory.

When our Lord entered the field of battle against the devil, He did so with a great and wonderful fairness. Being Himself the Almighty, He laid aside His uncreated Majesty to fight with our cruel enemy in our weak flesh. He brought against him the very shape, the very nature of our mortality, yet without sin. His birth however was not a birth like other births for no other is born pure, nay, not the little child whose life endureth but a day on the earth. To His birth alone the throes of human passion had not contributed, in His alone no consequence of sin had had part. For His Mother was chosen a Virgin of the kingly lineage of David, and when she was to grow heavy with the sacred Child, her soul had already conceived Him before her body. She knew the counsel of God announced to her by the Angel, lest the unwonted events should alarm her. The future Mother of God knew what was to be wrought in her by the Holy Ghost, and that her modesty was absolutely safe.

Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, let us give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Ghost: Who, for His great love wherewith He loved us, hath had mercy on us and, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, that in Him we might be a new creature, and a new workmanship. Let us then put off the old man with his deeds; and, having obtained a share in the Sonship of Christ, let us renounce the deeds of the flesh. Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature, and fall not again by corrupt conversation into the beggarly elements above which thou art lifted. Remember Whose Body it is Whereof thou art made a member, and Who is its Head. Remember that it is He That hath delivered thee from the power of darkness and hath translated thee into God's light, and God's kingdom.
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Agnósce, o Christiáne, dignitátem tuam: et divínæ consors factus natúræ...
Learn, O Christian, how great thou art, who hast been made partaker of the Divine nature...

Glory to God in the Highest!
Christ is Born!

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