Living the readings: An epic unfolds

The Christmas story is another example of God speaking to us

Thanks to the timing of Advent, with its First Sunday in November, the message of Christmas unfolds before us as an ancient epic might. Back in antiquity, classic writers would start their stories of great events and great people in medio res or “the middle of things.” It’s not merely a classic form; Star Wars uses the same form.

Let’s look at December’s major liturgies from the point of view of a classic epic. Doing so may help us to become Christmas-centered and, thereby, learn from the three Sundays in Advent how to prepare for the feast and how to live it out for the rest of our lives from the last Sunday of the year.

So, we begin, in the middle by looking at Christmas itself. Most children would like to start there, and we are all children at heart. Once there, our hearts can delight in four different settings of Scripture readings all telling us the essence of the Christmas mystery. It’s all about the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity becoming a human being. However, that reality boggles the most superior of minds. Let’s scan the four Christmas liturgies to uncover the mystery in four dimensions.

The Vigil Mass begins with a passage from Isaiah in which the love of God for his people is described in the romantic words of a couple deeply in love with one another. That’s the way God loves us, and that is why God comes to us when we are in need. Paul, in the second reading, announces at the synagogue in Antioch that the Messiah has come and what remains is to be formed by Him into a new people. The Gospel consists of a genealogy of Jesus followed by Joseph’s view of the child’s birth. In a preview briefing on Christmas from an angel, Joseph learns of the Holy Spirit being involved and needing Mary and Joseph’s capabilities to get this divine operation completed successfully. In short, God’s plan depends on our cooperation.

The Midnight Mass also starts with a passage from Isaiah. It is the message that “a people in darkness have seen a great light.” That’s why people radically change their schedule to come to Mass at midnight. They want to experience the coldest and darkest part of the day so that they may experience the warmth and love of Christ’s first coming. In the second reading, Paul writes to Titus telling us that, as a result of Christmas, we need to live “temperately, justly, and devoutly in this world and await the blessed hope…of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” The Gospel gives us Luke’s story of Christmas. It’s the stories of shepherds, of angels, and of Mary and Joseph journeying to Bethlehem. It touches our hearts and leads us back to Isaiah and Paul to find out our role in the saga.

The Mass at dawn also begins with a passage from Isaiah. Here, he is announcing the coming of our savior. It’s electrically exciting. Our religion is meant to be that way. The second reading follows directly after the one used at midnight. Here, Paul tells Titus that the reason for Christmas was solely God’s mercy, and not for any human deeds. Think, because to contemplate God’s mercy is exciting for us. The dawn Gospel provides us with the response of the shepherds to the angels’ message. Excitedly, they look for the infant Jesus and find him and tell Mary the message of the angels. Even Mary needed to be helped by the lowly shepherds to comprehend God’s actions. Everyone in our lives, then, becomes valuable to us by leading us, little by little, to understand how God uses our lives to proclaim his message.

Christmas Mass during the day also employs Isaiah for its first reading.  Here, the prophet encourages us to raise a cry and shout for joy. Christmas demands a strong response. We need to loosen up all that holds us back from expressing our joy. If we bottle up our Christmas joy, not only will our friends and family fail to get appropriately involved; but we, ourselves will miss one of the essential parts of Christmas, namely the joy that God gives us to proclaim his presence. The second reading is from the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews. This pericope shouts out to us the message that the God who created the universe is speaking to us. We need to listen and respond. The Christmas readings conclude with the introduction to John’s Gospel. “In the beginning was the Word…” He wants us to realize the immensity of the situation in which we find ourselves. The great God in heaven loves us, speaks to us, comes to us, and reveals his glory.

Christmas is awesome. But a question arises. In classic literature and in many current movies people are drawn by the original film to learn the “backstory.” And so, the Church delivers, by popular demand, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. If you only knew what the Christmas Masses told us, then you would not know the full story of Mary’s involvement with our salvation and, for that matter, with her relationship with her child, Jesus. We would not know for certain how humanity needed a savior. Nor would we know what God thinks human beings can do. The answers to these and many other questions come to us in the readings of the early Advent feast of the Immaculate Conception.

The first reading of the feast takes us, by means of the book of Genesis, to the beginning of human life. We are in the Garden of Eden together with Adam and Eve, the first human beings. Everything is perfect. There is only one thing that can negate the perfection. Humans, starting with our first parents, have free will. They have a choice. The only prohibition God gave the humans was not to eat the fruit of one tree. As we all know, they blew it. They disobeyed God and, as a consequence, lost paradise.

There is a big hint in this story we tend to miss that is essential. Adam’s reaction to being called by God was to hide. At that point, God was still close to him. And so God questions how Adam could know he was naked and feel shame. What is implied here is of utmost importance. Before the fall, Adam and Eve did not see differences. They were completely one, “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” Both were in direct and intimate contact with God. Now, something was very wrong. The unity with God, with each other and with the animals was all broken. That is to say that the world as we know it is not like it was originally created.

That is why there needed to be a Christmas. God wanted to re-establish his original relationship with humanity. That explains the importance of Mary’s dialogue with the angel Gabriel. Knowing the backstory, we can see that God was looking for a human “yes” to negate the action of Adam and Eve, which was their resounding “no” to doing God’s will. Mary did say “yes.” As an immediate result, she was to have the presence of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity dwell within her. God and man are together again. Christmas starts the opportunity to accept the Christ-child into our lives. His passion, death and resurrection allow us to share in the life of Mary’s child and our God.

The four Sundays of Advent help us to make the change between the state we were in after the fall of Adam and Eve and where we should be at Christmas. Let’s look at them with that intentionality.

The Second Sunday of Advent is the first Sunday in December. It takes us back to two standard-bearers of Advent, Isaiah and John the Baptist. In the first reading, Isaiah urges us to prepare the way of the Lord by crying out and yelling to all who would hear the good news that God is coming. We should have that enthusiasm as well. John, in the Gospel, shows us how. We need to look at the world not as it has been, filled with evil. We should see it redeemed and flowing with the grace of God. This is repentance – to see life differently. We open ourselves to the Holy Spirit. Or, as Peter writes in the second reading, we should see the present world as passing away and we should be awaiting “new heavens and a new earth.” That means “to be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him [God], at peace.”

The Third Sunday of Advent starts off with Isaiah telling us to “rejoice heartily in the Lord.” In effect he’s telling us to live knowing God is with us. Paul backs this up in the second reading telling us to give thanks to God, to rejoice always and pray without ceasing. That will surely prepare us not only for Christmas, but for heaven, too. The Gospel reintroduces us to John the Baptist, who protests he was not the Christ. Yet, by doing all the things Paul asks us to do, he shows us we are capable of doing them as well. Most of all, to prepare for Christmas, we need to possess what Adam and Eve once had, namely the presence of God.

The Fourth Sunday of Advent offers us a pre-Christmas way of living. The first reading teaches us God will reward us with his peace for fighting against evil. If we teach our children well, it will make a difference in the future. The second reading teaches us to live in “the obedience of Faith.” That is, our lives should proclaim the presence of God. The Gospel once again gives us the opportunity to study Mary’s dialogue with Gabriel. She is everything Paul and Isaiah wanted us to be. She knows already that her Son will change the world and she acts that way.  She also is obedient to the word of God even though her heart would be pierced with sorrows on several occasions. She still can be happy in the Lord.

The last part of a classic epic should have a satisfying ending along with a lesson for the future. So we look at the feast of the Holy Family to present us with a post-Christmas attitude. The passage from Genesis has God telling Abram “fear not, I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.” That is the attitude we should take from Christmas. Abram and Sarah received the gift of a child in their old age. God does give gifts, even when we least expect them. The Scriptures are telling us to expect them and live happy. The second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, relates to Abraham as well. He became, like God, willing to sacrifice his only Son. Faithfulness can form us into an image of God. That is a great Christmas present.

The Gospel for this last Sunday in December presents two delightful characters, Simeon and Anna. Simeon was righteous and devout. Anna was “a prophetess who never left the Temple worshiping night and day with fasting and prayer.” Both recognized the baby Jesus as “the glory of your people Israel” and as the “redeemer of Jerusalem.” We would do well to become an Anna or a Simeon during Advent and Christmas. We would be devout, faithful, with our mind on the things of heaven and able to see Christ in the people we meet. Then we’ll all have a happy and holy Christmas every day of our lives.

Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.

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