Living the readings: A Christmas change of life

Prepare for, rejoice in, and live out the holy season message

By Father Joseph Brando

We are approaching one of the great highlights of the year. If we can look at the entire calendar from afar, we can see Christmas and Epiphany shining out and giving us hope.

In a few months beyond those twin celebrations we have Easter and Pentecost. These feasts proclaim the redemption of the world through the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, our Savior. Everything in our spiritual lives and the Church’s liturgical life revolve around these basic elements of our faith.

Therefore, with December upon us it is beneficial that we take a panoramic perspective of the entire Christmas cycle so that we can intelligently experience what the Church has beautifully set before us. Thus we can better appreciate the movement through which we experience our journey into the mystery of God’s entry into our lives.

Christmas actually has three parts: Advent, the feasts of the Nativity and Epiphany, and the beginning of Ordinary Time. We’ll begin in the middle, taking a look at the readings for the Christmas feast days to see what the Church presents as the essence of the Christmas story. Then we’ll go back to determine how we can prepare ourselves to accept this good news into our hearts. Finally, we’ll take an overview of the seven Sundays of Ordinary Time to measure how well we have put the Christmas message into action in our lives.

As you know, the Church has a three-year cycle for the Sunday readings. This year, starting on the first Sunday of Advent, we began Year A. Most of the Gospel readings will be taken from Matthew (B Gospels are from Mark and C Gospels favor Luke as we just experienced). This gives us a slightly different slant on the divine message.

Matthew’s Christmas message at the vigil Mass strongly presents Jesus as the Son of David. He names all of Jesus’ forefathers illustrating the drumbeat of Israel’s history and calling the readers to see how Israel’s faithfulness leads them and us to the conclusion that right now (at the birth of Jesus) God is with us. Joseph, himself a son of David, gives his adopted son the right to be in Israel’s royal family and the head of its army. He saves his people by leading them in battle. As David never lost a battle, Jesus would lead his people to prominence over all the peoples of the world in bringing peace to the world.

On his mother’s side, Jesus was conceived through the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus is the Son of God. He is Emmanuel (meaning “God is with us”). So Matthew drives home the reality that, at the birth of Jesus, God entered the world. In Christ, people could relate to God. The Lord could communicate with us and lead us to a relationship with his heavenly Father.

There are three other Christmas Masses. Besides the vigil Mass, there is a Mass during the night, a Mass at dawn, and a Mass during the day. Luke is the Gospel writer for the night Mass and the Mass at dawn. There, he softly mentions Jesus’ Davidic ancestry, but he emphasizes the angels who invited shepherds to come to the manger where Jesus lay with Mary and Joseph. Then he tells us that angels also were there to give glory to God. Thus, Luke propagates to all his readers that we could join the angels in praising God and recognizing Jesus as the giver of peace. At dawn, Luke relates that the shepherds followed the angels’ invitation and eventually returned to their flocks glorifying and praising God. He also tells us Mary’s reaction. She kept this memory, reflecting on it in her heart. That is, she was changed by this event. At the Mass during the day, we hear from John, who does not describe the events of Jesus’ birth. He gives us the bottom line. The true light came into the very world he created, but our world did not know him or accept him. However, some people did accept him. To those people he gave the power to become children of God.

That’s what can and should happen to us. We should listen for the invitation to come to Jesus and allow that relationship to change us from the inside out. We can follow Mary and come ever closer to her Son by reflecting on this heavenly reality in our hearts. And we can be children of God.

That’s what can and should happen to us. We should listen for the invitation to come to Jesus and allow that relationship to change us from the inside out. We can follow Mary and come ever closer to her Son by reflecting on this heavenly reality in our hearts. And we can be children of God.

We have the picture. Christmas is an invitation. We have the opportunity to embrace the Son of God. Matthew would have us realizing the son of David would lead us triumphantly following the Lord to glory. Luke presents the same message, except his vision is soft, loving, and centered in the heart. John would encourage us to not follow the way of the world but rather to come to know that Jesus is the true light. If we come to know him, we can be “children of God,” which is divine.

So Christmas gives us at least three ways to react to the event of Jesus’ birth. How can we prepare ourselves to respond positively to the invitation that we personally received? For that information we can simply turn to the Sundays of Advent.

As you know, Year A presents the Gospel message mostly through the outlook of Matthew. And in all four Gospels of the four Sundays of Advent, he does not fail to inform us clearly as to what our attitude should be to experience a meaningful Christmas.

At the first Sunday of Advent, Matthew takes us back to the days of Noah. God was in the process of ending the world as it had become by means of a vast flood. Then he would begin again by using Noah’s family as the “new Adam.” What made Noah so different from the rest of humanity? He saw signs that God was coming and was looking forward to that day. By building the ark, he proved he did not live for the present, but for the infinite. He did not let the crowd around him dictate his actions or thoughts. He was prepared. So that is one decision we need to make before Christmas can be the happy day it is meant to be.

On the second Sunday of Advent, Matthew introduces us to John the Baptist. His battle cry was “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” “Repent” means to change your mindset. Specifically, John wants us to see God alive in this world. That is a happy vision and it changes the way we live our lives. It also is a prerequisite for a happy Christmas. John’s vision should be ours as well. Our choice is between becoming pure wheat that is nourishing, flavorful, and produces wealth, or we might become chaff that is worthless and burned away. So our preparation for Christmas is to change our outlook on life to one that bears fruit. We need to be a source of new life for others. We need to make this life a joy for others. We should look for the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.

On the third Sunday of Advent, Matthew stays with the Baptist. He tells us John is in prison. Actually, John’s death was imminent and he most probably knew it. Remarkably, he continued to lead people to life. He gives his disciples (presumably a rather large number) a task to find Jesus and ask him if he is the Messiah. Jesus answers with a request (not a speech) that they look and listen to what he is doing. What he was doing is what the Messiah was going to do when he came. There could be no mistake that they reported back the answer John wanted to hear. What we, then, need to do before Christmas is what John did. He brought others to Christ. The people he sent to Jesus were the closest to him. Still, he sent them to Jesus so that they could realize Jesus was the Messiah and the one to follow.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas looming, Matthew brings Mary and Joseph to our minds. What they had in common is their saying “yes” to the angel who requested that she agree to give birth to a child without the benefit of a man. Joseph was asked to realize that the child she conceived was through the Holy Spirit. That tells us true Christmas joy would pass by if we did not have complete trust in God. Like St. Joseph, we need to believe our dreams and courageously do God’s will. Matthew simply states about Joseph: “He did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” Our dreams are the result of our attitudes during the day. Having a heavenly attitude will produce dreams worthy of Joseph. So let’s work to improve our attitudes before Christmas if we expect gifts from God this Christmas.

This year, because Christmas falls on a Sunday, the feasts of Holy Family and the Baptism of the Lord are designated to Mondays. However, they would underscore what is accomplished by preparing and living Christmas. Our families can be raised to the level of “holy.” To be “holy” is to be different than normal. It is to be picked out, to be separated from the ordinary and taken in by God. That deserves a day of rejoicing and feasting. The feast of the Baptism also is directly related to Christmas. This was an event that the apostles considered necessary to have participated in to be numbered as one of the 12. The event included a manifestation of the Holy Spirit and the voice of God, the Father. Those who were there became visionaries. We are in contact with God when we prepare well for the Christmas holidays and live boldly the Christmas life all year long.

There are seven Sundays following the octave of Christmas that are numbered among the Ordinary Sundays (from two through eight). They can give us signs that we can look for to verify we are leading the Christmas life. On the second Sunday in Ordinary Time (there is no first such Sunday, probably because if it were first it wouldn’t be Ordinary), John the Baptist proclaims that he has come to the conclusion that Jesus is the Son of God. So our faith will be that much stronger as we live out what gifts God has bestowed on us this Christmas.

On the third Sunday we have Jesus picking out the first of the 12 disciples. That also is an indication that if we work for a deeply religious Christmas you may find a calling to come closer to the Lord and follow Him wherever that may lead you.

On the fourth Sunday, Jesus takes his disciples away from the crowds and delivers what is called “The Sermon on the Mount.” It begins with the Beatitudes. They indicate the rewards of living the Christmas life. You receive the kingdom of God; you will be comforted; you will inherit the land; you will be happily satisfied; you will experience God’s mercy; you will see God; you will be a child of God; and the kingdom of heaven will be yours. That’s not a bad reward for making a Christmas change of life.

The Sermon on the Mount continues to be the subject of the Gospels for the rest of the season. We are put on a higher level of morality. Yet this level leads us to a heavenly joy that makes this world heavenly.

Enjoy the approaching season, and follow the three parts of the festivities: prepare for, rejoice in, and live out the true message of Christmas. ■

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

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