Christmas Eve Vigil Mass (Evening of 24 December)

Commentary on Isaiah 62:1-5; Acts 13:16-17,22-25; Matthew 1:1-25

This beautiful Mass is not often celebrated, especially when the first (‘midnight’) Mass of Christmas takes place in the early evening, say 8:00 pm, as is not unusually the case in large parishes. There are three readings, each one of which deserves our attention and prayerful reflection.

The Gospel is the opening of Matthew’s Gospel and consists of a combined re-reading of the Gospels we had on December 17 and 18 – the genealogy of Jesus and the birth of Jesus (Matthew’s version).

Many find the genealogy a rather boring and incomprehensible list of unpronounceable names. That only goes to show how much the Hebrew Testament is a closed book to so many of us. It begins with Abraham, the father of God’s people, and is in three parts, with 14 generations in each part. It ends with the words:

Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, who bore Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

Although Joseph’s role as Jesus’ earthly father is carefully excluded, it is clear that Jesus’ family line comes through him and reaches back to David.

It would be worth our while some day to go through that list of names and then we would learn something about the kind of people from Jesus was descended. They were by no means all saints; there are real ruffians among them. There are also four women.

By giving us this list of names Matthew is emphasising, especially to the Jews of his day, that Jesus’ lineage goes back to the very beginnings of Israelite history beginning with Abraham, the father of the nations, and including David, Jesus’ kingly ancestor. Jesus is the natural continuation of God’s long connection and involvement in the history of his people. He is in fact the long awaited climax to that history. He is the Messiah King.

This is further emphasised by Matthew’s telling in the second part of the Gospel how Jesus came to be. The conception, the beginning of the life of the Child in the womb of Mary, takes place after she and Joseph are betrothed, but before they are married and begin to live together as husband and wife. Clearly, the agent of bringing the new life into existence is not Joseph, but God himself. It is God who is the Father of the Child, and Mary is his mother. This is the Incarnation, when the Word of God is made flesh and begins to live among us. This puts this Child in a totally different category from that of all his ancestors, and yet he shares their blood and their genes while, at the same time, being Someone quite other.

The Second Reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, represents a speech which Paul gave on his first missionary journey to fellow Jews in the synagogue at Antioch. In it he gives a brief history of the Jewish people leading up to John the Baptist and the appearance of Jesus, the Saviour of his people. Here too, there is the emphasis on the continuity between the Jewish people and the emergence of Jesus as a Saviour arising from among them – their Saviour and ours.

The First Reading is a beautiful passage from Isaiah. It is a message of consolation for Zion, but can easily be applied to the Church and to all of us in the community of Christ who look forward to the birth and the coming of our Saviour.

Let us just pick out a few phrases worth reflecting on:

I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn
and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication
and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the Lord will give.

“Vindication” in this context means ‘integrity’, a precious gift needed by the Church as a whole and by each one of us. Integrity means that we are everything we proclaim to be, that there is no hidden agenda, no false fronts but total transparency – what you see is all there is.

You shall no more be termed Forsaken,
and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her
and your land Married…

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.

The three readings combined sum up beautifully the context in which the Child Jesus will be born in the strange surroundings of a stable in Bethlehem. All is now about to fulfilled for each one of us as we prepare this evening to celebrate the birth of God’s Son among us as one of us.

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