Sunday, December 27, 2015

Joy to the World!

(From Silar, Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Nativity scene at the Christ the King Church in Sanok, Poland, 2010.)

Shepherding is a comparatively new occupation, compared to hunting and knapping.

The earliest evidence we've found so far puts the first shepherds north of Sargon's Akkadian Empire, where the Hittite Kingdom was, a dozen or so centuries later. I've mentioned them before. (August 21, 2015; October 16, 2015)

That was about the time someone carved a bit of siltstone into the Narmer Palette, and folks started building Stonehenge; and that's another topic.

Around the time Emperor Ping died, leaving Wang Mang in charge — he was either a great reformer or conniving scoundrel, depending on who you read, and that's yet another topic — the Roman Emperor ordered an empire-wide census.

That obliged a nine-month-pregnant young woman and her fiance to visit Bethlehem. Or maybe her husband. Either way, Mary got pregnant before she and Joseph married. There's a reasonable explanation, and it's not what one might expect. (Matthew 1:19-24; Luke 1:26-38)

I'll get back to that.

An Official Birthday Celebration

The Christmas "Mass at Dawn" actually started at 10:30 in the Our Lady of Angels parish here in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.

It's part of a four-Mass marathon: the Vigil Mass, Mass at Midnight, Mass at Dawn, and Mass During the Day. By the time that's over, someone attending all four would have heard Matthew 1:1-25 — yeah, the whole first chapter — Luke 2:1-14; Luke 2:15-20; and John 1:1-18.

I was at the "Mass at Dawn," but not the others. We've got rules about Christmas Mass;1 but as far as I know nothing says I must be at all four, and I'm wandering off-topic again.

So: why make such a big deal of Christmas? Short answer: it's when we celebrate out Lord's birthday. We don't know exactly which day and month Jesus was born, and that's okay.

The way I explained it to our kids is that it's an official birthday.

The British monarch's birthday celebration is celebrated in May or June, since Commonwealth countries are in Earth's northern hemisphere, and those months generally have nice weather. Sometimes the actual birthday is within a few days of the official one: but that's a coincidence.

My guess is that Christmas is just a few days from the northern hemisphere winter solstice because that's when folks here were celebrating daylight's return. My pagan forebears saw that part of Earth's seasonal cycle one way. I see it as a handy symbol for our Lord's arrival:
"1 2 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

"He was in the beginning with God.

"3 All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be

"through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race;

"4 the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."
(John 1:1-5)

Human on His Mother's Side

Like I said, Mary became pregnant before she and Joseph got married. I talked about her decision to accept a high-risk mission last year. (December 21, 2014)

I've heard Jesus described as "a nice Jewish boy who obeyed his mother and went into his Father's business." It's not the most conventional way of expressing what we're told in Luke 1:26-38, John 2:1-5, and John 5:17-20; but it's basically accurate.

I can't explain how Jesus is human and God. Some things we can't fully understand, like exactly how the Trinity works. (May 31, 2015)

There's a pretty good discussion of Jesus, the Word become Flesh, true God and true man, in Catechism of the Catholic Church, 456-478.

Where was I? Shepherds, emperors, birthdays. Right.

Luke 2:1-14, that's the Gospel reading for Christmas Mass at Midnight, includes this:
"4 Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock.

"The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear.

"The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.

"5 For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.

"And this will be a sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.' "
(Luke 2:8-12)
Shepherding wasn't a high-status job. Night watchmen and night shift convenience store clerks might be equivalent occupations these days.

Back to Luke's narrative:
"When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.'

"So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger.

"When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.

"All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.

"And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.

"Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them."
(Luke 2:15-20)
Two millennia later, that birth is still a big deal. Jesus grew up, spending part of his childhood in Egypt — I'll be talking about the magi and Herod's execution of kids in Bethlehem in another post. That sad account is in Matthew 2:13-18.

"Goodness, Life and Truth"

Our Lord grew up; and said that we should love God, love our neighbors, and see everybody as our neighbor.2 Then Jesus was tortured, executed, and buried:3 and stopped being dead. (Luke 24:15-33)

I've talked about that before. (December 20, 2015; August 30, 2015; April 5, 2015)

That's why Christmas is such a big deal: it's when we celebrate God's coming to live with us, as one of us. The Old Testament let us know that God takes a personal interest in human affairs. When Jesus arrived, we saw that God is personally involved.
"...let us take another step; what gives rise to this joy? I would say that it is born from the heart's wonder at seeing that God is close to us, that God thinks of us, that God acts in history; it is therefore a joy born from contemplating the face of that humble Child because we know that he is the Face of God present for ever in humanity, for us and with us. Christmas is joy because at last we see and are certain that God is the goodness, life, and truth of human beings and that he stoops down to them to lift them up to him...."
(Benedict XVI (January 4, 2012)4)

(From NASA/ISS, used w/o permission.)

Our joy isn't a fairytale 'and they lived happily ever after' thing. Tomorrow we'll be celebrating Herod's mass murder of the Holy Innocents. Yesterday was St. Stephen's feast day. (October 18, 2015)

Our joy is the best news humanity's ever had: God loves us, and wants to adopt us. All of us. (John 3:17; Romans 8:15; Ephesians 1:3-5; Catechism, 1-3, 52, 1825)
"For God so loved the world that he gave 7 his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.

"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn 8 the world, but that the world might be saved through him."
(John 3:16-17)
More reasons to celebrate:

1 Regulations for laity are fairly straightforward, like the Sunday obligation detailed in Catechism of the Catholic Church -2183 and Code of Canon Law Book IV Part III Title II Chapter I 1248.

It's different for priests and bishops: Code of Canon Law Book II Part II Section II Title I Chapter II Article 2 3 and Book IV Part I Title III Chapter III 951, for example.

I'm okay with that. The way I see it, my position as a Catholic layman is a bit like a foot soldier's: and I'm quite content to let the officers deal with administrative details. (December 28, 2014; October 12, 2014)

2 Matthew 5:43-44, 7:12, 22:36-40, Mark 12:28-31; Luke 6:31 10:25-27, 29-37; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1789

3 Matthew 27:26-54; Mark 15:34-39; Luke 23:14-47; John 19:1-40.

4 More about joy and Christmas:

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