A Christmas Midnight Mass Reflection on Isaiah 9:1-6
In the first reading at Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, we hear a very familiar passage from the prophet Isaiah proclaimed:
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light... for a child is born to us, a son is given to us. Upon his shoulder dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace."
Two years ago for Midnight Mass, I heard these words while sitting in the pews. My wife, Kate, and I went with my family to Holy Trinity parish. I remember it vividly because ten days before the two of us had found out that she was pregnant. Our Christmas Eve was in that electric time when no one else, only she and I knew the secret: a great joy had just entered into the world.
Holy Trinity, that night, was jammed packed. So full that we sat in overflow seating in a separate section of the church with no view of the altar and with the audio piped into our room. That suited us fine because she needed to sit close to the bathroom because of her morning sickness. The smell of maple-syrup flavored graham crackers that a woman next to us fed to her child almost sent Kate over the edge.
Despite our distance from the action of the liturgy, the readings and the meaning of Jesus' incarnation absolutely riveted us. I can't describe what it is like to go through Advent with its stories of waiting and expectation, the couples deeply desiring and unexpectedly becoming pregnant beyond hope, while yourself living that story. It is one of the times when Scripture has most poignantly spoken directly into my own life:
"The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light... for a child is born to us, a son is given to us." Those were words written with fire. Spoken by God directly into my own heart. I had a hard time not breaking into tears when I heard them proclaimed there, surrounded by a press of people (including my own family) unaware of the mystery.
People all throughout history and around the world have wanted and needed to hear this same good news. We have all been walking in darkness. The darkness of war, of violence, of sin and death. This long, dark night of humanity has persisted like an endless winter. Like a nightmare from which we can't awaken.
Occasionally a brief flash of light has cracked across the sky: the birth of a king named Hezekiah in the time of Isaiah was one such example. The people of Judah hoped that he would bring an end to the night. Isaiah called him "Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."
The joy of this king did not last. Like many promises, indeed like many false messiahs that have come and gone, the light flared briefly and was gone, making the darkness and cold feel even greater.
I am sure that we can relate to that feeling: a job that we thought that would be fulfilling that ends up crushing our spirits; experiencing the excitement of a political candidate who ultimately disappoints or betrays; or the thrill of a new Christmas gift—perhaps one that we waited in line for days for—that ends up satisfying us for an hour but finally leaves us empty and unfulfilled. Perhaps even the child we were so excited about who ends up breaking our hearts.
And so it is on this night, out of the silence and the gloom and fear of oblivion, the hope of all people is born. A great light has come to pierce the darkness. A child who is at once a tiny squawking infant and also truly Emmanuel is born.
The light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. What makes this child different is that he has conquered death. This child, this God with us, will show us on Easter morning that we need never again fear sin and death. The light and love and grace of God has overcome even the darkness of the tomb.
The sign for us of this momentous change is a tiny infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It is the weakest, most vulnerable creature who has rocked the world tonight. God is with us and daylight is breaking.
Sisters and brothers, I give you tidings of great joy. The good news that Kate and I experienced last Christmas has been given to all of us a complete and permanent way. A child is born; a son has been given. We are invited to come to adore him and to spread his light into all the places in our world that remain dark. Let us pray that we can be heralds of the light, shining the grace and love that is Emmanuel.