Christmas is the day the world changed forever in glory.
Each Mass – vigil, midnight, dawn, and during the day – has unique readings. In the following reflection, we concentrate on one reading common to each of those Masses: the Gloria, the beginning of which can be found in Luke 2:14.
As the readings you will hear depend on which Mass you will attend, these seeds encourage you to consider the Christmas feast in different ways and in light of the Advent season that has just concluded.
Christmas is the most mind-blowing, awe-inspiring, worship-provoking feast of the year. It’s worth pausing amidst the busyness and the joy of the day to reflect on this amazing truth: God became human.
I will avoid the temptation to retell the nativity story as it’s presented in the gospels… I want to do something a little bit different and zoom in on a single word to see what riches it holds and what facets of this feast it can illuminate for us. That word is “glory”.
You’ll hear the word “glory” at whichever Christmas Mass you attend this year; you’ll hear it said or sung at the beginning of the Gloria hymn, just like every Sunday and feast day. It’s appropriate, though, to focus on it today because it has its roots in the events of Christmas. As St. Luke recounts, the shepherds, after hearing the message of the angel, were granted an extraordinary glimpse into the invisible reality we confess every time we say the creed; they saw choirs of angels singing the praises of God, in words that we take upon our own lips at Mass. It’s even been immortalized in one of the nation’s favourite Christmas carols.
But what does this word “glory” actually mean? Could you pause for a moment, take out your phone and open a blank note, or grab a pen and paper and write down in one sentence what the word “glory” means? You might find it harder to do than you realise.
It’s such a significant concept in the Christmas season; we hear it not only in the Gloria as the angelic hosts ring out their salute to the birth of Emmanuel, but in the entrance antiphon of the vigil Mass, for example – “Today you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, and in the morning you will see his glory. – or in the great gospel from John chapter 1 – “The Word was made flesh, he lived among us, and we saw his glory, the glory that is his as the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Glory is the English rendering of a cluster of Hebrew words. Collectively, they hint at weightiness; they’re used to describe the physical manifestation of God’s presence in the world, the coming into tangible being of the invisible reality of God. Think of the description of God’s presence on Mount Sinai: loud sounds like trumpets, the earth-shaking, a thick cloud. Think, as well, of the cloud of God’s glory that filled the holy of holies in the Temple and which Ezekiel saw depart at the time of the exile. The cloud is an interesting and common image that the Scriptures use to describe this glory; there are hints that the cloud isn’t itself the glory of God but conceals that glory mutes it a little for the benefit of humanity. We read in Exodus 24:16-17 that the “glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it… the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire” (RSV). The image is one of the fiery physical manifestation of the Lord.
Fire links into another connotation of this word, “glory” – light or radiance. Again, this is a theme you’ll hear repeatedly in the antiphons, prayers, and readings for Christmas. The glory of the Lord is said to shine; the letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the “radiance of the glory of God” (Hebrews 1:3 ESV). We also hear in Luke’s gospel, as the angel speaks to the shepherds, that the glory of God shone around them.
Glory, then, is a concept that tries to encapsulate the experience of the reality of God meeting with the ordinariness of creation; it speaks of those moments when heaven and earth touch. At those times, there is a blazing light, weight, splendour, and majesty, the kind of event that would have us hide in the cleft of the rock like Moses or fall on our faces like the apostles at the Transfiguration.
But then we come to Christmas. All of those great encounters of God’s presence in the Old Testament are so different from this moment. There’s no blinding light at the manger, no earthquake, no devouring fire—just a baby boy. I started by saying that Christmas is mind-blowing, which is why: somehow, some way, that awesome presence of God, which makes creation itself groan under its weight, became contained in the frail frame of a human baby. More than that, a human baby that would have looked no different from any other if you were to look at him.
Nothing like this had ever happened before or will ever happen again. Christmas is the day the world changed forever: the eternal creator of a billion galaxies opened tiny eyes of flesh and took his first breath. Why? Why would God do this? I won’t answer that question for you now, but wrestle with it yourself for a while over this amazing season.