For the second year in a row—a first since we moved to Rockford, Illinois, at the end of 1995—we are celebrating Christmas at home. It feels odd and yet, sadly, natural to do so. Over 20 years of marriage, Amy and I have always had at least one of our grandparents to visit at Christmastime, but time has moved on, and so, as of September, has the last of that generation. Our parents are still living, thank God, and we wish we could have been with them today, but the pressures of work have intervened. And so the roast is in the oven, and the children are playing with the new toys and reading the new books that their grandparents and aunts and uncles sent them (we exchange our family gifts on Epiphany), and I am trying to pull together my thoughts to continue my annual tradition of Christmas messages.
Half of our family went to the traditional Midnight Mass at Saint Mary's Oratory last night, while the other half stayed home, suffering from colds and flu. Just as he has done every year since he took over as choir director, our organist, John Grune, put together a beautiful choral prelude to the celebration of Christ's Nativity. At the center of the program (as it was last year) was one of my favorite Christmas hymns, "O Little Town of Bethlehem." A year ago, the opening of the second verse—"For Christ is born of Mary"—sparked thoughts of Mary's role in our salvation and Christ's redemption of history; this year, the final line of the first verse has inspired thoughts of the interplay of time and eternity.
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. What a burden to put on a small town—perhaps, at the time of Christ, no more than a village. The hopes and fears of all the years . . . Not just the hopes and fears of those who had waited since the fall of Adam and Eve for redemption from our ancestral sin, but all the hopes and fears of those in the 2,000 years since, and the hopes and fears of all those yet to be born, between now and the Second Coming of Christ.
Everything comes together in the stable at Bethlehem that night. Every one of us is there. All of history—before, at that moment, and since—both converges on and flows from that night, and that little town, where "Christ is born of Mary."
The Divine Office—the daily prayer of the Church—for Christmas Eve makes a claim that seems, at first glance, rather surprising: that Christ's Birth accomplished our redemption. In the words of the traditional version of the Office, "On the morrow the sins of the earth shall be washed away, and the Saviour of the world will be our King." What, then, of the Cross? Was Christ's sacrifice not necessary?
It was, because, at that moment, in that little town, the shadow of the Cross falls upon the manger. Wood calls to wood, the Man to the Child; joy mixes with sorrow, and "Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart" (Luke 2:19)
On that night, so long ago and yet here today, Christ brings to fulfillment the name Bethlehem: "House of Bread." And 33 years later—and yet also today—He gives that bread its saving power, through His sacrifice on the Cross. When we receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion at Midnight Mass, we are there, both at Calvary and in that little town of Bethlehem, laying "the hope and fears of all the years" at the feet of the Child, and of the Man. And both as Man and as Child, He accepts them with the love that encompasses joy and sorrow, birth and death, time and eternity.
To all of the faithful readers of the About.com Catholicism site, I offer the best wishes of my family to yours, for a very Merry Christmas (all 12 days of it!) and a happy, healthy, and hope-filled New Year.