Why is the Christmas Feast Celebrated Largely at Night?

O Holy night! Yes, a silent night! and, it came upon a midnight clear. Christmas, it would seem, is a festival of the mid night. Jesus is born when it is dark, dark midnight. We are sure of it. And why not?

Even though we are not told the exact hour of his birth we are sure it must have been night. Scripture does say that the Shepherds who heard the glad tidings were keeping watch over their flock “by night” (cf Luke 2:9). Further the Magi sought him by the light of a star, and stars are seen at night, deep midnight. None of this is evidence that Jesus was born at 11:59 PM, but it sets our clocks for night, deep midnight.

Add to this the fact that Christmas is celebrated at the Winter solstice, the very darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. More specifically Christmas breaks in on the very days that the light begins its subtle return. The darkest and shortest days of the year make their impression on December 21 and 22. But by December 23 and 24 we notice a definite, but subtle trend, the days are getting longer, the light is returning! Time to celebrate the return of the light, it is going to be alright!

How fitting now, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the true Light of the World, in a deep and dark December.  Jesus our light, kindles a light and a fire that never dies away. Indeed, in the dark hours of December, we have noticed a trend. The light is returning, the darkness is abating, the days are growing longer from here on out. It is subtle now! But it will grow. And with the return of light, we celebrate our True Light: Jesus.

But light is best appreciated in contrast. We think most, and appreciate most, the glory of light when the darkness assails. There’s just something about Christmas Eve. As the time approaches through December, and the darkness grows, we light lights. Yes, all through December as the darkness grows, we light Advent candles, more as it grows darkest! Even the secular among us string lights in dark December, in malls, on their houses, as if to say, the darkness cannot win, the light conquers!

And lights have their true glory in contrast the darkness. Who sees the stars in mid day? And who appreciates the beauty of light until they have experienced the darkness? Yes, Christmas is a feast of the light. We confront the darkness of December and declare to it: “Your deepest days are over, the light is returning.” And for us of faith, we say to a world in ever deeper darkness, “Your darkness cannot remain. It wil be overcome and replaced.”  For though darkness has its season, it is always conquered by the light.

An atheist recently scoffed at me on the com box of this blog that our day is over, the world has rejected faith… Sorry dear Atheist friend, the light always wins. On December 22, the darkness recedes, the light returns and all darkness is scattered. It seems subtle at first, but the light always returns, the darkness cannot last.

Light has a way of simply replacing the darkness. In three months the equinox (equal night and day) occurs, and in six months the summer solstice (the longest day) comes. And the darkness will once again seek to conquer. BUT IT ALWAYS LOSES. The light will return. Jesus is always born at the hour of darkness’ greatest moment. Just when the darkness is celebrating most, it’s hour is over, the light dawns again.

Yes we celebrate after sundown on December 24. Even at midnight. Christmas morning is almost an afterthought. Most pastors know, the majority of their people have come the “night” before. The darkness cannot win. Light scatters darkness, it overwhelms and replaces it. In a deep and dark December, a light comes forth, a star, shines in the heavens.

We gather, in and on a dark night. We smile. We are moved by the cry of a small infant, by whose voice the heavens were made. His little cry lights up the night. The darkness must go, the light has come, day is at hand.

Yes, we celebrate at night to bid farewell to the darkness. It cannot prevail. It is destined to be scattered by the Light far more powerful than it, a Light it must obey, a Light that overwhelms and replaces it. Farewell to darkness, the Light of the World has come.

Jesus the light of the world.

The video below is a celebration of light. As a Christmas gift to myself on December 22nd, the darkest day of the year, I took an afternoon off and went to photograph the triumph of light over darkness. I went to a Mausoleum, Yes, to a place where thousands are buried in the walls. But also in those walls are windows, glorious windows where light breaks through, and Christ shines forth. Some of the most beautiful stained glass in the city of Washington resides in that place of death and darkness. The light breaks through and it speaks of Christ.

This video is a testimony to just some of those windows (I am putting together another video of other windows to be shown later). In this place, a place of death,  a light breaks through, the light of faith, the Light of Christ. The text of the music in this video is from Taize, and it says, Christe lux mundi, qui sequitur te, habebit lumen vitae, lumen vitae (Christ, Light of the World! Who follows you has the light of life, the light of life).

As you view this video of the Life of Christ, ponder that stained glass begins as opaque sand. But when subject to, and purified by the fire, it radiates the glory of light which can now shine through it. So it is for us. Born in darkness, but purified by Christ and the Fire of the Spirit, we begin to radiate his many splendored Light shining through us, to a dark world.

The Light wins, He always wins.

13 Replies to “Why is the Christmas Feast Celebrated Largely at Night?”

  1. What a wonderful video, Msgr. Pope. Thank you! We have profited from your afternoon of quiet meditation.
    O Oriens: “O Radiant Dawn, splendor of eternal light, sun of justice: come, shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.” Evening Prayer Antiphon for Canticle of Mary on December 21, winter solstice, the darkest day.
    “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone” (Isaiah 9:1).
    Sweet Savior Jesus, You are the Light of the World.

  2. Brilliant, Monsignor, thank you! All darkness disappears into the light that is Christ and is soon forgotten…can’t recall the ‘darkness’ my prayer was addressing years ago but the answer I’ll never forget: “No matter how long or how dark the night, it cannot hold back the sunrise.” I accuse my angel guardian of being a genius. ;O)

  3. It is in reflections such as this that our understanding would be even more enriched if we were to remember the Jewish roots of the faith, specifically, that Jesus et al. would have been celebrating at this time of the year the Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah), the Festival of Light that commemorates the miracle that allowed the Eternal Light of the Temple to burn for eight days, even though there was only enough oil to last one day. It is celebrated annually as a memorial of the rededication of the Temple with a new altar and purification of the sanctuary. Three years earlier, Antiochus Epiphanes had caused a pagan altar to be set up at the altar of burnt offerings in the Temple and sacrifices to be offered to his idol, called “Zeus Olympius,” but the Maccabeans revolted and eventually recovered the Holy City of Jerusalem and the Temple. (1 Maccabees 4:36-59; Shabbat 2 of the Talmud)

    Perhaps especially in this time of aggressive secularization, a time when the call has gone out for a revitalization of self in faith and renewal of society in the New Evangelization, although it is a Jewish holiday, Hanukkah (which has now passed) can also be a time for Christians to remember that it is God Himself who is a Light that is everlasting and can never be extinguished. The victory of the Maccabeans over those who had desecrated God’s holy places, and the days of rededication of the Temple and the manifestation of God’s eternal light remind us that evil will be defeated and, even if the evil has defiled the good in the meantime, God cannot be defeated. His light is everlasting. More than light from oil, which runs out, His is the Eternal Light which cannot be extinguished. Thus, this is a time of hope.

  4. “Time to celebrate the return of the light, it is going to be alright!”–Amen!

    Beautiful reflection and video.

    Merry Christmas!

  5. At the Lutheran parish in which I grew up, a Christmas Eve tradition was to turn off the lights in the Nave as parishioners lit each other’s candles [a practice that likely would not find favor with today’s fire marshals]. We then would sing “Silent Night” to a simple accompaniment, or a capella. I don’t recall the reason for the tradition being clearly stated as such, but – watching the darkness, little impacted by a single candle, gradually give way as the fire was passed from lit candles to unlit ones – was a reminder that we each have a role in bringing the light of Christ into the world.

  6. What I appreciate and love most in Catholicism is that we use all our imagination, symbolisms, analogies, words, musics, statues, etc. to describe and love our Lord. We can’t find this in other system of worship. Merry Christmas to all of you, brother!

  7. Msgr.,
    Thank you for the beautiful reflection. I don’t know if you are interested, but I find it interesting that in regards to your comment about “stars are seen at night, deep midnight”, Saint Thomas Aquinas states that the star seen by the magi was no ordinary star because “it appeared not only at night, but also at midday: and no star can do this” (ST III, Q 36, a 7).

    Just an interesting hypothesis that I thought I would share.

    God bless you and Merry Christmas!

  8. \although it is a Jewish holiday, Hanukkah (which has now passed) can also be a time for Christians to remember that it is God Himself who is a Light that is everlasting and can never be extinguished. \

    Mark, just who do you think Jesus is but God Himself Incarnate?

    I might add that while many Eastern Churches have adopted the nocturnal Eucharist, the true Orthodox custom is to have the Divine Liturgy during the day. Remember that the Western Church is NOT the totality of Catholicism, or even its standard.

  9. A blessed Christmas to you, Monsignor. I have been very enlightened by your words throughout the year. Thank you for your pastorship even though I am in Los Angeles, our Church is universal and has no borders!

Comments are closed.