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Why is Christmas a Nighttime Event?

December 23, 2014

Cardinal Donald Wuerl serves as principal celebrant at the Christmas Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Dec 25.O Holy night! Yes, a silent night! And it came upon a midnight clear. Christmas, it would seem, is a festival of the middle of the 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 at 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 near the winter solstice, the very darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere. More specifically, Christmas breaks in on the very days when the light begins its subtle return. The darkest and shortest days of the year make their appearance on December 21st and 22nd. But by December 23rd and 24th we notice a definite but subtle trend: the days are getting longer; the light is returning! It’s time to celebrate the return of the light; it’s going to be all right!

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 most appreciate the glory of light when darkness assails us. There’s just something about Christmas Eve. As the time approaches throughout December, and as the darkness grows, we light lights. All through December, as the darkness grows we light Advent candles, and we light more as it grows darkest! Even the secular among us string lights during dark December, in malls and on houses. It’s as if to say, the darkness cannot win; the light conquers!

Lights have their true glory in contrast to the darkness. Who sees the stars in midday? Who appreciates the beauty of light until he has 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 will be overcome and replaced.” For though darkness has its season, it is always conquered by the light.

Light has a way of simply replacing the darkness. On December 22nd/23rd, the darkness begins to recede; the light returns and darkness diminishes. It is almost as if the darkness takes up the words of John the Baptist, He [Jesus] must increase, I must decrease. It seems subtle at first, but the light always returns; the darkness cannot last. 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, its hour is over; the light dawns again.

Yes, we celebrate after sundown on December 24th in accord with a tradition going back to Jewish times that our Feasts begin at sundown the night before.  Christmas morning is almost an afterthought. Most pastors know that the majority of their people have come the “night before.”  In a deep and dark December, a light comes forth, a star, and shines in the heavens.

We gather in and on a dark night. We smile. We are moved by the cry of a tiny 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 that is far more powerful than it is, 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 videos below are a celebration of light. As a Christmas gift to myself last 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.

These videos are a testimony to just some of those windows. 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 Taizé, 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). The second video features verses from the “Canticle of the Three Children” in the Book of Daniel.

As you view these videos, ponder that stained glass begins as opaque sand. But when subjected 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.

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Comments (12)

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  1. Candida Bohnne Eittreim says:

    What a lovely gift to share with us! God bless you and thank you for the beautiful videos! Deacon Pauly brought me the Eucharist again this afternoon which was beautiful. And you just capped off a simply perfect day for this soul.

  2. David F says:

    Merry Christmas Msgr. I’ve enjoyed and benefited from your posts over the last year; thank you. I hope you get a chance to rest and enjoy the season: I know it can be hectic for priests.

  3. Nanci K. says:

    What a beautiful reminder for all of us living in the seemingly unending darkness around us. My 20 y.o. daughter has been struggling with all the evil she sees in the world. When she spoke with our Pastor about it, he said, “good will win in the end”. Your last statement was such a gift as it reminds us that The Light indeed wins. I can’t wait to share this post with her. Thank you again and God bless you during this Christmastide.

  4. CYNA says:

    I love the videos thank you and God bless you

  5. Richard Connell says:

    Beautiful videos and reflection, monsignor, and Merry Christmas to you.

    I recall reading somewhere, but couldn’t find the quote, that, for the Gentiles, the star that the Magi followed corresponded to the cloud by day/column of fire by night that the Israelites followed while wandering through the desert.

  6. Janol says:

    Beautiful. Post and videos. Thank you.

  7. Anne Marie says:

    A good and blessed Merry Christmas Monsignor!

  8. Rob says:

    Something deeply disturbing occurred at my Cathedral’s Latin High Mass last night.

    A tall man with a backpack — homeless, alone, I know not — sat down in the front pew next
    to the center aisle and began to disrupt the Mass then in progress. The elderly head usher
    came up to the man twice and, I think, asked him to behave appropriately. I was seated
    on the opposite end of the pew, and a woman behind me whispered that in the past when
    this occurred with other people, a few men would jump in and help escort the person to
    the back of the church.

    I had been watching the fellow rather attentively and that’s what I fully intended to do if
    his behavior continued or worsened. . When a third time he erupted, I and two other men j
    oined the head usher. The head usher warned the fellow that the police would be called. I touched the shoulder of the man and said “Come on friend.” But when the fellow protested being interrupted, the usher
    and one of the other guys grabbed him and physically tossed him out of the church.
    While this was occurring, the fellow stumbled while reaching for his cap on the pew and fell to the floor on
    the center aisle right in front of the altar as the Mass was in progress. There were gasps from the
    church goers.

    I was stunned. I felt so badly for this fellow. Maybe he just wanted to experience some
    warmth and enjoy the singing of the nun’s choir.

    After Mass, the woman behind me said she had never seen anyone physically removed
    from the Cathedral before. She said she prayed for the man during the Mass.

    I’m not sure what the right thing to do here was. But I thought about that fellow throughout
    my drive home and I am thinking about him now. May God bless him.

  9. Matthew Wade says:

    Thank you for this commentary on the darkness. I generally get anxious in the evening before going to sleep, but I think the Lord wants me to draw closer to him in my anxiety and trust his Providence through the night. We usually attend midnight Mass, but with our little baby only a month away, my wife didn’t have the energy to last until 2a. We have, however, experienced the wonder of this season in a totally different way – appreciating the Christ child through the lens of our own growing baby

    God bless you Msgr Pope, and merry Christmas to all!