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THE MYSTERY OF CHRISTMAS.
Everything is Mystery in this holy Season. The Word of God, whose generation is before the day-star, 1 is born in time—a Child is God—a Virgin becomes a Mother, and remains a Virgin—things divine are commingled with those that are human—and the sublime, the ineffable, antithesis, expressed by the Beloved Disciple in those words of his Gospel: The Word Was Made Flesh, is repeated in a thousand different ways in all the prayers of the Church;—and rightly, for it admirably embodies the whole of the great portent, which unites, in one Person, the nature of Man and the nature of God.
The splendour of this Mystery dazzles the understanding, but it inundates the heart with joy. It is the consummation of the designs of God in time. It is the endless subject of admiration and wonder to the Angels and Saints; nay, is the source and cause of their beatitude. Let us see, how the Church offers this Mystery to her children, veiled under the symbolism of her Liturgy.
The four weeks of our preparation are over—they were the image of the four thousand years, which preceded the great Coming—and we have reached the Twenty-fifth day of the Month of December, as a longdesired place of sweetest rest. But, why is it, that the celebration of our Saviour's Birth should be the perpetual privilege of this one fixed day; whilst the whole liturgical Cycle has, every year, to be changed
and remodelled, in order to yield that ever-varying day, which is to be the feast of his Resurrection— Easter Sunday?
The question is a very natural one, and we find it proposed and answered, even so far back as the fourth century; and that, too, by St. Augustine, in his celebrated Epistle to Januarius. The holy Doctor offers this explanation: We solemnise the day of our Saviour's Birth, in order that we may honour that Birth, which was for our salvation; but the precise day of the week, on which He was born, is void of any mystical signification. Sunday, on the contrary, the day of our Lord's Resurrection, is the day marked, in the Creator's designs, to express a mystery, which was to be commemorated for all ages. St. Isidore of Seville, and the ancient Interpreter of Sacred Rites, (who, for a long time, was supposed to be the learned Alcuin,) have also adopted this explanation of the Bishop of Hippo; and our readers may see their words interpreted by Dnrandus, in his Rational.
These writers, then, observe, that as, according to a sacred tradition, the creation of man took place on a Friday, and our Saviour suffered death also on a Friday, for the redemption of man; that as, moreover, the Resurrection of our Lord was on the third day after his death, that is, on a Sunday, which is the day on which the Light was created, as we learn from the Book of Genesis—"the two Solemnities of Jesus' "Passion and Resurrection," says St. Augustine, "do "not only remind us of those divine facts; but they "moreover represent and signify some other myste"rious and holy thing."1
And yet, we are not to suppose, that, because the Feast of Jesus' Birth is not fixed to any particular day of the week, there is no mystery expressed by its being always on the Twenty-fifth of December.
1 Epitt. Ad Januarium.
For, firstly, we may observe with the old Liturgists, that the Feast of Christmas is kept, by turns, on each of the Days of the week, that thus its holiness may cleanse and rid them of the curse, which Adam's sin had put upon them. But, secondly, the great mystery of the Twenty-fifth of December, being the Feast of our Saviour's Birth, has reference, not to the division of time marked out by God himself, and which is called the Week; but to the course of that great Luminary, which gives life to the world, because it gives it light and warmth. Jesus, our Saviour, the Light of the World,1 was born when the night of idolatry and crime was the darkest; and the day of his Birth, the Twenty-fifth of December, is that on which the material Sun begins to gain his ascendancy over the reign of gloomy night, and show to the world his triumph of brightness.
In our "Advent," we showed, after the Holy Fathers, that the diminution of the physical light may be considered as emblematic of those dismal times, which preceded the Incarnation. We joined our prayers with those of the people of the Old Testament; and, with our holy Mother the Church, we cried out to the Divine Orient, the Sun of Justice, that he would deign to come, and deliver us from the twofold death of body and soul. God has heard our prayers; and it is on the Day of the Winter Solstice—which the Pagans of old made so much of by their fears and rejoicings—that he gives us both the increase of the natural light, and Him who is the Light of our souls.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Ambrose, St. Maximus of Turin, St. Leo, St. Bernard, and the principal Liturgists, dwell with complacency on this profound mystery, which the Creator of the universe has willed should mark both the natural and the supernatural
1 St. John, viii. 12.
world. We shall find the Church, also, making continual allusion to it, during this season of Christmas, as she did in that of Advent.
"On this the Day which the Lord hath made," says St. Gregory of Nyssa, "darkness decreases, light in"creases, and Night is driven back again. No, "Brethren, it is not by chance, nor by any created "will, that this natural change begins on the Day, "when He shows Himself in the brightness of his "coming, which is the spiritual Life of the world. "It is Nature revealing, under this symbol, a secret "to them whose eye is quick enough to see it; to "them, I mean, who are able to appreciate this cir"cumstance of our Saviour's coming. Nature seems "to me to say: Know, O Man ! that under the things "which I show thee, there lie Mysteries concealed. "Hast thou not seen the Night, that had grown so "long, suddenly checked 1 Learn hence, that the "black night of Sin, which had got to its height by "the accumulation of every guilty device, is this day "stopped in its course. Yes, from this day forward, "its duration shall be shortened, until at length there "shall be naught but Light. Look, I pray thee, on "the Sun; and see how his rays are stronger, and his "position higher in the heavens: learn from that, "how the other Light, the Light of the Gospel, is now "shedding itself over the whole earth."1
"Let us, my Brethren, rejoice," cries out St. Augustine :2 "this Day is sacred, not because of the visible "sun, but because of the Birth of Him, who is the "invisible Creator of the sun. * * He chose this "Day to be born on, as he chose the Mother he was "to be born from, and he made both the Day and the "Mother. The Day he chose, was that on which the "light begins to increase, and it typifies the work of "Christ, who renews our interior man, day by day
1 Homily on the Nativity. 2 Sermon on the Nativity of our Lord, iii. "For the eternal Creator having willed to be born in "time, his Birth Day would necessarily be in harmony "with the rest of his creation."
The same Holy Father, in another Sermon for the same Feast, gives us the interpretation of a mysterious expression of St. John Baptist, which admirably confirms the tradition of the Church. The great Precursor said on one occasion, when speaking of Christ: Me must increase, but I must decrease.1 These prophetic words signify, in their literal sense, that the Baptist's mission was at its close, because Jesus was entering upon his. But, they convey, as St. Augustine assures us, a second meaning: "John "came into this world at the season of the year, "when the length of the day decreases; Jesus was "born in the season when the length of the day in"creases."2 Thus, there is mystery both in the rising of that glorious Star, the Baptist, at the summersolstice; and in the rising of our Divine Sun in the dark season of winter.3
There have been men, who dared to scoff at Christianity as a superstition, because they discovered, that the ancient Pagans used to keep a Feast of the sun, on the winter Solstice! In their shallow erudition, they concluded, that a Religion could not be divinely instituted, which had certain rites or customs
1 John, iii. 30.
2 Sermon In JSatali Domini, xi.
3 It is almost unnecessary to add, that this doctrine of the Holy Fathers, which is embodied in the Christmas Liturgy, is not in any degree falsified by the fact that there are some parts of God's earth, where Christmas falls in a Season the very opposite of Winter. Our Lord selected, for the place of his Birth, one which made it Winter, when he came upon earth; and by that selection, he stamped the Mystery, taught in the text, on the Season of darkness and cold. Our Brethren in Australia, for example, will have the Mystery without the Winter, when they are keeping Christmas; or, more correctly, their faith and the Holy Liturgy will unite them with us, both in the Winter, and the Mystery, of the great Birth in Bethlehem. [Translator's Note.]