The Mystery which the Church honors in this Third Mass is the eternal generation or Birth of the Son of God in the Bosom of His Father. At midnight She celebrated the God-Man, born in the Stable from the Womb of the glorious Virgin Mary; at the Aurora, this same Divine Infant, born in the souls of the Shepherds and of the faithful; there still remains for Her adoration and praise a Birth more wonderful than these other two: a Birth which dazzles the eye of Angels by its splendor, and bears its eternal witness to the inward fruitfulness of God. The Son of Mary is also the Son of God; and a grand duty of today is that we hymn aloud the glory of this His ineffable Generation, which makes Him consubstantial to His Father, God of God and Light of Light. Let us, then, raise up our thoughts even to that eternal Word, Who was in the beginning with God, and was Himself God (John 1: 1); for He is the brightness of His Father's glory, and the figure of His substance (Hebrews 1: 3).
The Church's first Chant in this Her Third Mass is an acclamation to the new-born King. She celebrates the kingly power and majesty which He will derive, as Man, from the Cross that is one day to be upon His shoulders; as God, He has been the Almighty King from all eternity, and this too She celebrates. He is also the Angel of great Counsel; that is, He is the One Sent from Heaven to fulfill the sublime Counsel or design of the Most Holy Trinity—to save mankind by the Incarnation and the Redemption. The Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, the Word, made this Counsel, together with the other Two: His devotedness to His Father's glory, and His love for man, made Him take upon Himself the execution of the divine Plan.
Introit (Is. 9: 6): A Child is born unto us, and a Son is given to us; and the government is upon His Shoulder: and His name shall be called the Angel of great Counsel. (Ps. 97: 1): Sing to the Lord a new canticle, for He hath done wonderful things. V. Glory be to the Father... A Child is born unto us...
In the Collect, the Church prays that the New Birth, whereby the eternal Son of God deigned to be born in time, may produce its effect in us, and work our deliverance. This Collect will be repeated at Mass every day during the Octave, at least by way of commemoration:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Almighty God, that we who groan under the old captivity of sin, may be freed therefrom by the new birth of Thine Only-Begotten Son. Through the same Our Lord Jesus Christ...
The Epistle is the beginning of St. Paul's Epistle to the Hebrews:
God, Who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son, Whom He appointed heir of all things, by Whom also He made the world; Who, being the brightness of His glory, and the image of His substance, and upholding all things by the word of His power, has effected man's purgation from sin and taken His seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become so much superior to the Angels as He has inherited a more excellent name than they. For to which of the Angels has He ever said: Thou art My Son, I this day have begotten Thee? And again: I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to me a Son? And again, when He brings the firstborn into the world, He says: And let all the Angels of God adore Him. And of the Angels indeed He says: He makes His Angels spirits, and His ministers a flame of fire. But of the Son: Thy throne, O God, is forever and ever, and a scepter of equity is the scepter of Thy kingdom. Thou has loved justice and hated iniquity; therefore God, Thy God, has anointed Thee with the oil of gladness above Thy fellows. And: Thou in the beginning, O Lord, didst found the earth, and the heavens are works of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt continue; and they shall all grow old as does a garment, and as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed. But Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.
The great Apostle, in this magnificent opening of his Epistle to his former brethren of the Synagogue, lays great stress on the Eternal Generation of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Whilst our eyes are fixed on the sweet Infant in His Crib, St. Paul bids us raise our thoughts up to that infinite Light, from the midst of which the Eternal Father thus speaks to this Child of Mary: Thou art My Son, I this day have begotten Thee. This today (hodie) is the Day of eternity, a Day which has neither morning nor evening, neither rising nor setting. If the Human Nature which He has vouchsafed to assume places Him below the Angels, He is infinitely above them by His own essence, whereby He is the Son of God. He is God, He is Lord, and no change can come upon Him. He may be wrapped in swaddling clothes or nailed to a Cross, or put to a most ignominious death; all this is only in His human nature: in His Divinity He remains impassible and immortal, for He was born of the Father from all eternity. And thus the Gradual:
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God: sing joyfully to the Lord, all the earth. V. The Lord hath made known His salvation: He hath revealed His justice in the sight of the Gentiles. Alleluia, alleluia. V. A sanctified day hath shone upon us: Come, ye Gentiles, and adore the Lord; for this day a great Light is come down upon the earth. Alleluia.
The Gospel is the beginning of that of St. John—the same which is read at the end of nearly every Holy Mass—and thus usually referred to as the "Last Gospel":
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was made nothing that has been made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness grasped it not… It was the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But to as many as received Him He gave the power of becoming sons of God; to those who believe in His Name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. AND THE WORD WAS MADE FLESH, and dwelt among us. And we saw His glory—glory as of the Only-Begotten of the Father—full of grace and of truth.
O Eternal Son of God! In the presence of the Crib, where, for the love of us, Thou dost vouchsafe this day to show Thyself to Thy creatures, we confess Thy eternity, Thy omnipotence, Thy divinity, and most profoundly do we adore Thee. Thou wast in the beginning; Thou wast in God; and Thyself wast true God. Everything was made by Thee, and we are the work of Thy hands. O Light, infinite and eternal! O Sun of Justice! Enlighten us, for we are but darkness. Too long have we loved our darkness, and Thee we have not comprehended: forgive us our blindness and our errors. Thou hast been long knocking at the door of our hearts, and we have refused to let Thee in. Today, thanks to the wonderful ways of Thy love, we have received Thee: for who could refuse to receive Thee, sweet gentle Infant Jesus! But leave us not; abide with us, and perfect the New Birth which Thou hast begun in us. We wish henceforth to be neither of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God, by Thee and in Thee. Thou hast been made Flesh, O Word Eternal, in order that we may become sons of God. We beseech Thee, support our weak human nature, and fit us for this our sublime destiny. Thou art born of God Thy Father; Thou art born of Mary; Thou art born in our hearts; thrice glorified be Thou for this Thy triple Birth, O Jesus, so merciful in Thy Divinity, and so Divine in Thy self-sought humiliations!
At the Offertory, the Church sings praise to Her Emmanuel for the works of His hands—the universe; for it was He Who made all things. The Church cannot lose sight of the Infant Jesus and the Crib; but She is unceasingly praising the power and majesty of the Incarnate God:
Thine are the heavens, and Thine is the earth; the world and the fullness thereof Thou hast founded: justice and judgment are the preparation of Thy throne.
We pray for purification from our sins at the Secret:
Sanctify, O Lord, our offerings by the new Birth of Thine Only-Begotten Son: and cleanse us from the stains of our sins. Through the same Our Lord...
During the Communion, the choir sings the happiness of this earth of ours, which has today seen its Savior by the mercy of the Divine Word, made visible in the flesh, yet so as that He loses nothing of His own infinite glory:
The whole earth hath seen the salvation of our God.
Then, in the Postcommunion, She prays by the mouth of the priest, that Her children who have eaten of the spotless Lamb may partake of the immortality of this same Jesus: for, by vouchsafing to be born by a human Birth in Bethlehem, He has this day given them a pledge of their receiving a divine life:
Grant, we beseech Thee, O Almighty God, that as the Savior of the world, Who was born this day, procured for us a divine birth, He may also bestow on us immortality. Who liveth and reigneth with Thee...
In place of the usual Last Gospel, the Church anticipates the Gospel of the Epiphany; thus emphasizing that both the Jews (the shepherds) and Gentiles (the Magi) were called to the Crib to adore the newborn Messias.
The Evensong of God's praise is about to close this beautiful Day: let us go and unite in it. The material sun is fast sinking in the west: but our Sun of Justice shall never set for us, who have received Him into our hearts. Yes, let us go join our Mother the Church, and chant, in the songs of the Royal Prophet, the happiness of our earth, that has yielded its divine Fruit; the glories of this new-born Savior; and the mercies which He has brought us. God forbid that our hearts should have lost, since morning, aught of their earnest fervor! Has not Christ been born within us? Therefore, let our psalmody proclaim His praises, and ascend to Him with all that beauty and loveliness and merit which the divine Liturgy always adds to our own individual fervor.
The Antiphons and Psalms of Second Vespers are unique in that they will be repeated every day of the Octave, even on days when the Office of Saints are celebrated, until the last day of the year, when they are replaced by the First Vespers of the Circumcision.
The first Psalm of Second Vespers of Christmas Day is that which always begins the Evening Office on Sundays and great Feasts. It celebrates the Eternal Generation of the Word, and prophesies His Sufferings and His Triumph:
Ant. 1: With Thee is the principality in the day of Thy strength, in the brightness of the Saints: from the womb, before the day-star, I begot Thee.
Psalm 109: The Lord said to my Lord: sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thy enemies Thy footstool... The Lord hath sworn, and He will not repent: Thou art a Priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech...
The second Psalm praises Our Lord for the Covenant He has made with His people, and for the Redemption He has this day sent us. The human race was sunk into the depths of misery: the God of mercy, faithful to His promises, gives us, in Bethlehem, Him Who is the Bread of life—the heavenly food that preserves from death:
Ant. 2: He hath sent Redemption to His people; He hath commanded His covenant forever.
Psalm 110: I will praise Thee, O Lord, with my whole heart... He hath made a remembrance of His wonderful works... He hath given food to them that fear Him...
The third Psalm tells the happiness and hopes of the just man, on the day of Jesus' Birth. In the very midst of darkness, there has suddenly risen up the bright and lovely Light, that is, our Emmanuel, our merciful God. The upright of heart are enlightened by Him; but woe to the sinner that will not receive Him!
Ant. 3: To the upright of heart a Light has risen up in darkness; the merciful and compassionate and just Lord.
Psalm 111: Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord: he shall delight exceedingly in His commandments… The wicked shall see, and shall be angry.
The fourth Psalm expresses the cry of distress sent forth to its Deliverer by the human race, when in the depth of its misery and degradation. But this cry was also one of hope; for God had promised to come to its deliverance. At length the Lord, Whose mercy is infinite, has vouchsafed to descend upon the earth, and our Redemption begins this very day:
Ant. 4: With the Lord there is merciful forgiveness; and with Him plentiful Redemption.
Psalm 129: Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord: Lord, hear my voice... And He shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
The fifth Psalm celebrates the Ark of the Lord which rested in Ephrata (which included Bethlehem). Mary was the true Ark, of which that of old was but a type: in Her did Our Lord take up His dwelling; in Her did He place the throne of His Majesty. Let our God, then, arise and take possession of His Church, which begins today in Bethlehem; let Him arise, and, together with Mary, the Queen of Mercy, govern us. Henceforth He is to dwell among us—console us in all our tribulations—satisfy us poor ones with the Bread of eternal life—invest the new Priesthood with singular powers—shine in His Church as the Lamp of immutable truth—triumph over all His enemies—in a word, whilst the crowns of other kings shall fall off, the one which sits on the brow of our Divine King, our sweet Babe of Bethlehem, shall flourish for everlasting ages:
Ant. 5: I will set upon thy throne, one of the fruit of thy womb.
Psalm 131: O Lord, remember David, and all his meekness. How he swore to the Lord... I shall (not)... give rest to my temples, until I find out a place for the Lord, a tabernacle for the God of Jacob... Behold we have heard of it in Ephrata... Arise, O Lord, into Thy resting place; Thou and the Ark which Thou hast sanctified… For the Lord hath chosen Sion... Blessing, I will bless her widow, I will satisfy her poor with Bread. I will clothe her priests with salvation: and her Saints shall rejoice with exceeding great joy.
Sung to a jubilant Gregorian melody, the Antiphon for the Magnificat will be repeated every day until December 31, either as part of the Octave Office or by way of commemoration:
Ant. Magnificat: This day Christ is born, this day the Savior hath appeared; this day the Angels sing on earth; the Archangels rejoice; this day the just exult, saying: Glory be to God in the highest, alleluia.
The great Day is over, and the night is coming upon us, when sleep will refresh us after the holy fatigues of last night. Before retiring to rest, let us give the holy Martyrs a thought, whose memory is offered to our veneration by the Church in Her Martyrology of this December 25. Diocletian and his colleagues in the Empire had recently published the famous edict of persecution, which waged against the Church the fiercest war She had ever sustained. The edict was torn down from the Emperor's palace at Nicomedia by one of the Christians, who paid for this holy daring by a glorious martyrdom. The faithful of the same city were ready for the combat, and feared not to brace the Emperor's power by continuing to frequent their church, which was condemned to be pulled down. Christmas Day came, and several thousands of them had assembled there, in order to celebrate, for the last time within those walls, the Nativity of our Savior. Being informed of it, the Emperor became furious, and sent one of the officers of his court to order the church doors to be fastened, and a fire to be enkindled on each side of the building. This being done, the clang of trumpets was heard, and then a herald's voice proclaiming to the faithful, in the Emperor's name, that they who wished to save their lives would be permitted to leave the Basilica, on the condition of their offering incense on an altar of Jupiter, which had been placed near the door; but that otherwise, all were to be left a prey to the flames. One of the Christians thus answered, in the name of the whole assembly: "We are all of us Christians; we honor Christ as the one only God and King; and we are all ready to lay down our lives for Him on this Day." Whereupon the soldiers were commanded to set fire to the church. In a very short time, it was one immense mass of flames, whence was offered to the Son of God—Who deigned to begin on the same day the human life He had assumed—the generous holocaust of these thousands of lives, laid down as witness to His having come into this world. Thus was glorified, in the year 303, Emmanuel, Who came from Heaven to dwell among us. Let us, after the example of the Church Herself, join our homage to the Babe of Bethlehem with that offered by these courageous Christians, whose fame the Liturgy will perpetuate even to the end of time.
Once more let us visit in spirit the dear Cave, where Mary and Joseph are loving and nursing and adoring the Divine Infant. Let us, too, adore Him, and ask His blessing. St. Bonaventure, with an unction worthy of his seraphic soul, thus expresses the sentiments which a Christian should have on this Day, when admitted to the Crib of Jesus: "Do thou also kneel down—thou hast delayed too long. Adore the Lord thy God, and then reverence His Mother, and salute, with much respect, the saintly old man Joseph. After this, kiss the feet of the Infant Jesus, laid as He is on His little bed, and ask Our Lady to give Him to thee, or permit thee to take Him up. Take Him into thine arms, press Him to thy heart, and look well at His lovely face, and reverently kiss Him, and show Him confidently the delight thou dost take in Him. Thou mayest venture on all this, because it is for sinners that He came, that He might save them: it was with sinners that He so humbly conversed, and at last gave Himself to sinners, that He might be their food. I say, then, that His gentle love will permit thee to treat Him as affectionately as thou pleasest, and will not call it too much freedom, but will set it down to thy love" (Meditations on the Life of Christ).
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