Cistercians and Franciscans — and yes, Carmelites too! — have this in common: a tender love for the mystery of the Word made flesh and a holy delight in the little Child of Bethlehem. Some of the most beautiful Christ–masses of my life were spent at Bethlehem Monastery of the Poor Clares, first in Newport News Virginia and then in Barhamsville. Imagine my delight when I found Bernardino Fasolo’s painting (1526) of the Nativity depicting Our Lady and Saint Joseph, Saint Elizabeth and Saint Zechariah, Saint John the Baptist (the little boy kneeling with folded hands), Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Francis holding the cross, and Saint Clare holding the monstrance! All eyes are fixed on the Bambino Gesù. And He, with His little hand grasps His cousin’s staff, fashioned in the form of the cross, as if to say: “For this, have I come: to be the Lamb of God.”
Vesperal Mass of the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord
Psalm 88: 3-4, 15-16, 26 and 28
Acts 13: 16-17, 22-25
All the World Desires to Behold His Face
“The King of peace is greatly glorified, and all the world desires to behold His face” (First Antiphon of Vespers). This evening, the inexpressible and inarticulate groanings of the cosmos, the desire of the everlasting hills, the hope of the patriarchs, and the promises of the prophets all come to flower on the lips of the Church. She enters more deeply into the mystery of the Advent of the Lord with a heart dilated by the immensity of her desire. The Church, in whom all the peoples of the earth are gathered, beholds the glory of God shining in the human face of His Christ (2 Cor 4:6). Tranfixed, she drinks deeply from the human eyes of God as from great pools of living water.
The King of peace has come to strengthen the bars of her gates, to bless the children within her, to establish peace in her borders, to feed her with finest wheat (Ps 147:2-3). The Word is sent forth from the silence of the Father (Ps 147:4); running swiftly He comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills (Ct 2:8), melting all that is frozen, causing streams to flow at the breath of His mouth (Ps 147:11-12).
Fire Upon the Earth
In this Vesperal Mass of the great vigil, the Church reads one of her Advent prophet’s most lyrical and jubilant pages. Isaiah stands irrepressible upon the heights, guiding us through the portals of First Vespers into the mystery of the holy night. “For Zions’s sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest” (Is 62:1). Now her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch. Zion is vindicated. The Church is vindicated. All who have waited, and believed, and wept, and hoped against hope are vindicated. Healing comes as a burning torch to purify, to cleanse, to ignite a fire upon the earth, and to warm hearts long grown cold. “I have come,” He says, “to cast fire upon the earth, and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49).
While we are yet on the threshold of our vigil, the mouth of the Lord calls us by a litany of new names, names full of promise and of wonder. “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God” (Is 62:3). We thought of ourselves as “Forsaken” and “Desolate” (Is 62:4). “My Delight” is the name He gives us, and He calls us “Married” (Is 62:4). We have come to the feast prepared to find our joy in Him and He, astounding us, declares His joy over us even as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride (Is 52:5).
Isaiah and John the Baptist
From Isaiah we go to the Baptist, the great and glorious forerunner of the Lord and the last of the prophets, presented by Saint Paul, the Teacher of the Gentiles. Here is the friend of the royal Bridegroom who stands and hears Him, rejoicing greatly at the Bridegroom’s voice, decreasing as the King Himself draws near. “After me One is coming the sandals of Whose feet I am not worthy to untie” (Ac 13:25). “This joy of mine,” he says, “is now full” (Jn 3:29). Isaiah and Saint John the Baptist who were with us from the beginning of Advent are here this evening, witnesses of God in the flesh.
The Holy Ancestors
The sacred liturgy rememorates the past, fulfills it in the present, and points to its ultimate completion in the glory of the Kingdom. This evening’s holy Gospel is no mere rehearsal of genealogical data; it is a powerful evocation of the living, all of whom rejoice in the advent of the Christ and bear witness to His glory.
Our fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob take their place with us. Rahab is here, her scarlet cord (Jos 2:18. 21) signaling the advent of the Saviour, the Lamb by whose blood all our sins are blotted out. Ruth the Moabitess returns to Bethlehem (Ruth 1:22), the city of her great-grandson, and is filled with wonder at the sight of royal David’s son. David the prophet king, passionate in his holiness and in his sin, poetic and penitent offers us his whole Psalter that we might sing with him the mystery of the Christ. Solomon, the builder of Temple, beholds the true Temple in the flesh of the true King, the Prince of Peace. Those before the deportation to Babylon and those coming after recognize in Christ the object of their longing and the restoration of all joy. One by one they come forward as their names are called, personalities gifted and flawed, men and women bold in their sin and bolder yet in their faith. Of these, by these, and for these, Christ is born that we might recognize in the son of Mary, espoused to Joseph, the One who comes to us and comes for us, the object of all our desire, like us in all things but sin.
Readiness for the Advent of God in the Flesh
It pleased the Father that the Son should be born in the flesh of a very mixed assortment of ancestors: nomads, patriarchs, poets, prostitutes, kings, adulterers, pagans, murderers, liars, polygamists, lovers, and thieves. One thing was common to all of these, a desire for something more, welling up from deep within, a desire that nothing of this world could stifle or quench. This desire, refined by the Holy Spirit at work in generation after generation, becomes in the just man Joseph and in his Virgin Bride, something utterly pure, something at once painful and sweet: a readiness for the advent of God in the flesh.
Our Desire for God
This then is the inner disposition we bring to the sacred liturgy this evening, a desire coming from the Holy Spirit, rising out of the depths of our being, a vulnerability, a readiness for the advent of God in the flesh. We arrive sometimes at the First Vespers of Christmas feeling terribly unprepared and inadequate. This is a great blessedness; it reduces our preparedness to a state of desire. Even the poorest, the most wretched among us is capable of desire.
The Desire of God for Us
The miracle of Christmas is that this little desire of ours is met by an infinite desire coming from above, a tidal wave of desire sweeping over us and lifting us higher than we could have dreamed or imagined. And this is why we celebrate the holy and life-giving Eucharist; it is the encounter of two desires: our own poor and weak, and the desire of God for us, immense, terrible, glorious. We go to the altar precisely to yield to that desire, and in yielding to it we find ourselves in communion with the whole people of desire formed by God for himself. This is what Christmas reveals: that we are the object of a divine desire, relentless, constant, tender, humble, and fierce. In that desire, sacramentalized in this first Christmas Eucharist, is all our hope.