My favorite piece of sacred music that we hear in Mass is the Exultet — that long chant, usually sung by a deacon, that is prayed near the beginning of the Easter Vigil Mass. (Having been ordained a deacon less than 24 hours ago, I am eagerly hoping I will have an opportunity to sing it sometime in the future.)
But I also very much like another piece of sacred music that can be sung in a similar way at the night Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s shorter, it’s also very simple, and it’s very beautiful. It’s called “The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and it’s a proclamation of exactly that.
The chant highlights the time of the birth of Jesus in relation to a whole host of other historical events. It begins with events from salvation history, including the creation of the world and of the human race, Noah and the flood, the call of Abraham, the Exodus, King David, and the prophesy of Daniel.
But then it moves into other parts of history, things we might be tempted to call secular history. We are told that these events took place in the 752nd year since the founding of the city of Rome, during the rein of Caesar Octvian Augustus. My favorite is the first one given: it took place in the 194th Olympiad.
At the conclusion of all this, the music rises and changes. At this time, we are told, “the whole world being at peace, Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since his conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”
As the musical climax suggests, the earthly life of Jesus is not just the climax of this song, it is turning point of all human history.
I have sung this several years running now, and I always look forward to it. I find it a beautiful thing to pray, because it is a solid reminder of just how concrete and fact-based the Christian faith is.
Our faith is based on a person: on the living and true God, who not only created the whole world and time and therefore history but stepped into history in human flesh. He was born in a particular time and place into a particular family. He died on a particular day, and rose three days later. He chose particular people and sent them into the world as his witnesses, in the full sense of the word — as people who knew him, loved him, shared life with him. What we believe has been handed down to us through the generations starting from those witnesses, in Scripture but also in person-to-person contact.
St. Peter says as much in his second letter: “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.”
The Christian faith is not a theory about God or the world. It’s not a tale we created to make sense of things. It’s based on the encounter with a God who has revealed himself, in person.
In our politically correct days, this is a bit of a scandal. Many people, even some Christians, are much more comfortable with the idea that all religions are basically the same and equally true, and that the point of them is that we ought to be nice to each other and learn to accept ourselves more or less as we are. This view has little room for truth claims and little need for ongoing conversion or for a savior. It doesn’t really demand anything.
Some may continue to believe in God, but not in a personal way, but something more vague and pantheistic, something like the Force from Star Wars.
The lingering of this kind of belief seems to be a kind of twilight of faith. It’s what is left when people have stopped really believing but cannot completely let go of it.
So I think it is bracing and wonderful to get that Christmas proclamation, and really the whole Christmas season, as a reminder that our faith is something other than this. The “glad tidings” of Christmas are certainly ones of promise and peace and hope. But they are only so because they involve the truth of a God reaching out to us in this tender and merciful way while we were yet sinners.
The same God who came to us this way will come again, in another way, when he will come to “judge the living and the dead.” Have we heeded him when he came as our savior? Have we received his mercy? Or have we decided we don’t need a savior and gone our own way?
I hope we soak in the Christmas story — a true story — as the season begins on Dec. 25. And I hope we do so knowing that the story is still unfolding, and we have a part to play in it, as disciples of the newborn King.
Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.