“Adoration of the Shepherds” (detail) by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This message, indeed, “cannot leave us indifferent.” Because it is true, “it changes everything.”

There is something beautifully symbolic about the tradition of Midnight Mass. It shows that Christians are so eager for Christmas to begin that they want to start celebrating on the first moment of Christmas day. People who ordinarily never go out late at night and are often at that hour dressed in pajamas and sleeping soundly adjust their sleep schedules to get up, put on their best clothes and head out alert to their parish churches.

The Christmas midnight Mass is the antithesis of the growing tendency to try to make the practice of the faith convenient and easy. It’s a bulwark against the propensity to fit the celebration of Christmas and the worship of God into our crowded life; it is, rather, an annual reminder that we are called to make our lives revolve around the mysteries of faith and that those mysterious realities are worth changing sleep patterns and inconveniencing ourselves.

For this reason, it’s highly fitting that the Gospel at Midnight Mass focuses on the shepherds awake in the fields to whom the angels appeared with the message of good news of great joy. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us in his Christmas [2009] Midnight Mass homily, the example of the shepherds emphasizes—as perennial lessons for the Christian life—the virtues that are on display and cultivated in the celebration of Midnight Mass.

“The story of the shepherds is included in the Gospel for a reason,” Pope Emeritus Benedict stressed. “They show us the right way to respond to the message” announced not only to them, but to us: the message that “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” is born for us, that “God is with us.” This message, Pope Emeritus Benedict underlined, “cannot leave us indifferent. If it is true, it changes everything.” Looking at those who attended the first midnight celebration of the birth of Christ, Pope Emeritus Benedict queried, “What is it that these first witnesses of God’s incarnation have to tell us?”

The first lesson, he said, is that “they were on the watch. They could hear the message precisely because they were awake.” The first Sunday of Advent each year features a Gospel passage that reminds us that we need to awaken and remain alert for the Lord is coming like a thief in the night. The shepherds are models of what it means to be awake and alert for the Lord’s arrival. In order for us to hear the message they did and respond, we, too, must be awake, the Holy Father said. We, too, must become a “truly vigilant people.”

There’s a huge difference, Pope Emeritus Benedict noted, between someone who is awake and someone who is dreaming. The dreamer “is in a world of his own. His ‘self’ is locked into this dream world that is his alone and does not connect him with others.” Those who are awake, on the other hand, leave their “own little private world” of individual and collective selfishness to enter into communion with God and others. Waking up means “to develop a receptivity for God, for the silent promptings with which he chooses to guide us, for the many indications of his presence.” The pontiff observed that today’s world forms our thinking and acting so as to “deaden our receptivity for God, to make us ‘tone deaf’ towards him.” The way to counteract this tendency is, he said, to “pray for ourselves and for others,” so that the capacity given to us by God to receive him and his message will be turned on again and remain locked into God’s frequency.

The second lesson the shepherds show us is how prompt they were to respond to the angels’ message. “They made haste” to go to Bethlehem, the Gospel passage relates. “What had been announced to them was so important,” the Pope underscored, “that they had to go immediately. What had been said to them was utterly out of the ordinary. It changed the world: the Savior is born; the long-awaited Son of David has come into the world in his own city. What could be more important?” Not only was that news not lost on them, but the fact that God had chosen to convey that news to them, who were insignificant in the eyes of society. They couldn’t wait to act. “No doubt they were partly driven by curiosity,” the Pope noted, “but first and foremost it was their excitement at the wonderful news that had been conveyed to them, of all people, to the little ones, to the seemingly unimportant. They made haste—they went at once.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict contrasted the shepherd’s “haste” in heading to Bethlehem—in treating the news as more important than everything else in their lives—with the way many of us are accustomed to respond to God. “In our daily life, it is not like that,” Pope Emeritus Benedict said. “For most people, the things of God are not given priority, they do not impose themselves on us directly. And so the great majority of us tend to postpone them. First we do what seems urgent here and now. In the list of priorities God is often more or less at the end. We can always deal with that later, we tend to think. The Gospel tells us: God is the highest priority. If anything in our life deserves haste without delay, then, it is God’s work alone. …The shepherds teach us this priority. From them we should learn not to be crushed by all the pressing matters in our daily lives. From them we should learn the inner freedom to put other tasks in second place—however important they may be—so as to make our way towards God, to allow him into our lives and into our time.”

The annual tradition of Midnight Mass reinforces both of these lessons the shepherds teach. It is an outward sign that we are awake and alert for the coming of the Lord and so excited for his arrival that we are willing to sacrifice everything else to greet him with joy and love as soon as he arrives. It is a public and personal reminder that we prioritize Christ over sleep, convenience, presents, family members, and everything else. It short, it manifests that God is God in our lives, that he is our highest priority, and that we would rather postpone everything else in life than delay giving him the response of loving adoration he deserves. Even for those who may struggle to live with this type of Christian receptivity and response throughout the year, it is at least an annual occasion to put things back in their proper order and restore God and our relationship with him to their proper places.

The real meaning of Christmas, Pope Emeritus Benedict accentuated, is that “God has set out towards us. Left to ourselves we could not reach him. The path is too much for our strength. But God has come down. He comes towards us. He has traveled the longer part of the journey. Now he invites us: ‘Come and see how much I love you. Come and see that I am here.”

That is an invitation worth staying up for, worth receiving, wholeheartedly, worth journeying whatever distances with haste to correspond, and worth placing before all other things. This message, indeed, “cannot leave us indifferent.” Because it is true, “it changes everything.”

This article originally appeared in The Anchor, the weekly newspaper of the Diocese of Fall River, Mass, on December 24, 2010 and appears here with the kind permission of the author.

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