There are actually 1 plus 3 Masses between now and tomorrow afternoon and they are the Vigil of Christmas Eve followed by the Midnight, Dawn and Day Masses. Why so many liturgies? They harken back to the days of stational Masses where Pope and people used to process from one Church to another to celebrate the different liturgies. The Vigil Mass used to retain a little bit of the Advent penitential flavour but it no longer does.
Today, the current practice continues with the Vigil Mass celebrated at St Mary Major, the Midnight Mass at the Altar of the Crib at St Mary Major, the Dawn Mass at the Church of St Anastasia and finally back to St Mary Major for the Mass of the Day. (It used to be in St Peter’s Basilica but due to the changing demographics and for safety reason it was moved to St Mary Major as it is located nearer to St John Lateran).
The liturgies also follow a pattern where at the Vigil Mass we savour the provenance of the Saviour by weaving through the thread of His genealogy. At midnight, Isaiah reminds us that the people who walked in darkness now has seen a great light. Darkness is banished by the appearance of the true Light. The shepherds in the Gospel who kept watch end up witnessing the angelic chorus breaking into the Gloria in excelsis Deo. The Mass at Dawn continues with the theme of light breaking into the world. The readings proclaim Him as the Saviour whilst the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem to visit the Holy Family. Finally, at the Mass of the Day the profundity of God’s mystery is captured by John’s Prologue: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh”.
Here we are at the cusp of salvation and what does it mean that we enter into drama of the Saviour’s birth?
Firstly, the Gospel genealogy is a non-Hebrew speaker’s nightmare because some of the names are probably mispronounced by the deacon or the priest. It may be boring but no less interesting because the warp and woof of Jesus’ ancestry is nothing short of a display of sin. We have a cheater, Jacob, who cheated his brother Esau of his inheritance. We even have a child trafficker, Judah who sold his brother Joseph to some travelling tradesmen. An outcast, Tamar whose desperation for a child, resorted deception and making herself a prostitute tricked her father in law into an incestuous intercourse with her. The list goes on.
The history of sin is also the history of salvation for these names paved the path towards the long awaited climax who is none other than the Saviour of the world.
Sometimes we hear people speaking of Jesus as one’s personal Saviour. It is good to assert this but what is Jesus saving us from, a question which I will come back to later. For now, let us just say that this notion of a “personal” Saviour sounds rather selfish and may even border on a utilitarian relationship. Yes, I need Him to save me but there is a salvation which is just more than me. This bigger picture is the universality of salvation which the first reading alludes to. The justification of Zion extends beyond the people of Israel into the world. There is a salvation that is universal because the name Jesus which means the God who saves might further our rather myopic vision of a personal Saviour. He saves all, not just Christians.
God saves not just figuratively or metaphorically. He saves concretely in the sense that He saves in such a way that makes the Church a necessity for salvation. What does that mean? It means that the Church has to be there when Christ saves because it cannot be that the where the head is, the body is absent. Perhaps it makes sense why I said that the concept of a personal Saviour is rather utilitarian and that it borders on selfishness.
Pope Francis has a favourite metaphor to describe the Church. He says that the Church must be a field hospital tending to injured souls. There is a war not just out there but also in here for souls. However, if there is no sin, why the need for hospitals? Without the realisation that we are sinners and we have sinned, a personal Saviour makes no sense. The notion of a personal Saviour is linked to the recognition of concrete personal sins and not just a hazy notion of sinfulness. Without sins and the awareness that it destroys the soul, what is the Church for? The Church as field hospital tending to souls is no more than a spiritual spa whereby we who are sinless comes here to be affirmed. Just like the Publican who stands before God, we come to tell Him how great we are. Do you know that some people do come in to confess that they are sinless—there seems to be more than one Immaculate Conception.
This Mass is not a guilt trip even if it sounds like one. If the genealogy of Jesus has anything to say to us, it is that sin is the reason for His coming. Peppered throughout the Vigil’s liturgy is the word Saviour. If we have no sin, then His coming makes little if no sense at all. But, if we are here to celebrate the impending birth of Jesus our Saviour, the best welcome we can give Him is to be more conscious that He is coming to save us because we are sinners in need of salvation. The beautiful history of salvation is at the same time a tribute to grace of redemption. Come Lord Jesus for our souls. We need you, come Lord come.