We have been singing about the birth of the Savior since ancient times in churches or even at home under the Christmas tree, and it feels almost natural that if Jesus was born at midnight, we will also have a midnight mass to commemorate exactly this event. This year’s Christmas was undoubtedly special. In many countries, midnight masses are not even held due to the epidemic and the curfew. Elsewhere, as in the Vatican, this ceremony has been in the evening for years. In Rome, eight to nine o’clock in the evening is not even late. But why does Christian tradition link the midnight date to the birth of Christ? First, in the Gospel of Luke — if we read not of the birth itself, but of its proclamation — it states, “Shepherds farmed in the open air, guarding their flock in the night”. And on the morning of the feast, we read in the Gospel of John: “The Word was the true light that came into the world to enlighten all men.” It is already clear from these two quotations that the first generation of disciples recognized the light — the light of divine truth and love — in the person of Jesus.
Compared to him, insensitivity, selfishness, vulnerability, and brittle indifference, all appear as the darkness that overwhelms humanity. Very appropriate and very important — and in the language of the pictures and the visuals — the depiction of the Christmas scene with the glowing barn, the manger with the little Jesus, and Mary and Joseph and the shepherds standing out from the dark background is very eloquent. It was as if the light of the whole image radiated from the child. We also tend to put such pictures under the Christmas tree to remember who is at the center of Christmas, for whose sake the lights are on, even during the celebration at home. But why at midnight? Where does the tradition that Jesus was born at midnight come from? The answer is given in the Book of Wisdom. We read in it: “When a deep silence fell upon all things, and in the midst of the hasty journey of the night, his almighty word grew like a fierce warrior from heaven from his royal throne in the midst of a land destined for destruction” (Wisdom 18: 14-15). Since in this passage the author speaks of the word of God descending to earth with power, our Christian ancestors felt the reference to Jesus Christ was obvious. But there is an essential difference between the mysterious sentence of the Book of Wisdom and the message of Christmas. For the Old Testament text goes on to say that the divine word carries the command of the Almighty and fills everything with death. That is, it covers the whole of Egypt and, like a terrible epidemic, causes the sudden death of the firstborn. With this blow he gains the liberation of the chosen people. In the Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, the angels sing in the night of Bethlehem that there is peace on earth to the people whom God loves and for whom he wills. The angel’s first word to the shepherds reads, “Do not be afraid, I proclaim great joy to you.” In Jesus, the Creator God showed His goodness and charity (Titus 3,4). It is not a distant force of nature, not an unrecognizable greatness, but a good and omnipotent one who speaks to us and wants our good. Many have complained over the past year. Many have had a hard time imagining where in illness, the death of loved ones, financial hardships, and the failure of many of our beautiful plans, the infinite goodness is at such times. Yet, this year was an opportunity to reflect on our lives. We ask now what is really important and face what humanity needs to do differently if it wants to be long-lived on earth.
The Ten Commandments require respect for parents from individuals and peoples as a pledge of survival (Exodus 20:12). And indeed, responsible love between the generations is the key to human life. Even the created world was not owned, only preserved and cultivated responsibly. We need to manage our resources so that future generations can live here. But we also experienced a lack of human relationships and felt the importance of being with our loved ones. The Creator Himself wants to be present with us in this human community. We celebrate this at Christmas. That is why we thank you. That is why we are asking this year in particular for the light to grow in and around us. Our lives will shine brighter and brighter again! I wish a peaceful, merry Christmas to all our dear readers! (Péter Erdő is a Cardinal and Archbishop of Esztergom-Budapest, the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in Hungary)