The Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord
Mass During the Night
Dear brothers and sisters,
Did you notice it? We intoned tonight a great and celestial hymn which – with the exception of two occasions - we have not sung these past four weeks. Did you miss it? Did its lyrics cause your heart to leap with joy? This hymn, of course, is the Gloria, the text of which begins with the wondrous hymn sung by the angels over the shepherds’ field this night so many years ago and has been lovingly expanded by Mother Church in praise of God.
There is something profound in the song of that heavenly host which cried out in the darkness of the night, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14). Did you feel the light of heaven warm your heart this night as you joined your voice to the voices of the angels? Did you feel your heart lift as you sang, “Glory to God in the highest”?
In the words of the Gloria, we, reflecting on the mystery of the Birth of the only begotten Son of God who has now taken to himself a human face, offer to the Father “words of pure praise. Praise is not an easy activity for us: left to our own devices we lapse into thanksgiving to God for his blessings (which is certainly a good thing to do, but it is not quite synonymous with praise).” Thanksgiving is concerned with what God has done for us; praise is concerned only with God in himself. Indeed, when we praise God the Church does so “for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS.”
We sometimes grow weary of praising God through the text of the Gloria because we are too pragmatic, too practical, for our own good. The act of praise “takes us beyond the merely ‘useful,’ the utilitarian, we might say, into that realm where the calling back and forth in the great seraphic antiphons of what is true turns out to be the central activity of the universe.” Yes, the praise of God is at the heart of all that exists.
Put differently, we need to learn not to grow tired of singing laudamus te, benedicimus te, adoramus te, glorificamus te, we need to learn how to delight in the repetitive “spilling of verbs … like water flowing over the sides of a fountain.” If we learn this pleasure and join our hearts with the words that come forth from our tongues, then we can begin
to be taken out of the sinkhole of egoism into which our sin plunged us at the Fall and to begin to take our true place in the universal chorus, which includes all things, from the seraphim right on down to the North wind, the surf, the mountains and edelweiss and the song of the winter wren and the atoms – that chorus which exults in what is true, and which cries Gloria!
To unite our heart and mind and voice together as one in the Gloria – both individually and collectively – is to realize the very meaning and purpose of life, simple as it may seem. “God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life.” If we learn to sing the Gloria in sincerity of heart, if we learn simply to praise God for who he is, then, with all of creation, we will indeed be glad, rejoice, be joyful, and exult; we will like the angels who, seeing God’s effusive love, joyfully exclaim, “Glory to God in the highest” (cf. Psalm 96:11-13; Matthew 22:30)!
But what is it about the Birth of the Child of Mary that caused the angels to erupt in praise of God? Why did they break forth into this chorus of praise of the Almighty Father when the shepherds did not? The angels sang their hymn because they saw what the shepherds did not see. The shepherds saw the face of a child; the angels saw the Face of God. It is safe to say that “the shepherds did not see what the angels saw. Nor do we share the vision which the angels know… We see one thing, a small child; we believe another, God made man.”
Here, then, is but one aspect of the unfathomable mystery of Christmas:
Faith, not vision, makes us sing the angels’ song: “Glory to God in the highest.” It is a song of blind people who have not seen, but have heard the good news and understood. There is a gentle peace in the singing of that song. It is the peace that comes from giving glory to God, of reaching beyond where thought and word can take us – into God’s world.
Approaching the manger of Bethlehem and looking upon the Face of the Holy Child, we see “the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good” (Titus 2:13-14). When we look upon the Holy Infant, we look upon the very glory of God made flesh; how can we not rejoice in this mystery and let loose an exultant, “Gloria!”?
Tonight we come to “adore him, meaning, literally, we seek his face, we long to look upon him with awe.” We seek to unite our voices with those of the angels in their great of hymn of praise, to share “in the blessed happiness of the pure of heart who love God in faith before seeing him in glory.”
We do not simply give God thanks, but we thank him for his glory. That touches upon a mystery of love. We do more than say that God is glorious. We revel in his glory. We see that the glory of God is a great gift to us, because he has made us to enjoy that glory, as one delights to behold what is most beautiful and holy.
What can be more beautiful, what can be more holy, than the only begotten Son of God? He has made us to see his glory, to look upon his Face!
J.R.R. Tolkien recognized this inner impulse of the human toward the praise of God, toward that praise of God which also gives joy to the human heart. This is why he gave this advice to his son: “If you don’t do so already, make a habit of the ‘praises,’” among which he included the Gloria. “I use them much (in Latin),” he said. “If you learn these by heart you never need for words of joy.”
Tonight, then, let us together turn towards the Lord and lift our voices in his praise. Let us consciously join in the song of heaven and let our hearts be moved with joy. If we do, then “Gloria, Gloria we will sing / That God on earth is come.” In Jesus of Nazareth, in the Child of Bethlehem, we discover his glory, the Face of God, the Face of Love, and “the further we penetrate into the splendor of divine love, the more beautiful it is to pursue our search, so that,” as Saint Augustine says, “amore crescente inquisitio crescat inventi – the greater love grows, the further we will seek the one who has been found.” Amen.
 Thomas Howard, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass (Steubenville, Ohio: Franciscan University Press, 1995), 63.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2639.
 Thomas Howard, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass, 64.
 Anthony Esolen, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal (New York: Magnificat, 2012), 212.
 Thomas Howard, If Your Mind Wanders at Mass, 65.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1.
 Basil Cardinal Hume, The Mystery of the Incarnation (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2000), 143.
 Ibid., 143.
 Anthony Esolen, The Beauty of the Word, 212.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2639.
 Anthony Esolen, The Beauty of the Word, 212-213.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 54, To Christopher Tolkien, 8 January 1944.
 Ibid., “Noel.”
 Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 28 August 2005. Cf. Saint Augustine of Hippo, Exposition of Psalm 105.3.