Victory over darkness - Christmas Mass

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Why do we celebrate Christmas on December 25? The Scriptures provide no information concerning the date of the birth of Christ.

Commenting on this question in 1993 Pope St John Paul II commented, “The date of December 25, as is known, is conventional. In pagan antiquity, the birth of the "Invictus Sun" was celebrated on that day, coinciding with the winter solstice. It seemed logical and natural for Christians to replace that festivity with the celebration of the one and true Sun, Jesus Christ, born on earth to bring men the light of Truth."

Pope Benedict XVI, in the general audience of December 23, 2009, said that "the first to clearly state that Jesus was born on December 25th was Hippolytus of Rome, in his commentary on the Book of the Prophet Daniel, written about 204". In explaining that the Christian feast had replaced the pagan "Sol invictus" which commemorated winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, he reflected that as the days start to get longer the Sun wins over darkness. For Christians, it was quite natural to transpose the symbolism of victory over darkness into the coming of Christ on earth.

In the year 330 AD the celebration of the Christian Christmas was introduced with an imperial decree by Constantine I, replacing the pagan holiday of the Dies Natalis Solis Invictis. Thus the Christian emperor decreed that the birth of Christ replace the birth of the Sun God in the secretive cult of Mithras. In the year 337 Pope Julius I formalised the date of Christmas as we know it today for the Christian Church.

As the second decade of the third millennium since the birth of Christ comes to an end, we can contemplate whether the light of Christ has grown stronger in the face of darkness. The light of the Christian faith has spread across the world bringing eternal truth to the lives of millions and shaping cultures.

Sadly however we are confronted with the rise of darkness in many ways. We see it on the world stage with wars, conflicts, violence and lack of freedom inflicted on millions of innocent people. Hunger and disease still afflict the lives of so many.

The rise of darkness is also now associated with fears about the future wellbeing of the planet as voices are raised concerning climate change. Young people hearing these messages have become anxious about their future – is the world doomed?

In our own country while in the early part of the year people suffered from floods, now we have been ravaged by drought and fire. Many face a very difficult future. Others struggle with personal tragedy.

Many Christians are burdened by the evident decline in faith among Australians and the advance of views and practices which they would see as damaging to personal lives and to the moral and spiritual wellbeing of our nation.

It can seem that the darkness continues to reign in the world and in the lives of countless millions. Many people live in a ‘vale of tears’.

Our celebration of Christmas offers a particular and most important perspective on the darkness bearing in on human life. In the birth of Christ we declare that a light has dawned in the midst of the darkness. The opening prayer of the Mass spoke of being “radiant with the splendour of the true light”.

The birth of Christ our Saviour is a moment in which we declare that a light has come to us. That light will dispel the darkness now covering the earth.

Now is a moment for us to come out of the shadows into the light.
The shadows in our own life might be the burden of concern about the state of the world and society around us. We may have a dread for the future.

The shadows may be deeply personal. We may have experienced loss or some profound grief during the past year. We may be carrying anxieties emerging from issues in our life. We may have fears that we cannot let go of.

Tonight, come out from this darkness. Leave it behind. Now is a moment to come forth from the shadows and come to the light. Come to the Christ child, like the shepherds. Come and behold the child who is Son of God as well as son of Mary. He is God with us. And He is before us in the simplicity of the nativity scene. God is with us. God wants to be with us. God has reached out to us.

And light comes to us, for Christ is the true light that has come into the world. Let us allow ourselves to be bathed in this light. May the light of Christ wash away the fears that cling to us.

Tonight we open our hearts to receive our saviour. In opening our hearts we let the light in to irradiate our hearts. In receiving Christ we allow his presence to dispel the darkness that clings to us. Let the light shine upon our hearts. The powerless pagan sun god has been replaced by the true light, Christ our Lord.

St John Henry Newman, canonised on 13 October this year, said this in a Christmas homily:

It is a day of joy; it is good to be joyful – it is wrong to be otherwise .. Let us seek the grace of a cheerful heart, an even temper, sweetness, gentleness and brightness of mind as walking in his light, and by his grace. Let us pray him to give us the spirit of ever- abundant ever-springing love, which overpowers and sweeps away the vexations of life by its own richness and strength, and which above all unites us to Him who is the fountain and centre of all mercy, loving-kindness and joy.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Tuesday, 24 December 2019