Hodie Christus natus est!
That is Latin for “Today Christ is born!” Sung as part of the Liturgy of the Hours for centuries, the refrain from the responsorial psalm from the Christmas Mass During the Night echoes these words.
Hodie in Latin can be translated as “today” but it can also mean “at this time,” “still,” or “in this very moment.”
So, as we gather in our churches and with family today, we aren’t just calling to mind something that happened 2000 years ago. We are remembering that Christ is born “today,” – “still” “in this very moment.” Right now, we are experiencing Christmas anew in our hearts and in our world.
St. Francis of Assisi understood this. In the 13th century, when the prayers of the Mass were spoken only in Latin – a language which, like today, few people spoke or understood – Francis knew that people needed a new and unique way to really “get” the message about God’s overflowing love in becoming human. He wanted them to feel in their hearts the utter humility of God being born in the poverty of a manger, and how close God is to the poor.
So, Francis borrowed some animals, set up straw in a cave outside the town, got people to play the roles of Mary and Joseph and set up a wax figure of the Christ Child. Shepherds were already in the nearby hills, watching over their flocks like in the Gospel! And so St. Francis became the first person to set up what we recognize today as a Christmas creche, or nativity scene.
When people came to see the scene, Francis, preached about the first Christmas and how their faith in Christ could transform their lives and bring about an end to hatred. And the people experienced the closeness of the Christ Child and the mystery of Christmas in their lives “at that moment,” in a new way.
St. Francis’ Christmas creche has inspired nativity scenes large and small throughout history – in churches, family homes, and public spaces. And so, today, when we look at the beautiful nativity scene of Mary and Joseph, the baby Jesus in the manger, the shepherds gathered around – we aren’t looking at it like an historical photograph in a newspaper or a history book. We are looking at it with the eyes of faith. It certainly reminds us of the biblical story in its time, but it speaks to us “now” – at this moment.
The “now” of our faith which we experience viewing the Christmas nativity is found in all of the readings for the Christmas liturgies, but especially in the readings for the Mass During the Night.
The prophet Isaiah reminds us that it is “now” that the people who were in darkness are able to walk in light and that oppression and yokes which have held people down are smashed by the Prince of Peace, who comes to govern justly – “now” and forever.
The Gospel from St. Luke reminds us that the historical time of Christ’s birth was filled with social unrest and dislocation. But it is in the midst of these challenges that God becomes present in the flesh to us. Fear is disrupted in favor of awe as “good news” comes – not from Caesar or Quirinius – but from the manger in Bethlehem. And we are reminded “at this very moment,” that God’s glory still comes, even in the midst of difficult days.
And the second reading from Paul’s letter to Titus tells us why God did all this – so we may have hope and be strengthened in doing what is good – following the example of the Christ who was born to draw us back to the God who loves us.
So as we celebrate this wonderful, blessed, sacred day and gather with family and loved ones at Mass, around the Christmas tree, at a meal – wherever and whenever – may we pause – perhaps in front of the nativity scene in our parish church or in our homes – to give thanks, and to ask God for the continual gift to see each day, and each moment of our lives, as “the now moment” – the “today”- when Christ wishes to be born anew in the hearts of each one of us.