The First Christmas Liturgy

Well, here I am again, and the Christmas season is all but gone. It comes to a close today with Epiphany. As I mentioned in my last post, I spent almost the whole of my Christmas vacation sick in bed, as did my father and mother, with whom I was staying over the holidays. To our sorrow, we were too ill to go to Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and so we missed hearing the glorious Christmas proclamation from Luke of the birth of the baby in the manger and the shepherds in the fields listening in amazement to the song of the angels.

I said “proclamation” for a reason. Has it ever struck you — it certainly has struck me — how well suited Luke’s Christmas story is to being read aloud? Especially read out loud in a solemn way. In fact, many scriptural scholars have noted how liturgical the Lukan infancy narrative is, how well suited to solemn proclamation and action.

Actually, this is just one of the ways Chapters 1-2 are of Luke stylistically different from the rest of his Gospel. Another is also recognizable right away as we turn the pages – the amount of the text of these chapters that is formatted as poetry: canticles or hymns. There are the Magnificat, the Canticle of Zecharias, the song of the angels in Bethlehem and the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, all within a very short space. This is also totally different from the rest of Luke, where hymns and poetry are absent. Many scriptural scholars think that Luke used a special source for telling the story of Jesus’ birth, one that contained these elements.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is Pope Benedict in his latest volume of Jesus of Nazareth:

In [Luke's] infancy narrative overall . . . it is easy to recognize the Jewish Christian substratum which is derived from the tradition of Jesus’ family. But it has evidently been reformulated by a redactor who wrote and thought in Greek, and this person may reasonably be identified as the evangelist Luke himself.

Not only that, but the ultimate source of this tradition, he says, is Mary herself:

in the words spoken directly to Mary: “a sword will pierce through your own soul” (Lk 2: 35). We may assume that this saying was preserved in the early Jewish Christian community as a personal recollection of Mary herself. The community would also have known, from the same source, what the saying had actually meant in practice.

And the hymns? They were part of the Church’s earliest liturgy:

The form of the text [of the Nunc dimittis of Simeon] as presented by Luke, is already liturgical. Together with the Canticle of Zechariah and the Magnificat, which also come from Luke’s infancy narratives, it belongs to the patrimony of prayer of the early Jewish Christian Church, into whose spirit-filled liturgical life we are here granted a privileged insight.

That the Canticles in Luke are hymns of the Church’s earliest liturgy has been the opinion of a number of scholars (for instance, Stephen Farris, The Hymns of Luke’s Infancy Narrative). Scholars have also long thought that Luke must have obtained his information about the birth of Jesus from Mary, including the words of the Magnificat and the other canticles. Some have objected that it is a strange, rather unbelievable coincidence that Mary, Zechariah and Simeon were all such able poets that they were able to compose suitable canticles of praise right on the spot. Of course, it could have happened that way since they were all speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, which would have allowed them to bring out things they could not have produced on their own. But it’s also possible that some member of the early Church took the substance of their words, preserved in tradition, and made it into poetry. This would not have harmed truth of their words as history. This is not something we are ever going to know the whole truth about, of course.

At any rate, it is clear that these hymns were very likely part of the Church’s earliest liturgy, taken from the tradition that Mary treasured in her heart, and that was kept alive in her family, which was preserved by the earliest Jewish-Christian church in Jerusalem. And given the subject, what else could we call it but the first Christmas liturgy?

This is interesting and important for a number of reasons, especially because we don’t have any other indications that the Church celebrated the birth of Christ in the liturgy for at least the first 150-200 years. At least no record has been preserved of it. And skeptics and secularists still insist that Christmas is “copied” from pagan celebrations in the third and fourth centuries.

Can we learn anything more about this early liturgy? When and how would it have been celebrated? Is there a connection between it and the Church’s later liturgy? There is actually more that can be said, and I have actually been researching it — in fact, even before I read Pope Benedict’s latest work. I’ll have to leave it for a later installment, though. So stay tuned.

(Illustrations: Madonna of the Magnificat by Sandro Botticelli and Simeon’s Song of Praise by Aert de Gelder).


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