By Tim O’Malley

The experience we have of Christmas Eve belies its sanctified nature. Evening is the time of quiet, of restful slumber when the hustle and bustle of life comes to a temporary pause. Yet Christmas Eve is rarely the quietest of days on the calendar. It is full of traffic jams, busy shops and streets, and markets full of citizens purchasing last-minute items for the next day’s feast. On Christmas Eve, stores prepare for the rush of consumers on December 26. Is there any day of the year less like the silence of evening than Christmas Eve Day?

Yet, perhaps it is appropriate for us to let the evening of Christmas come to overshadow December 24, the day preceding the Nativity of our Lord. As we pray in the collect for December 24:

O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thy only Son Jesus Christ: grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our judge; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

During Advent, we have prepared for the three comings of Christ: in final judgment, in the intimacy of a heart dedicated to our Lord, and in his birth at Bethlehem. And now we recognize that in our celebration of the Word made flesh, of the speechless babe in Bethlehem, we behold all three comings. God has come to judge the world. God has come into our hearts. And this coming culminates in the birth of a newborn babe in the middle of the night, hidden from the gaze of the world.

Night, within a Christian imagination, is not reducible to a moment of peace. In the descent of the sun, there is also the possibility of terror. We hear in the Gospel of John that the Word became flesh, that light gleams, precisely because there is a darkness to conquer: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The darkness tried. The darkness of sin and death, of power and prestige, tried to snuff out the light. Herod tried to kill the babe. The Word made flesh was rejected in Nazareth. The terrifying darkness of human sin, of petty projects and jealousy, killed this light on Calvary:

It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in tow. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:44-45)

Darkness fell.

Likewise, darkness is the time of judgment. In Matthew 25, the foolish bridesmaids fall asleep as dark descends. They miss the coming of the Bridegroom at midnight, running off to fetch more oil. They entered the darkness of listlessness, no longer expecting that the Bridegroom would come. Their joy was overshadowed by world-weariness. And when they least expected it, the Bridegroom arrived: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt. 25:13). “Then Peter began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know the man.’ And immediately the cock crowed” (Matt. 26:74).

In our commemoration of the birth of the Jesus Christ in the middle of the night, we behold the dawning judgment of sin and death. We perceive the first rays of dawn, piercing through the ashen sky. The judgment of the nations has arrived. And there, we see the power of God revealed in the weakness of the Word made flesh: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

The night is no longer a place of terror, for God’s tender love has been revealed in the darkest hour. The judgment of God has been made manifest in the self-emptying love of the incarnate Word. We are called to rejoice in this judgment, to lift up our hearts in joy, for God has dwelt among us. God has pitched his tent, not in the halls of power in Washington, D.C., not in the pages of The New York Times, not on Fleet Street or in Silicon Valley. God dwelt among us in the hidden town of Bethlehem, unperceived, unrecognized, and unknown: “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11).

It’s only right, therefore, that the day before Christmas be known as Christmas Eve. For even during the day, as light still shines, as commerce unfolds, we long for the advent of the divine child. We rejoice that God has come among us as one hidden. We rejoice that the splendor of the Father has been manifest in hidden poverty.

During Christmas Eve Day, there’s still time to prepare for this coming. The cock has not yet crowed. The Bridegroom has not yet come. We can run to those hidden places, awaiting the arrival of the Word made flesh. We can enter into the hidden pages of the Scriptures, discovering in our contemplation of holy writ the two-edged sword of divine love. We can run to those who suffer the darkness of injustice, poverty, and death, meeting there the hidden love of Christ. We can enter into the hidden places of our heart, uncovering there a resistance that keeps us from fully rejoicing in the Word made flesh.

And lastly, we can rejoice in the presence of our Lord in his eucharistic presence, his hidden presence of total, self-giving love. Such wonder in such poverty. Such splendor in such simplicity.

On Christmas Eve Day, night has not yet come; darkness has not yet fallen. But it will come. And what a glorious night it will be: Unto us a child is born: O come, let us adore him. Alleluia.

About The Author

Dr. Timothy P. O’Malley is academic director of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and director of education at the McGrath Institute for Church Life. He is a professor in the Department of Theology at the University of Notre Dame specializing in liturgical-sacramental theology, theological aesthetics, and catechesis. He is the author of four books including most recently Divine Blessing: Liturgical Formation in the R.C.I.AHe is currently working on a multi-volume history of liturgical formation beginning from St. Augustine of Hippo. Dr. O’Malley is married to Kara and has two children.

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