The Mass at Dawn or early morning picks up the gospel reading from where it ended at midnight — Luke 2:15-20. It tells of the shepherds’ visit to Bethlehem. They found things as the angel had told them and reported that message to Mary and Joseph. Afterwards, the shepherds praised God, and Mary reflected on what they told her. Bothe reactions are highly appropriate for us. The birth of Jesus, with all that it means for our salvation, is surely something for which we should praise and glorify God, and the message that he is Christ and Lord is something that we should reflect on and consider its implications for ourselves. One point to note is that shepherds were not highly prized: this was before Jesus gave us the image of himself as the good shepherd. While it is true that the psalms speak of God as shepherd of Israel, actual shepherds were not so highly regarded. They were rustics with, as Pope Francis says, “the smell of their sheep.” That the first announcement of the Messiah’s birth is to them shows how far God is from regard for social status and worldly power.
By the way, in his “Christmas Oratorio,” Bach follows this traditional arrangement by devoting Parts I and II to the birth of Jesus and the announcement to the shepherds, comparable to the Midnight Mass, and Part III to the shepherds’ visit to Bethlehem. Part IV tells of the circumcision, which is told at Mass on January 1; and V and VI cover the gospel of Epiphany: the visit of the Magi.
The first reading — Isaiah 62:11-12 — has a focus comparable to the angel’s message of joy to all people, which the shepherds would have reported to Mary and Joseph. It is that he message of salvation for God’s people is proclaimed to the whole world. Given the timing of the Mass, the responsorial Psalm — Ps 97:1, 6, 11-12 — includes a verse about light dawning among the verses of rejoicing. The refrain says, “A light will shin on us this day: the Lord is born for us.” As at midnight, the second reading is from Paul’s letter to Titus — Titus 3:4-7. Paul reminds us that Jesus’ coming (“the kindness … of God our savior appeared), and our incorporation into the Church through baptism (“the bath of rebirth”) are gratuitous acts of God because he wants to make us his children to inherit eternal life.
The Mass for Daytime moves from the events of Jesus’ birth to its theological significance.
The first reading — Isaiah 52:7-10 — says that the whole world will see that God saves his people; and in the responsorial psalm — Ps 98:1-6, with 3c as the refrain — we join in the rejoicing that God’s saving work is displayed before the whole world. Here we are still in the general mood of rejoicing. The following readings expend our view.
Hebrews 1:1-6 presents Jesus as the Son of God through whom the universe was made — as we say in the creed every Sunday. We also hear of his work of purifying us from sin and of his Ascension, supported by quotes from Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14, and the Septuagint of Deuteronomy 32:43 and Psalm 97:7.
The gospel — John1:1-18 — tells of Jesus’ divinity and of his coming into the world as its light, the bringer of God’s grace. Scripture is God’s word in the words of men, but Jesus is absolutely the Word of God. This passage used to be read at the end of every Mass except funerals.
The babe of Bethlehem is more than one more descendant of David. His cosmic significance corresponds to his work of saving the world. He is God’s love made visible.