“Today Christ is born.” The eternal present of Christ to his Church comes into focus with those four simple words, which in Latin are “hodie Christus natus est” and comprise not only a Gregorian chant but also the title of a Mass by the 16th-century composer Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina as well as other musical works.
To understand the Catholic theology behind the sentence, let’s unwrap each individual word.
“Today” refers to Dec. 25, Christmas Day. Each year on this date we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, who came into the world some 2,000 years ago in the little town of Bethlehem of Judea, which then was controlled by Rome under Cesar Augustus. This places the Incarnation in a specific location and time, unlike the pagan gods whose appearance on Earth occurred only in myth.
In a similar vein, Jesus was born of a young woman named Mary. A miraculous birth, certainly, because the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, but she nonetheless was an ordinary person (although conceived without sin) whose fiancé became frightened when he learned she was pregnant, who had a kinswoman named Elizabeth, who sought anxiously for her pre-teenaged son when he was missing for three days, whose soul was pierced by the death of her only child.
Like any human being, Jesus was born a babe. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes by his mother. He was circumcised and named according to Jewish custom. A defenseless child, he was threatened with death by King Herod. His parents fled with him to Egypt, where they lived as refugees. When they returned to Galilee, Jesus was raised without glory as a carpenter’s son.
Within this very ordinary existence, however, shone one majestic aspect that is the reason we rejoice at the birth of this child: He was the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed one, the one whom the prophets foretold, the son born of a virgin and who was to be called Emmanuel, “God with us.” The name Jesus means “to rescue,” but it was not his birth that offered us salvation. If that had been his purpose he likely would have come as the type of king his people expected: emerging from a magnificent palace, arrayed in shining armor, leading them into battle against their foes so that they could gain a time of peace in the land flowing with milk and honey.
This, though, was not the type of rescue for which Christ came. Rather, his mission was to deliver humankind from sin, and so he was required to be crucified and to die, rising from the dead only after three agonizing days to ascend to his Father’s house.
The sorrow of his death and the glory of his resurrection were merely hinted at in that Bethlehem manger, so we will give them just a mention here. Instead we will with joyful hearts enter the Christmas season, which the Church celebrates beginning with the vigil Mass on Dec. 24 and enjoys through Jan. 13, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
So let us now join the angels in proclaiming his birth and sing “Gloria in excelsis Deo” or, in English, “Glory to God in the highest.”
Another word for “Gloria” is “hosanna,” a word we regularly recite at Mass when we say, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna is the highest.” Thus we celebrate the birth of Christ at every Mass, which is fitting as we recall that he is present in our lives not only on his birthday but every day, at every moment. Yet we recognize that our salvation came into the world when a child was born. Hodie Christus natus est. Glory to God in the highest. Amen.
Marie Mischel is editor of the Intermountain Catholic.