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Christmas Eve 2023: A Reflection

24 December 2023

Christmas Eve 2023: A Reflection

By Joey Belleza

Around the world, from Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome to innumerable humbler parishes, the Mass of Christmas night is preceded by an ancient Latin chant called the Kalenda, also known as the Christmas Proclamation. Beginning with the creation of the world, the Kalenda lists the watershed moments of sacred and secular history in chronological order, culminating in the proclamation of Jesus’ birth.  From Creation to the Flood, from Abraham to Moses, from King David to Caesar Augustus, the text is a kind of “countdown,” situating the Incarnation in relation to real events and real people, before finally announcing the birth of Christ according to the flesh as the central, climactic event of all human history.  However, separating the long list of events and the actual mention of the birth of Christ, there lies a short, five word phrase, almost inserted as a parenthetical remark, whose brevity veils its profundity: toto Orbe in pace composito—“the whole world being at peace”. 

Toto Orbe in pace composito: yes, Christ entered the world at a time of a great peace seemingly prepared for him.  He was born at the beginning of the so-called Pax Romana in which the Roman Empire reached the zenith of its expansion, attaining hitherto unparalleled prosperity and security.  The Jewish people, although subjects of the Empire, remained free to worship the One God of Israel and were exempt from offering sacrifices to the gods of Rome—a privilege denied to all other conquered peoples.[1]  The Israelites once more had a king—although he was a puppet—and the elite of Jewish society even held full rights as Roman citizens.  The tumultuous trials of previous generations seemed surpassed.  Against this historical backdrop, in that little town of Bethlehem, while the world lay asleep “in heavenly peace”, the Christ child is born of the Virgin Mary, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.  Shepherds and angels alike come to adore him, while wise kings from far-off lands bring him precious gifts and do him homage.  Of that momentous occasion, in that silent and holy night, we can say: vere toto Orbe in pace composito—truly the whole world was at peace.

Of course, the Pax Romana, that worldly peace guaranteed only by military might, did not last; the unfolding of history will reveal the common fate of all empires ancient and new.  Jerusalem’s peace with the Caesars will end with a bloody uprising to culminate in the destruction of the Temple.  The tranquillity of the first Christmas would not long endure: when Herod learns of the newborn king foretold by the prophets, he commands the massacre of Bethlehem’s sons to protect his throne, and the infant Prince of Peace will flee to exile in Egypt.  As an adult, Christ will not go untouched by the violence of earthly life; his people will reject him, the disciples will abandon him, the Sanhedrin will condemn him, and Pilate will execute him.  By worldly measures, he is but one of countless other insurgents crushed under Rome’s imperial heel.  But all this will come later; at least for this night, when he enters the world as a “holy infant so tender and mild,” “all is calm; all is bright”; in other words, toto Orbe in pace composito.

Year after year, we run through the gauntlet of life’s tribulations.  Troubles at work, at home, among friends and family, continue to plague us, test us, and overwhelm us to the point that at times, we question our life choices and perhaps even think them mistaken.  But in the time of year when the nights grow longer and the days grow colder, the frantic pace of life seems to slow down bit by bit, until the earth itself appears to stop.  We Christians look forward to this season all year long.  We consciously set aside time—however brief—away from our daily struggles, resentments, and grudges.  We happily come to our friends and family in a spirit of love and reconciliation, and join together to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We can recall remarkable events like the Christmas Truce of 1914, when German and British soldiers spontaneously emerged from the mud and blood of the trenches, sharing soccer and schnapps, chocolate and cheer, in a brief flicker of peace on earth while the world was at war.[2]  Amidst our own decorations, the greeting cards and gifts, the Christmas carols, the dark days, and the cold weather that marks the close of the calendar year, we find that for a few sacred moments in this holy night, the ancient words of the Kalenda once again ring true: toto Orbe in pace composito—the whole world is at peace.  As all of creation stops to rest for the winter, the whole Church also pauses to genuflect in thanksgiving for the Incarnation—wherefore in every Christmas Mass throughout the world, Catholics kneel during the Creed as we profess Christ, incarnate of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and made man.  Here and now, as during the first Christmas, we prepare a peaceful stage for the arrival of the Christ child, who comes yet again to fill our hearts with divine gladness.

I’m sure the irony of our situation isn’t lost on anyone: we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace as conflict rages across the globe. In Libya, Mali, Sudan, and the Central African Republic, the traces of old colonial empires bleed with the rise of newer nationalist movements.  From the Persian Gulf to the Red Sea, drones and missiles and fast attack craft imperil the free movement of civilian merchant ships. In the South China Sea, Chinese and Philippine vessels tensely square off in disputed territorial waters. An emboldened Venezuela threatens to unilaterally annex the land of neighbouring Guyana. Civil wars in Syria and Myanmar continue unabated, while Armenia and Azerbaijan are no closer to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis. In the sands of Gaza and on the banks of the Dnipro, Palestinians and Israelis, Russians and Ukrainians, warriors young and old, vigilant as the shepherds of Bethlehem, endure another sleepless night, illuminated not by Christmas lamps but by rockets and gunfire.  We who might count ourselves lucky to live far from these regions of conflict cannot consider ourselves immune to danger; recent riots in Ireland and the mass shooting in Prague show us how the fragile peace of Christmas can crumble in an instant. The experience of the pandemic has also taught us how, by mere ministerial fiat, the power of the state might be wielded against churches and against Christian men and women of good will who desire nothing more than to adore the Incarnate Lord.

Thanks be to God that we can gather tonight as his holy people to celebrate the ineffable gift of his Incarnation. For on this night, we remember and proclaim that God, from the heights of divinity, has immersed Himself completely into our humanity, even unto the depths of our sin, so that when we falter and fail, He is already there in the darkness, waiting to raise us.  Thus, even in the bitterest crucible of war, the “glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love” are ever present.  Let all Christians therefore take hope from the words of the prophet Isaiah, whose prophecy is fulfilled on this very night: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.”[3]

That light is, as the Kalenda says, “Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father”[4] who, through that “marvellous exchange”[5] of his divinity for our mortality, made our mortality a path to divinity.  Tonight, “let ev’ry heart prepare him room,” so that the splendour of Christmas might dispel whatever darkness remains within us. We pray for concord among nations, reconciliation among ourselves, and tranquillity in our hearts, for in doing so, we each do our part to help bring about, as the song goes, “Peace on earth and mercy mild/God and sinners reconcil’d”. Thus, when we look back on Christmas 2023, with God’s help we will be able to say, with no hint of irony: toto Orbe in pace composito—that at least for a fleeting moment in the dark of night, in spite of the countless conflicts which afflict our age, Christ the Light appeared to us while the whole world was at peace.

In the midst of our uncertain times, the messenger of the Lord tells us tonight as he told the shepherds of Bethlehem: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy… today in the city of David a saviour has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.”[6]  Tonight, therefore, we reawaken the great hymn of the angels, dormant since we began our Advent pilgrimage, and in concert with the celestial choirs, we acclaim as they did two thousand years ago, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”[7]  

Our Lady, Queen of Peace, pray for us.  Amen.


[1] See Tertullian’s Apologeticum, ch. XXI, in which he responds to charges that Christianity, illegal in his time, “hides under the umbrella of a certain well-known and legal religion [i.e., Judaism], or otherwise under its own presumption” (sub umbraculo insignissimae religionis, certe licitae, aliquid propriae praesumptionis abscondat).

[2] From the diary of German Lieutenant Johannes Niemann, Christmas 1914

[3] Isaiah 9:1

[4] From the Kalenda: “…Iesus Christus, aeternus Deus, aeternique Patris Filius, mundum volens adventu suo piissimo consecrare…”

[5] 1st Vespers, Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God; antiphonum ad Psalmum: “O admirabile commercium (O marvelous exchange): Creator generis humani, animatum corpus sumens de Virgine nasci dignatus est; et, precedens homo sine semine, largitus est nobis suam Deitatem”; see also the Prayer over the Gifts for Christmas Mass at Night, 1962 Missale Romanum: “”…ut, tua gratia largiente, per haec sacrosancta commercia…”

[6] Luke 2:10-11

[7] Luke 2:14


Advent: Watching for What?

1st December 2021

Advent: Watching for What?

Stefan Kaminski

By the time we enter Advent, the commercial world has already well-established a Christmas atmosphere with trees, decorations, and all sorts of enticing offers. Such sights might fill our minds with lists of presents to be bought and dinners to be planned. Regardless of the feelings that these thoughts might generate, what will certainly be true is that Christmas will be upon us sooner than we think, and will find most of us in a frenzy of activity.

In the (hopefully) recollected calm of our churches, the liturgical celebration of Advent will soon resound with John the Baptist’s cry to “prepare a way for the Lord”, Isaiah’s prophecies of a maiden with child, and strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”. What is easily overlooked though, is the very different note struck by the liturgy of the First Sunday of Advent.

In all three yearly cycles of readings, the Gospel is very deliberately orientated well beyond the feast of Christmas, at least in its most immediate sense. The beginning of Advent, year on year, presents us with Jesus’ admonition or warning to his disciples to “stay awake” or “watch”, so that we might be ready for His coming in power and glory at the end of time. A rather marked contrast to the child in the manger, surely?

On the other hand, this might seem like a neat way to segue to John the Baptist’s call, given that the previous weeks had closed the liturgical year with increasingly apocalyptic and tempestuous readings, culminating with the feast of Christ the King.

So is this simply the liturgy’s way of transitioning us to yet another lap, like a toy train on its oval track? No. The liturgy is deliberately providing us with the proper context for the expectation with which we are to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s first coming. The feast of Christmas signals the beginning of the end.

Christ Pantocrator, Cathedral of Monreale, Sicily

As the letter to the Hebrews reads: “in these last days, God has spoken to us by the Son.” Having spoken to us over the previous millennia in various ways through the prophets, God has spoken the “Word”: the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and was God (cf. Jn 1:1). When we celebrate the incarnation of God Himself into our world, His “emptying Himself and taking the form of a slave” (Phil 2:7) as St Paul puts it, we celebrate not an isolated event, but one that stretches back into the past, and reaches into the future.

This event points us back to the beginning, to its raison d-être. It takes us back to the very first man, who was fashioned in the form that God was to reveal Himself in. It reminds us that our first parents, made from whatever earthly material God chose to breathe life into and to create in His image and likeness, turned away from Him and rejected that first offer of His love. It reminds us that for the thousands of years that passed between that event and Jesus Christ, God was forming and re-forming covenants with a people in order to prepare the way for His incarnation. It reminds us that He only became man to die on a cross. It reminds us that the culmination of the liturgical year is therefore yet to come at Easter. It reminds us that having paid the price of our redemption, Jesus Christ is like the “man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task” (Mk 13:34).

Having apparently stepped back from the world, it seems God has left man in charge, left him to wreak his own designs on the world. The words of Isaiah might seem to ring as true today: “No one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you. For you hid your face from us and gave us up to the power of our sins” (Is 64:7). On the one hand it seems we are quite content that way; we seem to like to believe that we are quite capable of ordering our world ourselves. On the other hand, the evidence points to the contrary. But when things go wrong, instead we say, ‘God cannot possibly exist.’

The Holy Family, by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1645

So for those who profess belief and await “the revealing of the Sons of God” (Rm 8:19), Advent seems to be a time of being caught between two rather distant events: the already of Christ who has come, and the not-yet of Christ who is to come. Advent lives this polarity, and in its liturgy effects a transition from the second to the first. It begins with texts which speak of Christ’s second coming, and as Christmas draws closer, it shifts to the first coming at Bethlehem.

But what it invites us towards, in an unspoken way, is the hidden coming of Jesus Christ in our hearts; the manifesting of the Kingdom of Heaven which for now cannot be said to be here or there, but which begins with the seed of the Word being planted in our souls. Advent seeks to prepare our hearts through a rapid shift of focus from the future, glorious, terrifying, earth-shattering universal spectacular of the second coming, to the quiet, still, humble and intensely personal event in the Bethlehem stable. These two polar opposites are part of the same single, drawn-out event that is humanity’s adventure with God.

Watch! Watch that scale of magnitude narrow down from the future and the past, to the now; from the universal to the personal, from everyone to you. Stay awake, because the God of the universe knocks at the door of your heart, and awaits for you to open. Be on your guard, because he has left each with his own task, and he must not find you asleep.

Isaiah's Lips Anointed with Fire, by Benjamin West
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God’s approach to us as Son and Redeemer, in the person of Jesus Christ, is the pivotal point of human history. Several artistic pieces are examined to aid in a reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and of our Redemption.

About the speaker:

Dr Caroline Farey has taught catechesis, theology and philosophy for many years throughout the English-speaking world. She has held several important positions, having also been appointed by the Vatican as one of the lay experts at the Synod on the New Evangelisation. She has a passion for Sacred Art, which she has long made use of in her teaching. For more information about Dr Farey’s current work, please click here.

Other videos in the series: