Every third year, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Catholic Church reads the gospel of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26–38), a mere matter of days (and in some cases, given calendrical vagaries, just a few hours) before Christmas. It may seem at first blush an odd choice: Why look back nine months to what the Church already celebrated at the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25, now that everyone’s attention and anticipation are directed forward, to what will be celebrated at the Solemnity of the Nativity on December 25?
The answer is suggested by the collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, which links the Annunciation, Christmas, and Easter in one theologically rich sentence of prayerful supplication:
Pour forth, we beseech you, O Lord,
your grace into our hearts,
that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ your Son
was made known by the message of an Angel,
may by his Passion and Cross
be brought to the glory of his Resurrection.
Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
The chronological structure of the four Gospels, which start with either an infancy narrative (Matthew and Luke) or stories of the beginnings of Jesus’s public ministry (Mark and John), may cause us to forget that the early Christian Church “read” the life of Christ backwards, starting from Easter. Easter — the encounter with the Risen Lord — changed everything for the first disciples. It changed their view of time and of history: The “last days” had already begun, in history, and had changed the very texture of time. It changed their understanding of their own responsibilities: That utterly amazing good news, “We have seen the Lord!” (John 20:25), demanded to be shared. It changed their understanding of worship and its relationship to time: These pious Jews now celebrated Sunday as “the Lord’s Day,” because that was the day on which the Risen Lord had first manifested himself. It changed their view of the cosmos: There was far, far more to a redeemed creation than there had appeared to be prior to the Resurrection, which revealed the Risen Lord Jesus Christ as master of time and space, who appeared in a radically new form of body that broke through the confines of temporality and spatiality.
And it changed their view of the pre-Easter life of the man they had first known as the young rabbi Jesus from Nazareth — including his early life and his origins.
That is why the Church reads the gospel of the Annunciation right before Christmas: Through the prism of the Easter faith that changes everything, the profession of faith in the ancient baptismal creed of the Roman Church — that Jesus was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit [and] born of the Virgin Mary” — makes sense. Through the prism of Easter faith, we can perceive the divine presence manifest in the humanity of the Christ Child, heralded to shepherds by the angels and acknowledged by the Magi, who were led by the star. Through Easter, Christmas makes sense, not as a “winter festival” or “the holidays” or “the festive season,” but for what it is: the celebration of the birth of the One who makes God perfectly present to humanity in history, because he is both Son of God and Son of Mary.
Thus the Solemnity of the Nativity, celebrated with Easter faith, invites us to find God, not outside of history, but within the human story, with all of what the Second Vatican Council called its “joy and hope, grief and anguish”: within that history that is best understood as His-story, the story of God in search of us and our learning to take the same path into the future that God is taking. In the light of Easter, Christmas comes into proper focus as the planting whose reaping is redemption.
If the gospel reading and collect for the Fourth Sunday of Advent prepare us to experience Christmas through the axial moment in human history — Easter — the gospel reading for the third Mass of Christmas, the Mass during the Day, puts the Nativity into cosmic perspective:
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made.
In him was life,
` and the life was the light of men.
The light shines in the darkness,
And the darkness has not overcome it. [John 1:1-5]
It is a fitting gospel text to ponder at the end of a year in which darkness seemed to get the upper hand in human affairs, and with disturbing regularity. But viewed through the prism of Easter faith, Christmas is not a brief, momentary respite from the contest with darkness; Christmas is an affirmation that, because “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us . . . full of grace and truth” (John 1:14), darkness will not have the last word. For the ultimate word has been spoken in the Word made flesh, the Child in the manger whose divinity can be perceived in the light of Easter faith: the Lord Jesus Christ, conqueror of death and King of the universe.
Thus in the struggle with darkness, we can take up our duties with confidence and joy, the Christmas joy that transcends and transforms sentimentality because of Easter faith.
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.