Beauty and strength: sermon on the Sunday in the Octave of Christmas

“Our Lord hath reigned: he hath clothed himself with beauty:
he hath clothed himself with strength and armed himself with might”

The liturgy of this Mass makes a particular use of the Psalm 92. We hear it chanted first during the introit. Although the introit begins with the beautiful prophecy from the Book of Wisdom, which speaks of the birth of Christ, the eternal Word, in Bethlehem, in the sacred stillness of Christmas night, it continues with the words of this psalm: “Our Lord hath reigned: he hath clothed himself with beauty: he hath clothed himself with strength and armed himself with might.” These same words from Psalm 92 appear next in the verse of the alleluia, just before the gospel. Then, in the offertory, we make use of this psalm once more as we chant: “He hath established the world which shall not be moved; thy throne is prepared from then, O God; thou art from everlasting.” Clearly, this psalm has a special affinity to the mystery of Christmas: let us try to understand it.

“Our Lord hath reigned,” says the psalm. Dominus regnavit. This perhaps puts us in mind of a phrase from the liturgy of Passiontide, from the great Vespers hymn, the Vexilla Regis, in which we sing “Regnavit Deus a ligno” — “God hath reigned from the wood”. But here, at Christmas and in Bethlehem, we are not yet thinking of the wood, unless perhaps it be the wood of the crib, and yet already we say that He has begun to reign as king. The world has always belonged to Him, but now He has come into it visibly for the first time, and nothing can ever be the same again. He has begun to rule over it, because in Bethlehem, lying in the crib, Christ’s human mind is enlightened by His divinity: already He sees all His subjects, the willing and the unwilling — that is, He sees all human beings — and He embraces them all in His universal love; He gives grace to them that they may act for His Father’s glory, or else He permits their sins so that, with His Father, He may draw from these sins some greater good. Vulnerable though He is, both to the elements and to the anger of the devil and of Herod, He is already reigning as king from the manger of Bethlehem. This is the mystery of the Incarnation.

“He hath clothed himself with beauty,” prophesied the psalmist. His human nature is beautiful, not only because His body is perfectly formed and proportioned, drawn as it is from the immaculate Virgin by the power of the Holy Ghost. His human nature is beautiful also because of the “riches of wisdom and science” which St Paul will tell us are hidden within it, and because it is “full of grace and truth”, as the beloved apostle will say in his gospel. So the Gradual, taken from Psalm 44, says to Christ, “Thou art beautiful above the sons of men; grace is poured upon thy lips.” We seem to hear the Blessed Virgin herself speaking these words, as she looks down upon her new-born child: “Thou art beautiful”, my child, “above the sons of men; grace is poured upon thy lips.” And she could also say, and even more truly than the psalmist, the words which come next: “My heart hath brought forth a good word.”Mary has brought forth Jesus, the good Word of the Father, from her own pure heart.

This helps us to understand the offertory-verse which continues the introit: “He hath established the world which shall not be moved; thy throne is prepared from then, O God; thou art from everlasting.” St Robert Bellarmine, commenting on these words, sees a distinction between “then” and “from everlasting”; or, in Latin, between “ex tunc” and “a saeculo“. Christ is God, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, from everlasting. But “from then” — that is, from the time at which the world was established, not to be moved — a throne has been prepared for Him. Simply by becoming incarnate, He has already begun to establish His kingdom, which is the world that is not to be moved. What then is His throne, prepared for Him, “from then”, from the time of the incarnation? In the first place, it is the Blessed Virgin herself, who offered her breast as a throne to the infant God, having already enthroned Him in her soul; next, it is all the faithful, since our souls become a throne for Christ whenever we prefer nothing to His good pleasure. 

But how should we understand those other words from this psalm, which the sacred liturgy today puts before us twice: “our Lord hath put on strength and girded himself with power?” These words, at least, might seem to be unsuitable for Christmastide, since He has become weak, and a babe. Should we not rather sing, “the Lord has put on weakness and girded himself with feebleness?” Yet here, perhaps, we shall remember some words of St Paul: “the weakness of God is stronger than men”. The very weakness of our infant God is His strength, since it is by the weakness of His human nature that He will merit our salvation and make satisfaction for sin, and thus break the power of the devil over us. Nor was it only during His Passion that Jesus did this. Now, in the manger, He is already meriting eternal life for us, by the acts of charity that rise from His Heart toward His Father. Already He is making satisfaction for us, by accepting this humble birth on a winter’s night, as He will soon accept circumcision and the flight from His enemies into a pagan land. 

Surely Anna, the old prophetess in the Temple, understood all this when she spoke of the Child to those who were looking for the redemption of Israel. She did not speak of Him to the worldly-minded among the Jews who were dreaming of military victories against the Romans or of an abundance of material goods to be gained with no effort. No, she spoke of Him to the humble ones among her people, to the remnant of Israel who desired a true redemption: who desired, like the priest Zechariah, to serve God in holiness and justice all the days of their life.

We are told that the prophetess Anna belonged to the tribe of Asher. This is an unusual piece of information and the only time, I think, that this tribe is mentioned in the four gospels. Perhaps to understand it we should look back to the blessings which Moses gave to the tribes of Israel before he died, which prefigure the blessings that will abound in the Church of Christ. Blessing the tribe of Asher, Moses said: “As the days of thy youth, so shall thy old age be” (Deut 33:20). As she looked upon the divine Child, surely Anna, daughter of Asher, felt herself growing young again. Is she not also a type of holy Church, who is destined in the days of her old age to recover the strength and beauty of her youth? In any case, let us imitate Anna. As we look upon the Face of the Christ-child, all the oldness of sin falls away. He, the true light, has come into the world, and He is reigning already as our infant King, from the crib of Bethlehem. He has established the world, His kingdom which shall not be moved; He is from everlasting, and yet He is newly-enthroned in beauty upon the Virgin’s lap. Come, let us adore Him.