Celebrating his first Christmas as archbishop of Washington, Archbishop Wilton Gregory presided at a joyous Christmas Mass late in the evening on Dec. 24 at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle.

The downtown Washington, D.C., landmark of faith was filled with about 900 people, first for a musical prelude of soaring Christmas music performed by the cathedral's Schola Cantorum choir with accompanying musicians, led by Thomas Stehle, the cathedral's pastoral associate for liturgy and its director of music ministries. 

Then in a poignant scene just before the 10 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve began, Archbishop Gregory processed to the cathedral's St. Anthony's Chapel and blessed the large Nativity scene there with holy water and incense.

“When we look upon these figures, the Christmas Gospel comes alive, and we are moved to rejoice at the mystery of the Son of God...” the archbishop prayed. “...May it remind us of the humble birth of Jesus, and raise up our thoughts to Him, who is God with us and lives and reigns forever.”

Just as cathedral visitors did before and after the Mass, Archbishop Gregory quietly knelt before the Nativity scene and prayed. 

Moments later, the archbishop processed to the altar as the Mass began, with the choir and congregation singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful.”

Archbishop Gregory gives his homily at the Dec. 24 Christmas Mass at St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (Archdiocese of Washington photo/Jaclyn Lippelmann)

In his homily, Archbishop Gregory reflected on Luke's Gospel read at the Mass that described how as the Christmas events were unfolding, the angel told the shepherds not to be afraid. The archbishop said people of today should also take that message to heart.

“The events tonight are awesome indeed,” Archbishop Gregory said. “God has entered human history as one of us... The all-powerful Lord of the universe has chosen to become a mere infant. The angel speaks the first words on that holy night, (saying), 'You have nothing to fear.'” 

Washington's archbishop noted that Christmas is often seen as a special day for children, but Christmas is also an important holy day for adults to open their hearts to Christ.

“God has chosen to come close to us. This means we are changed, we are different,” the archbishop said. “...None of us who comes close to this infant and opens our hearts to Him will ever be the same again.”

The prayers, readings and songs in the Mass reflected the wonder and joy of Christ's birth. A woman from the choir joyfully led the congregation in singing the responsorial psalm, “Today is born our Savior, Christ the Lord.”

Later in the Mass, the choir sang a section of Handel's Messiah, “For Unto Us a Child is Born,” with words from the first reading at the Mass from Isaiah that prophesied the birth of Jesus. Handel adapted that Scripture passage to song which the cathedral choir sang in a stirring crescendo: “...and his name shall be called  Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.”

That exultant spirit continued throughout the Mass, as the choir and congregation sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Silent Night, Holy Night” as Communion hymns, and “Joy to the World” as the closing song.

Before the final prayer, Msgr. W. Ronald Jameson, the rector of the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle, thanked all those who had helped plan and carry out the Mass, and he offered special congratulations to Archbishop Gregory for celebrating his first Christmas Mass as the archbishop of Washington.

Msgr. Jameson has served as the cathedral's rector for nearly 25 years, and before the Mass, he said that Christmas liturgies there are especially meaningful to him, as couples whose weddings he performed over the years often come back with their children.

And the priest said it's inspiring to see so many people come to Mass at Christmas, not just to celebrate Jesus's birth from 2,000 years ago, but also to recognize His continuing presence in their lives today.

“He calls us to share that presence within us with everyone around us, whether at home, at work or in the community,” the priest said.

Archbishop Gregory is also scheduled to celebrate a noon Mass on Christmas Day at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. That Mass will be broadcast live on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the Catholic Channel on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and We Are One Body (WAOB) Radio.