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The Masses of Christmas

Q. Dear CNP:

As I plan for the approaching Christmas season every year, I note that there are four separate liturgies: Vigil Mass, Christmas Mass at Midnight, Christmas Mass at Dawn, and Christmas Mass During the Day. However, I've only ever attended or participated in the Vigil and Christmas Day Masses. Most churches seem to skip the other two.

What is the reason for the four separate Christmas liturgies? What does a faith community gain when they particpate in all of them (or just a couple of them)?

Noel deFour

A. Dear Mr. DeFour:

The deep liturgical significance of the four Masses of Christmas has an historical perspective, but also relates to our own modern practice of celebrating the birth of God-made-Man. We'll look at both aspects.

I. History

The history of the Masses of Christmas, like many Sunday and feast day Masses, is tied to the concept of a "stational church." These are churches in Rome that had been designated for the Papal Mass on Sundays and feasts and Lenten weekdays. The pope and his court would arrive at these churches, often having gathered elsewhere and processing with psalms and litanies. Mass would be celebrated together with the people of Rome. Here is a list of those stational churches. I can vividly remember paging through my grandmother's Saint Joseph Sunday Missal as a young boy, and wondering with inquisitive delight what Station: Saint John Lateran meant under the title of a Sunday Mass.

As liturgical feasts and holy days developed, the greater of those were given "Vigils," celebrated on the evening before. Christmas and Easter (as well as many other current solemnities) still have a Vigil. This was historically a day of penance and fasting in preparation for the feast day; violet vestments were worn for that reason, although this is no longer the case in the Ordinary Form. There is evidence that in the time of Pope Saint Gregory the Great (AD 590-604) the pope celebrated None (from the Divine Office) at about 3:00 pm, followed by the Christmas Vigil Mass, at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major. This was the first church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, have been erected by Pope Sixtus III (AD 432-440) after the Council of Ephesus, which define the title "Mother of God" for Mary. Mass would be followed in the evening by First Vespers [Evening Prayer I] of Christmas, also chanted by the pope and his court in Saint Mary Major.

After resting, the pope would arise and celebrate Matins [Office of Readings] late at night (perhaps around midnight), followed by the first Mass of Christmas Day itself, the Mass in the Night, and then Lauds [Morning Prayer] of Christmas. In the mid seventh century, a chapel was built beside the basilica, titled Sancta Maria ad Præsepe, or "Saint Mary at the Crib," housing relics of the Lord's crib from Bethlehem. The station of the Mass in the Night (Midnight) was transferred to this chapel during the pontificate of Pope Theodore (AD 640-649).

The second Mass of Christmas itself, the Mass at Dawn, had for its station the Church of Saint Anastasia. Because of its proximity to the Imperial Palace in Rome, this church enjoyed great status as a house of worship for imperial officials. Saint Anastasia, of Byzantine origins, was an early martyr of the Diocletian persecution; her feast day in the calendar was December 25. Originally, this early Mass was in honor of Saint Anastasia, celebrated by the pope at dawn on that day. The Byzantine influence eventually waned in Rome, and the Mass formula celebrated at dawn on December 25 came to be one of the Nativity of Christ, although the station remains at Saint Anastasia Church.

The third Mass of Christmas, the principal Mass, used the forumulary for the Mass during the Day. Drawing large crowds of faithful, for hundreds of years this Mass was celebrated at the Basilica of Saint Peter at the Vatican, which was a very large church built over the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Many important events took place at this Christmas Mass during the Day: Marcellina, the sister of Saint Ambrose, was veiled as a nun by Pope Liberius; Pope Saint Celestine I announced the important teachings of the Council of Ephesus; Charlemagne was crowned emperor by Pope Saint Leo III in AD 800. By the end of the 12th century, however, changing demographics, safety and convenience had moved the station for this Mass back to Saint Mary Major, where the evening Masses of the day before had been celebrated. Rome's population decreased to less than 2% of its former size, and the Marian basilica was near Saint John Lateran, the papal residence.

Currently the Stational Churches for the four (1 + 3) Masses of Christmas are:

  1. Vigil Mass — Saint Mary Major
  2. Mass during the Night (Midnight), the First Mass of Christmas — Saint Mary Major, at the Altar of the Crib
  3. Mass at Dawn, the Second Mass of Christmas — Saint Anastasia
  4. Mass during the Day, the Third (and Principal) Mass of Christmas — Saint Mary Major

II. Modern Practice

Both the Extraordinary Form [Traditional Latin Mass 1962] and the Ordinary Form [Novus Ordo Mass 1970] maintain the same structure for the Masses of Christmas. Each Mass has its own set of readings, its own propers and orations, its own "flavor." These are the Extraordinary Form (EF) and Ordinary Form (OF) readings.

Vigil Rom 1:1-6
Mt 1:18-21
Is 62:1-5
Acts 13:16-17,22-25
Mt 1:1-25
Titus 2:11-15
Lk 2:1-14
Is 9:1-6
Titus 2:11-14
Lk 2:1-14
Dawn Titus 3:4-7
Lk 2:15-20
Is 62:11-12
Titus 3:4-7
Lk 2:15-20
Day Heb 1:1-12
Jn 1:1-14
Is 52:7-10
Heb 1:1-6
Jn 1:1-18

While the EF Mass contains only two readings (Epistle and Gospel), the Lectionary reform of the late 1960s added an Old Testament reading prior to the Epistle. In the Christmas Masses, this was consistently taken from Isaiah, the great prophet of Advent and the Incarnation.

Each Mass formulary [propers, orations and readings] speaks to a different aspect of the Christmas miracle:

Vigil Mass

This Mass retains much of the "Advent flavor," and in the EF (as a vigil) is celebrated in violet vestments. The Gospel reading is the Genealogy of the Messiah from Saint Matthew. At this Mass, we just "turn the corner" on Christmas, and some of the Advent mood still lingers. In the OF, this is definitely seen as a Christmas Mass, and fulfills the obligation for the holy day.

Mass during the Night

The official name for this liturgy is Mass during the Night. Since historically this was considered the first Mass of Christmas, it had been celebrated in the first hour of that day itself, that is, midnight. Tradition has maintained that time (as has the Lectionary of 1998, which calls it "Mass at Midnight"). As might be expected at a night-time Mass, the theme of darkness is contrasted with the "splendor of the true light." Isaiah speaks of "the people who walked in darkness," and Saint Luke's scene has the shepherds "keeping the night watch over their flocks." The Gospel then ends with the angelic chorus, "Glory to God in the highest …" and we rightly sing that at our Christmas liturgies.

Mass at Dawn

It is not surprising that light appears in this Mass at Dawn. from the Introit: "Today a light will shine upon us"; from the Collect: "your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds"; from the Responsorial Psalm: "A light will sine on us this day." The Lord Jesus is acclaimed as Savior in the first two readings. The Gospel from Luke has the shepherds leaving the fields, traveling to Bethlehem, to meet the Holy Family.

Mass during the Day

This principal Mass of Christmas is the most profound of the formularies. We see themes of universality, glory and mystery in the readings. "All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of God," the Son is the "refulgence of [the Father's] glory." The Gospel is no longer a Lucan narrative — it is the mysterious Prologue (beginning) of Saint John's Gospel, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God … and the Word became flesh."

Seeing the capacious nature of these four Masses, it would behoove the parish, in any way possible, to celebrate them all. Certainly the late-afternoon/early-evening "Children's Mass" on Christmas Eve should use the Vigil Mass formulary. Another Mass that evening, for the adult parishioners, whether it be at the traditional midnight hour, or slightly earlier, should be the Mass during the Night. Christmas Day presents the biggest problem. Many parishes use the regular Sunday Mass schedule on Christmas Day, and if this be the case, the earliest Mass should use the Mass at Dawn formulary, with the later Mass(es) being celebrated as the Mass during the Day. With the great convenience of several Masses on the evening of December 24, parishes are seeing not only vast crowds at these Masses, but also fewer people at the Christmas Day Masses. If only one Mass can be supported on Christmas Day, a decision must be made as to which forumlary to use. This could certainly be tied to the actual time of the Mass — a Mass at Dawn celebrated at 11:30 am is a little silly. A good idea would be for neighboring parishes to stagger their single Mass time on Christmas Day, as well as the formulary used, so that at least in the community (if not in the parish), all the Masses of Christmas are available.

It is true that the readings at all the Christmas Masses are interchangeable, for pastoral need. But why should we tamper with the beauties of this historical schema? Why should we not enjoy all the Masses of Christmas? Pope Benedict's homily from Midnight Mass 2011 gives us some insight:

The reading from Saint Paul’s Letter to Titus that we have just heard begins solemnly with the word apparuit, which then comes back again in the reading at the Dawn Mass: apparuit — "there has appeared." This is a programmatic word, by which the Church seeks to express synthetically the essence of Christmas. Formerly, people had spoken of God and formed human images of him in all sorts of different ways. God himself had spoken in many and various ways to mankind (cf. Heb 1:1 — Mass during the Day). But now something new has happened: he has appeared. He has revealed himself. He has emerged from the inaccessible light in which he dwells. He himself has come into our midst. This was the great joy of Christmas for the early Church: God has appeared. No longer is he merely an idea, no longer do we have to form a picture of him on the basis of mere words. He has "appeared." But now we ask: how has he appeared? Who is he in reality? The reading at the Dawn Mass goes on to say: "the kindness and love of God our Savior for mankind were revealed" (Titus 3:4). For the people of pre-Christian times, whose response to the terrors and contradictions of the world was to fear that God himself might not be good either, that he too might well be cruel and arbitrary, this was a real "epiphany," the great light that has appeared to us: God is pure goodness. Today too, people who are no longer able to recognize God through faith are asking whether the ultimate power that underpins and sustains the world is truly good, or whether evil is just as powerful and primordial as the good and the beautiful which we encounter in radiant moments in our world. "The kindness and love of God our Savior for mankind were revealed": this is the new, consoling certainty that is granted to us at Christmas.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications
Article written 08 December 2012

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