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:
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.
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