Why three different Masses for Christmas?
The different readings and prayers of the Masses of Christmas invite us to contemplate the Christmas mystery from different perspectives, so that we might savor the richness and beauty of the Word made flesh
Q. Why are there three different Masses for Christmas?
A. The three Masses provided for the Nativity of the Lord date from the early Christian centuries.
In the fourth century, the first and only Mass of Christmas was the festal Eucharist celebrated by the pope on Christmas Day in St. Peter’s Basilica at the usual hour, that is, around 9 a.m. This was the basilica that Emperor Constantine had built on the Vatican Hill, which formerly had been a site of pagan sun-worship.
The Gospel reading was the prologue to St. John’s Gospel (John 1:1-14) — the same Gospel that is appointed for this Mass today, and it was central to this celebration of the light of Christ overcoming the darkness of this world.
In the fifth century, Pope Leo the Great complained that some Christians coming to Mass on Christmas were bowing to the sun before entering St. Peter’s — only the risen Son of God, not the sun god of Roman religion, deserved their worship.
Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 24, 2013. Picture taken with fisheye lens. CNS photo/Paul Haring
Sometime in the fifth century, the Midnight Mass in the Basilica of St. Mary Major was added. The pope celebrated this Mass in a subterranean chapel under this basilica that was built to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary after the Council of Ephesus (431) declared her to be the Mother of God (Theotokos). This basilica possessed a relic of the wooden manger where the infant Jesus lay, and so this Mass was celebrated “ad praesepe,” “at the Altar of the Crib.”
The present Roman Missal includes the celebrant’s prayers for use “At the Mass During the Night,” not at “Midnight” as was formerly the case, since most churches now celebrate this Mass on Christmas Eve at an earlier hour. My monastery now celebrates it at 10 p.m.
The church explains why we gather in the night by quoting from the book of Wisdom: “When peaceful stillness compassed everything, and night in its swift course was half-spent, your all-powerful Word bounded from heaven’s royal throne into the midst of the land that was doomed” (Wisdom 18:14-15). Historically, this refers to the destroying angel that struck down all the first-born in Egypt at the time of Exodus.
But for centuries the church has referred these words to Jesus Christ, the all-powerful Word of God and incarnate Son of God, whom tradition says was born in the middle of the night. Jesus is the “angel of good counsel” bounding from heaven’s royal throne into a world doomed because of sin, bringing death to the powers of evil.
Every Christmas, we dare to claim God’s bright promise of light out of darkness, light and life in abundance and forever.
Dom Helder Camara asks: “Can we forget that you, the Son of God, chose to be born precisely at midnight? … If you had been afraid of shadows you would have been born at noon. But you preferred the night. Lord, you were born in the middle of the night because midnight is pregnant with dawn.” (Dom Helder Camara, “It’s Midnight, Lord” trans. Joseph Gallagher with Thomas Fuller and Tom Conry [Washington, D.C.: Pastoral Press, 1984], pp. 47-49).
In the darkness of Christmas Eve of this world, we celebrate the dawn of our salvation in Christ our light, the dawn of eternal day in his presence.
Around the middle of the sixth century, a third Christmas Mass was added. It was celebrated very early in the morning of Christmas Day in the church dedicated to St. Anastasia of Sirmium (d. ca. 304), a virgin-martyr who was burned at the stake in Dalmatia. She was highly venerated in the Christian East and her name was included in the Roman Canon of the Mass (now Eucharistic Prayer I).
Members of the Byzantine court who were residing in Rome at the time had made St. Anastasia’s church their own. Her feast day fell on Dec. 25 in the East, and so the pope would travel to her church by boat on the Tiber River and personally celebrate this Mass for the imperial dignitaries.
After each of the prescribed prayers for this Christmas Mass was prayed, the proper Mass prayer for St. Anastasia followed. With the reform of the Roman calendar in 1969, the commemoration of St. Anastasia is gone, and this Christmas Mass “at dawn” is sometimes called the “Shepherds Mass” because of the appointed reading (Luke 2:15-20; the shepherds found Mary and Joseph and the infant.)
These three Masses of Christmas were entered into the papal sacramentaries (books of Mass prayers for the celebrant) and then were adopted beyond Rome as these sacramentaries came into use throughout Western Europe.
Besides these three Masses of Christmas, there is also a vigil that can be celebrated on the afternoon or evening of Dec. 24, before or after Evening Prayer I of the Nativity. The appointed Gospel for this Mass is St. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-25 or 1:18-25), which may be less popular than St. Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-14) at the Mass during the night.
But regarding the Scripture readings for this and the other Christmas Masses, the Lectionary for Mass states that there is “the option of choosing from one or other of the three sets of readings according to the pastoral needs of each congregation.”
The different readings and prayers of the Masses of Christmas invite us to contemplate the Christmas mystery from different perspectives, so that we might savor the richness and beauty of the Word made flesh. May you know His grace and favor at Christmas and throughout Christmas time.