home events current issue resources
  around the church archive marketplace subscribe
   
Timing Midnight Mass  
Christian McConnell  
    In the annual hectic lead-up to Christmas, the query, "What time is Midnight Mass?" is heard at parishes. Of course, the question is not as nonsensical as it seems. In pre-Vatican II practice, only one Christmas Eve Mass was celebrated, and not before midnight. Today, Catholic parishes have multiple liturgies throughout Christmas Eve, sometimes beginning in the late afternoon. The last Mass is still named "Midnight Mass," even if it's at 10:30 or 11 p.m.

Most solemnities of the liturgical year have one liturgical formulary, or perhaps two, the solemnity and its vigil. Multiple celebrations might occur, but those are mostly repetitions of the liturgy. Christmas is unusual in the Roman calendar in that historically it has three formularies-three different Masses, and to complicate matters, the vigil isn't one of the three. Moreover, the first of the three is the Mass "during the night," usually referred to as Midnight Mass. The traditional formularies don't envision the modern phenomenon of celebrating the solemnity multiple times on Christmas Eve, before that one.

So, what is the meaning of Midnight Mass? What are its distinctive features, and how does it relate to the Masses of Christmas Day, or to the Christmas vigil? How should we arrange the liturgy in response to the demand for Christmas liturgies on Christmas Eve? In looking at the origins and texts of the Christmas liturgies, it can be seen that each is a distinct celebration with its own character and response to pastoral needs.

The original Mass for Christmas in the Roman rite is the Mass "during the day." This Mass is characterized by its use of John's Prologue for the Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . ." This is not one of the synoptic infancy narratives, staking a claim for Jesus' messianic identity by crafting a detailed story of his birth. No mention is made in John's account of stable or manger, angels, shepherds, magi, or even a baby. Instead, John emphasizes the pre-existent Logos, the Word through whom all things came into being, now with us and among us, startlingly, in human flesh. It is a profound reflection on the deeper significance of the Incarnation, the identity of this child, uniquely one with God. Compared to the synoptic "Christmas stories," this Gospel gently sings the "true meaning of Christmas" in the relative quiet of a late Christmas morning. It is rather a shame that so few people experience this particular way of celebrating the feast.

The Mass at dawn was the last of the Christmas Masses to be added to the Roman celebration of Christmas. It hearkens back to when the Pope celebrated a Mass for December 25, not just Christmas, but the feast of Saint Anastasia, with representatives of the Byzantine Empire, for whom that saint was significant. The texts for this Mass still focused on Christmas, though.

Origins in Jerusalem
Of concern here, however, is the second Christmas Mass to be added to the Roman scheme, the Mass "during the night." This particular celebration, like many others in the liturgical year, came to Rome from the Holy Land. Observances originating in Jerusalem, such as Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, or Good Friday, have their roots in a distinct form of liturgical celebration, with pastoral circumstances and a liturgical piety all their own. Understanding this sort of piety is key to comprehending the deeper differences between Midnight Mass and the original Roman Christmas celebration on Christmas morning.

In the fourth century, Jerusalem became a destination for pilgrimages. Pilgrims flocked to the Holy Land, as they have ever since, to see the events where Jesus' story took place. Piety and tourism went hand in hand. It was not sufficient to see the holy places; pilgrims felt the need to pray there, too. Liturgical rites and offices were developed to accommodate the crowds. It came to make sense that, just as people wanted to pray where events in the sacred story occurred, they would especially want to do so when they occurred. The liturgical year was affected greatly by this development, and several major observances have been situated on the liturgical calendar to account for this desire for chronology. One need only think, for example, of Palm Sunday (as opposed to Rome's Passion Sunday) or Good Friday to see that desire for chronology in action. Liturgical memory, anamnesis, is never a case of "pretend" or "play acting"-it is far more serious. We are not pretending to "be there" in Bethlehem, so many centuries ago. But these pilgrims would have been entering into the mystery of the Incarnation by experiencing being at Bethlehem, and by celebrating the liturgy at night, when the story takes place, as profound symbols. This aspect to the liturgical calendar focuses on entering the mystery through the concrete symbols of time and place. While not imagining that we are going back in time, or putting on a play, through these symbols, we are, in a sense, "there," because the mystery is made real among us here and now. We participate-literally, have a share-in the narrative; the story becomes our story, not locked into the past, but in our lives today.

The Christmas Mass "during the night" comes from this sort of narrative approach to liturgical memory. In contrast to the Roman Mass "during the day" with its beautiful, but rather abstract, theological reflection on the depth of the Incarnation, the Jerusalem-style Mass "during the night" turns to one of the synoptic infancy narratives, specifically Luke, with its manger and shepherds. The synoptic infancy narratives are a different kind of text than John's Prologue. They most certainly make theological claims about who Jesus is, but they do so with more concrete, narrative language. This fits in well with the liturgical piety of Jerusalem in the early Church. Our participation in the mystery is, in this case, through concrete narratives, lived in concrete symbols. At the Christmas Mass "during the night," the very time of day is one of those symbols, encompassing not only some numbers on a clock, but the very experience of night: the darkness and the gentle hush of the late hour (in theory, anyway!).

To consider the distinct characteristics of "Midnight Mass," then, is to ask what the story is about, and for liturgical and pastoral purposes, to ask how the story is true in the here and now. We're not going back to Bethlehem, 2,000 years ago, but this place, in this time, is somehow Bethlehem. The interpretation of liturgy depends on teasing out how the story is still true, in our circumstances today.

In examining the Gospel infancy narratives, one can do no better than to turn to Raymond Brown. In his major work, The Birth of the Messiah, and its much shorter summary, An Adult Christ at Christmas, Brown presents the infancy narratives not primarily as stories about the birth of a baby, nor as historical reports of such a birth, but as theological statements about who Christ is. Each detail in the narrative is carefully constructed to say something about Christ's identity and his role in salvation history. Indeed, the infancy narratives say next to nothing about the birth itself. Annunciations and prophetic utterances occur before the birth and proclamations after it. These proclamations are the point. Christ is proclaimed and revealed as the Son of God, both to Gentiles (especially in Matthew) and to Jews (especially in Luke). Brown's key point is that post-Resurrection faith is being read back further and further into the accounts of Christ's life. The Christ proclaimed in the infancy narratives is the risen Lord, known already as the Savior. Just as with the first-century Christian communities that produced these stories, the salvation God has achieved in Christ is proclaimed to all people. The key is their response.

Without going into Brown's range of detail, a few of his main ideas in the treatment of the Lucan narrative are worth noting. The historical setting, in the backdrop of the Roman Empire, is the first. In the account in Luke, a census goes out from Augustus, contrasting the imperial "savior of the world" and his reign of "peace" with Jesus' role as the world's true Savior who brings "peace to people of goodwill." Jesus is also the fulfillment of messianic expectation. If the Messiah, according to some, was to come from the line of David, David himself is echoed prominently in the narratives. Jesus' birth was in Bethlehem, which has become, for Luke, the "city of David". The birth was revealed to shepherds, people in David's former occupation. These shepherds are juxtaposed to Isaiah's claim that "the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand." In these Jewish shepherds, Israel does recognize its Savior at the manger. Further, his mother "treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart." At this birth, angels sing praise in the presence of this child, just as they do in God's presence at the Temple or in heaven. This child, said to be born in the Davidic line, is proclaimed to be Israel's Messiah, and a new reconciliation between God and humanity has begun.

Proclamation and Response
This proclamation of salvation, of faith in the risen Christ, is the message of the infancy narratives, the real answer to the rather tired cliché of the "true meaning of Christmas." The point of the narrative was not to recreate the birth, but to use the concrete language of a story to stress who Christ is. Both Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives go further, though. They proclaim who Christ is for someone. (The significant differences in the narratives are sometimes because of Matthew's Gentile emphasis and Luke's Jewish one.) The risen Christ is being proclaimed as Son of God and savior for different groups of people, with different worldviews and religious language. Christ becomes the answer to whatever expectations fuel people's hopes, and whatever salvation means for them. As the beginning of a new creation, Christ is also the challenge to settled sensibilities. This is important, for both narratives spend far more time on people's reactions: angels and shepherds adore, the shepherds' hearers are astonished, Mary ponders, the magi pay homage, Herod lashes out. These stories are about salvation proclaimed and faith as response.

But liturgy doesn't simply proclaim; it actualizes. It doesn't simply speak of these things, but makes them happen. The Midnight Mass liturgy, then, situated at night to enter into the memory of these nighttime events, doesn't just tell the story. It does what the story does. The Mass "during the night" is itself a proclamation of salvation, of the true identity of the risen Christ. More importantly, it proclaims who Christ is for us, and invites us into a faith-filled response.

The celebration of this liturgy should reflect and enact this deeper sense of what the infancy narratives mean. It is not telling a quaint, lovely story. Pageants and crèches are inescapably part of the celebration, and perhaps appropriately so. After all, the Mass "during the night" has its roots in a similar desire for concreteness. However, although these concrete practices help create a certain sense of "being there," the liturgy has to be celebrated in such a way as to move beyond that. If liturgical memory is not a kind of "make-believe" but a genuine participation in the reality being celebrated, then these practices cannot consume our attention or exhaust our effort. The liturgy enacts the event not by putting on a play, not by pretending or suspending disbelief, but by doing what the story itself does. Not only does a quaint sort of re-enactment miss the mark in terms of liturgy's true purpose, but it has a counterproductive effect. To watch a re-enactment, however beautifully done, is to become somewhat distanced. One can observe the story as it is told but stand apart from it. Perhaps, it might evoke warm feelings, but that's different from a liturgy that does the narrative by proclaiming salvation to us, for us, just as the angels proclaimed it. It's potentially even further away from a liturgy that drives us to respond, to decide if this Christ is worth staking one's life and faith on. It can be heartwarming to watch a child kneeling before a manger, and this is part of the beauty of Christmas Eve celebrations. It's much more, however, for all of us to be faced with the challenge of coming to faith and deciding if we, too, dare to kneel before this risen Savior and see him as the one who answers our deepest hopes. If it is to be authentic, the liturgy must bring us to that point.

To celebrate this liturgy authentically, then, means to ask who Christ is, not settling for predetermined answers. It is to open up the question of who Christ is, of what salvation is, for those of us who are celebrating and for all who walk through our door. As the evangelists recognized when they first told the story, different people will have different answers to that question, and the liturgy needs to proclaim it faithfully to all of them. We know that there are many people who show up that evening for the first time since Easter. We need to think deeply about why they are there. Our preaching, our singing, and all of our interactions need to be rooted in a deeper reflection of what salvation is for them. Anyone familiar with the language of scripture knows that salvation is in no way reducible to getting to heaven, for example. The entire point of proclaiming this Savior, this God-with-us, is that salvation is to be experienced here and now, in our lives. We shouldn't even begin to use the word "salvation" or "Savior" without first asking what people need to be saved from, and there are many, many answers to that question. In our world, people face serious struggles. Perhaps the deepest of these, underlying many of them, is a struggle with meaning, with finding some sort of grounds for hope. If the Christmas liturgy is to be real, if it is to do the story and not just tell it, those who come to celebrate with us need to find, somehow, that God has acted and is acting on their behalf. "This night is born for you a savior" has to become a promise that the deepest hungers will be fed. This is no small task for the liturgy to accomplish, and so the liturgy needs to be celebrated with care and sensitivity.

It certainly presumes that, when so many guests come to us, we are welcoming. Many of us are keenly aware of the particular need for hospitality on this night. However, just as the story must go deeper than shepherds and angels, our welcome has to go deeper than a friendly greeting at the door. It needs to pervade the way we celebrate and suggest to people that the liturgy is not a quaint, perhaps somewhat thought-provoking, custom. If reasonable people sense that the liturgy does not respond to the seriousness of their lives, then the liturgy has come up short. "Welcome" needs to include taking people seriously, where they are, and gently showing them in our liturgical actions the One who is God's answer to their searches. Many parishes and communities make earnest attempts to welcome visitors and those who are "lapsed," but the welcome comes off as "roping them in," a mere attempt to replicate year-round the attendance we see that night. This is sadly insufficient. It falls short of why the welcome is so important in the first place. The reason we want them there year-round is not that the Church somehow needs big numbers. We invite them to be part of what we do, so that they can encounter Christ in the liturgy. This is not an occasion for a "guilt trip" about Mass attendance. It can be, in the best sense of the word, an invitation to conversion, to the faith experience of responding to God's free offer of salvation.

Multiple Christmas Liturgies
What about those multiple Christmas Eve liturgies? Should the liturgy of the vigil or Midnight Mass be celebrated on Christmas Eve? Does the time of "Midnight Mass" matter?

Some ambiguity and difficulty exist in all of this. Historically, the vigil is not one of the three Masses of Christmas. It was a celebration right before the celebration of the feast, often celebrated (as vigils sometimes were in later history) in the afternoon of December 24th. The texts of the vigil sometimes carry with them this sense that Christmas is still to come, though just around the corner. The Gospel acclamation even starts with the word "tomorrow." The first reading, from Isaiah 62, speaks entirely in terms of the future: "the nations shall see your vindication . . . you shall be called by a new name . . . ." The tone of the vigil is mostly one of expectation, not of proclaiming salvation that is already here. The Gospel does get into the infancy narrative, of course, this time from Matthew's account, but it ends right at the birth, and doesn't proceed to the proclamation of the birth to the magi.

This all means that the vigil, properly speaking, is not yet the celebration of the feast. The first of the Masses of Christmas was, and is, the Mass "during the night." In pre-Vatican II practice, then, Christmas was not celebrated before Midnight Mass.

The trend toward celebrating Christmas earlier on Christmas Eve responds to pastoral demand, but it is problematic. In many parishes, the number of Christmas Eve Masses, packed to the rafters, is multiplying, stretching back into the afternoon of December 24th. The numbers at Midnight Mass and the Masses of Christmas Day, on the other hand, are getting thinner and thinner. A number of cultural factors may be at work here, from a romantic sense of Christmas Eve in popular culture to a redefining of religion in terms of the "family." A pastoral/ liturgical dilemma is apparent. When it comes to these Christmas Eve Masses, there seem to be two choices: celebrate the vigil, in which case most people are not actually celebrating the feast of Christmas, or anticipate and multiply the Mass "during the night," which simply "caves in" to the creeping of the feast of Christmas back to December 24th. This ambiguity is reflected in the Lectionary. Interestingly, American Catholic practice generally prefers the vigil, following the rubric that "these readings are used at Mass celebrated on the evening of December 24" and even that "the texts that follow may also be used for Masses of Christmas Day." The Canadian Lectionary takes a different stance, calling this "a separate vigil from the Solemnity of Christmas. For the celebration of Christmas the readings for during the night are used." The latter would seem to make pastoral sense, as it allows all of those Christmas Eve attendees to celebrate the feast itself, but it exacerbates the liturgical problem. The liturgical ideal would be no celebration of Christmas before Midnight Mass. It's hard to imagine that ideal to be possible in practice, though.

Which one is "Midnight Mass," then, and does it matter if a Mass is at midnight? Not really. The formulary is called Mass "during the night," not "at midnight." If celebrating at 10:30 or 11 p.m. meets pastoral need (like the needs of families for a more reasonable hour), as long as such pastoral need is genuine, it can be a reasonable decision. However, it at least needs to be during the night, and late enough that one can see it as genuinely beginning the celebration of Christmas Day. If a parish celebrates the vigil throughout Christmas Eve, then the last one on Christmas Eve can be the first (real) Mass of Christmas. If a parish uses the "during the night" formulary throughout Christmas Eve, "Midnight Mass" has, strangely, already been celebrated several times.

In spite of this dilemma, Christmas Eve is rightly one of the most cherished moments in the liturgical calendar, and Midnight Mass has a special place in Catholic popular imagination. Celebrated fully, with attention to the depth of its meaning, the liturgy of Midnight Mass is capable of being even more, of embodying the Paschal Mystery in a profound and potentially life-transforming way.

Christian McConnell, PhD,
is an assistant professor of theology at the University of St. Michael's, University of Toronto. His doctorate in liturgical theology is from the University of Notre Dame.
 
         
© Copyright 2006-2013
LITURGY TRAINING PUBLICATIONS
privacy  contact us  www.LTP.org