Friday, December 25, 2009

The Masses of Christmas

First, I wish a happy and blessed Christmas in Christ to all blog readers.

Now a liturgical reflection or two. Last night when we returned home from Midnight Mass I saw the last few minutes of NBC's coverage of the Midnight Mass at Saint Peter's in Rome. Of course it was not live time from Rome. And I had already read about some of it the previous evening at work at the New Liturgical Movement site. Anyway, at the close of NBC's broadcast it was stated that the viewer had been watching the Christmas Eve Midnight Mass in Rome. I don't know if this phraseology was decided by NBC or possibly the USCCB, but it is not unusual. I have seen it a lot this year. And so although this is not one of the more important points this blog will ever make, it is worth sorting this out right now, for the record.

If anyone who reads this was blessed with the opportunity to attend Midnight Mass last night, you were not at a Christmas Eve service. In fact, the Midnight Mass is not even a vigil mass, like that of the Paschal Vigil, or the Pentecost Vigil, which are designed with several readings, and have the character of a liturgy that bridges two seasons, like a hinge. The Midnight Mass is actually a rather simple, yet beautiful, liturgy. To be clear, the Mass of Christmas Eve, ie., of the Vigil Day of Christmas, 24 December, is the Mass Hodie Scietis, which I describe in a previous post. The color for that Mass is purple, for it is the final Mass of the Advent Season. The Midnight Mass is the first Mass of the Christmas Season, and of Christmas Day. Therefore, it is best to refer to the Midnight Mass, not as a Christmas Eve Mass, but as a Christmas Mass.

The three Masses of Christmas Day are each peculiar and unique. The first, the Midnight Mass, begins with the Introit Dominus Dixit. The Epistle is from Titus 2, and the Gospel is the very familiar nativity narrative of Luke 2. As I read certain phrases of that Gospel as deacon last night I was for a split second taken back to Christmas programs of long ago, my own diaconal tea soaked madeleine.

The second Mass of Christmas is celebrated at the break of day. The Introit is Lux Fulgebit, a text from Isaiah 9 which is very appropriate for dawn. The Epistle is from Titus 3, and the Gospel is that of the Shepherds' encounter with the Holy Family in Luke 2.

The third Mass of Christmas is celebrated during the day itself. It begins with the gorgeous Introit Puer Natus Est, which many Americans have now heard because it is featured on one of the Chant CDs produced by a Benedictine community in Spain. The Epistle is from Hebrews 1, and the Gospel is the majestic Johnannine Prologue. If Lutheran children know the Luke 2 Gospel in the King James because of Christmas programs (or at least that was once the case), then seminarians after their first year know the first part of John 1 in Greek, and those who had the chance to hear Weinrich's lectures on that text can still hear his words as well.

I will add here that the traditionalist Catholic of a certain generation will know this Gospel in Latin, not merely because of Christmas, but because it was usually always the so called Last Gospel at Mass. I would not be in favor of having the Last Gospel read at the altar in Lutheran usage, for it really belongs in the realm of the celebrant's prayers after Mass. However, if there were ever a classic case of a liturgy that ought to be celebrated in Latin in the traditional Lutheran use, it is this third Mass of Christmas. We might even do that next year at St. Stephen's. And this Gospel from John 1 deserves to be memorized in Latin by all of you theological students. How else are you going to pray it wherever you are when you need its comfort and gospel? Besides, its beauty and poetry are reason enough even for men of the world.

Another thought on these three Masses of Christmas Day. What I'm about to argue in no way implies that I am critical of those churches that do not have all three Masses on Christmas. There are many reasons for having only one of them, or two of them. These are pastoral decisions that the pastor must make. What I want to argue, however, is that these masses are not designed to be three options from which to choose. That is, the feast of the Nativity of our Lord is liturgically designed, like no other feast, for three distinct Masses (the same can be said in the Roman Use for All Souls Day, though for very different reasons). There are churches, and I am not pointing to any in particular, where the move could start to be made to increase the Christmas Day masses from one to two, or two to three. In some places, admittedly, they need to get with the program already and go from zero to one. But to do all three you don't need all the people on the membership rolls to formally agree to it. You don't need for the majority of your members to be in town; many will want to take off after the early morning mass or after the Midnight Mass to go visit family in another town. Having more of these masses is not at all meant to burden people. It is simply to give more opportunity for the public worship of Christ, our Immanuel. One suggestion I would make is to discern which of the last two masses will be attended by the most people in the parish, and celebrate that one in as solemn a way as you can; and celebrate the other one as a simple low mass.

Also, keep in mind that the twelve days of Christmas are not the 14th through the 25th of December, as the world seems to think, but from the 25th of December through the 5th of January (Twelfth Night being followed immediately by the feast of the Epiphany). The Mass, as well as the Divine Office, can be celebrated on all of these days. I know that many pastors pray the Office on their own anyway; days like these could be especially good opportunities, however, to offer perhaps a public celebration of Vespers, or maybe a short morning Office immediately followed by low mass.

I leave you today with this Christmas chant.

No comments: