The Masses of Christmas
Fr. Patrick Briscoe, OP - published on 12/24/20
Since the feast of Jesus’ birth is so important, the Church’s tradition has different masses for Christmas!
The Nativity of the Lord, the great feast of Christmas, holds pride of place in Catholic life and worship. Since the feast of Jesus’ birth is so important, the Church’s tradition has different masses for Christmas!
Depending on which Mass you attend, the readings and prayers will vary. Here’s a brief introduction to the different Masses of Christmas to help enrich your prayer.
The Vigil Mass
Masses held in the early evening on Christmas eve are celebrated according to the form called “The Vigil Mass.” The entrance antiphon, a proscribed prayer sung or prayed by the priest, reads at this mass, “Today you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, and in the morning you will see his glory.”
The readings at the Vigil Mass focus on the Lord’s goodness to Israel. God’s loving mercy, having promised a savior to his people, is fulfilled in Jesus. At this Mass the genealogy of Jesus is proclaimed. The genealogy of the Lord includes great saints and broken sinners, reminding us of how the glory and grace of the Lord has worked to heal and transform the people of Israel.
Then, Matthew recounts the birth of Jesus, explaining the Lord’s miraculous conception, the mystery of the marriage of Mary and Joseph, and proclaiming that Jesus is “God with us” who has come to save his people from their sins.
Mass during the Night
Traditionally, Vigil Masses could not be held before Midnight on the day of a given feast. For many Midnight Mass, or Mass during the Night, holds pride of place in family celebrations. After a festive meal, families donned coats and gloves and headed to the parish church for carols and Midnight Mass.
At this Mass, again held in the darkness of winter night, the prayers proclaim the light and glory of the savior. The collect, the opening prayer of the Mass, reads, “O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light, grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven.”
The theme of light and glory continues in the readings. The prophet Isaiah tells us, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Paul tells us that the grace of the Lord has appeared. And Luke announces the shining glory of the Lord and a multitude of heavenly hosts.
The Mass at Dawn
Masses celebrated early on Christmas Day follow this form. This Mass is traditionally called the Shepherds’ Mass. Just as the shepherds approached the crib at Bethlehem to offer worship to the newborn Lord, we devoutly approach the altar in praise of the same Lord truly present.
As dawn breaks, the true light of the world comes upon us. Christ, the light of the nations, the infant King of Israel, shines forth as true God and men. He has come to dwell among us and to enlighten every heart.
Mass during the Day
Mass on Christmas Day celebrates the divinity of the infant Jesus. While Mass on Christmas Eve shares the human genealogy of Jesus, the Mass of Christmas Day proclaims Jesus’ divine nature. The Gospel reading for this Mass is taken from the Gospel of John. It includes this beautiful verse, “And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
The mystery of Christmas, that the Word, the second person of the Holy Trinity would take human flesh, calls for our adoration and contemplation. In the Mass of Christmas Day we delight in the fullness of God’s revelation. No longer is our God far from us; he bears a human face.