When is your midnight Mass?

  • December 17, 2010
What time is midnight Mass? It’s the season for that question, and the answer is not predictable.

Over more than a generation, we Catholics have fumbled away one of our most distinctive customs. Indeed, the Christmas Mass schedule has become something rather different than what the Church intends, and what our tradition refined over centuries.

The Church has four Masses for Christmas — the vigil, Mass at midnight, Mass at dawn and Mass during the day. The readings begin with the human origins of Jesus in Matthew’s genealogy (vigil), the account of the birth and the angels (midnight), the visit of the shepherds (dawn) and finally the divine origins of the newborn baby, taken from the magnificent prologue of John’s Gospel (day).

The typical parish gets little of this. Some years ago at the 5 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve (about which more later), I did use Matthew’s genealogy — to universal complaint. The people wanted the nativity story. So the usual thing found in most parishes today is several vigil Masses on Christmas Eve, none of which use the vigil readings, and all of which are absolutely jam-packed. There is often no Mass at midnight, and a solitary Mass on Christmas morning, usually poorly attended.

How we arrived at this position is curious. Many priests consider the vigil Masses — especially the early ones before 7 p.m., sometimes as early as 4 p.m.! — to be pastoral failures, with large congregations but a certain chaotic, distracted quality. Pastors know when the Church’s liturgy clearly points to the midnight Mass as the high point of the Christmas liturgy, there is something awry with singing “Adeste Fidelis” at 5 p.m.

Some years ago I asked the parish council about why our Christmas Eve Mass was so early. The response from everyone around the table was that it was a convenient time — early Mass, home for dinner and a party, perhaps some Christmas presents, the children in bed at a good hour and a leisurely Christmas morning to follow. Upon hearing that, I announced that we absolutely had to change the time so that it was more inconvenient. The idea is not to fit Christmas Mass into our schedule, but to adjust our schedule to fit Christmas Mass! The parish council agreed, and we moved the vigil Mass back almost three hours.

Midnight Mass is the ultimate sign that we are adjusting our lives to fit Christmas. In the whole year — sacred or profane — no other event begins at midnight. For no other reason do we head out in the middle of the night. In the heart of the night, in the heart of the darkest season, in the heart of the winter bleakness, Catholics gather because they have seen a great light. It is the Christmas tradition par excellence.

Why toss it away for greater convenience? Just as the introduction of Saturday evening Masses have made Sunday less central as the Lord’s Day, so too the multiplication of Masses on Christmas Eve have stripped Christmas Day of its significance. Christmas Day begins at midnight, and Mass at that hour indicates that the Catholic people are so eager for Christmas that they want to wait not one minute longer than necessary. What a pity to take the midnight Mass, readings and all, and slot it in before dinner.

How to remedy this? The first step, as in many things, is a measure of pastoral courage and leadership. When I first became a pastor, one wise priest I greatly admired told me that I should never, ever change the Christmas Mass schedule — too much trouble. That risk-averse devotion to the status quo is not helpful in renewing the liturgy. In fact, it was not any trouble at all, as the Catholic faithful respond well to sensible, well-explained initiatives to improve our liturgical practice.

Indeed, here and there one sees efforts to restore the centrality of Mass at midnight. The Catholic faithful intuitively know that midnight Mass is important. In my own parish on Wolfe Island, two young women suggested a few years ago that we have Midnight Mass entirely by candlelight. It was a marvellous idea, and now I look forward to it each year as one of the great liturgical high points of our parish life.

Catholics frequently complain about the secularization of Christmas. There is little we can do about that, but to the extent that we have an alternative to offer, it means becoming more Catholic not less. Midnight Mass is a uniquely Catholic tradition. What time is midnight Mass? The answer should be obvious.

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