The Celebration of Christmas Masses

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The following guidelines were prepared by the National Liturgical Office at the request of the Episcopal Commission for Liturgy and the National Council for Liturgy.

A Bit of History

The Establishment of the Feast

In 274, the Roman emperor Aurelian established December 25 as the feast of the unconquered sun. This feast which occurred at the time of the winter solstice was adopted by Christians following the Council of Nicea (325) and given a new meaning. Instead of celebrating the birth of the unconquered sun, Christians cele­brated the mystery of the Incarnation: the birth of Christ who is the "light that shines in the dark, a light that darkness could not overpower" (John 1.5).

The Liturgical Celebration of the Feast

Mass During the Day

In Rome the Eucharistic celebration of the feast originally took place at the newly constructed basilica of St. Peter on the Vatican Hill. Early sources indicate that this celebration occurred at the usual morning hour, around 9:00 a.m. The lectionary texts assigned to this liturgy were Isaiah 52.6-10, Hebrews 1.1-12, and John 1.1-14. These same texts are proclaimed today in the Mass during the Day.

Vigil and Mass at Midnight

Following the construction of the Roman basilica of St. Mary Major (c. 440) and the addition of a side chapel corresponding to the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, elements of the liturgical celebration of the Epiphany in Bethlehem were trans­ferred to Rome. They included a vigil at the basilica in the evening before the feast and a nighttime celebration of the Eucharist at its conclusion.

During the vigil, the Matthean account of the birth of Christ was proclaimed (Matthew 1.18-21). This same text was incorporated into the Vigil Mass (December 24) which developed later. In the present lectionary, this text has been extended to include the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1.1-25).

The nighttime Eucharist eventually devel­oped into the Mass at Midnight in Rome. The epistle used in Bethlehem (Titus 2.11-14) was incorporated into this cele­bration together with Luke 2.18-20. The epistle has been retained in the present lectionary. The gospel, however, has been transferred to the Mass at Dawn and replaced by Luke 2.1-14.

ver the years, the Mass at Midnight has enjoyed great popularity. The dramatic description of the events surrounding the birth of Christ in the gospel for this Mass seems to appeal to people's imagination more than the Johannine proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation in the Mass During the Day. In addition, the darkness of the midnight celebration draws people to the light and darkness motifs of the feast. The holy night is made radiant with the splendor of Jesus Christ, the true light of the world. (See the opening prayer for the Mass at Midnight.)

Mass at Dawn

In the late sixth century, the Byzantine ambassadors living in Rome celebrated the commemoration of St. Anastasia on December 25 at the church which bears her name. In deference to the ambas­sadors, the pope began to celebrate the eucharist there in the early morning between the nighttime Mass at St. Mary Major and the daytime Mass at St. Peter's. The commemoration of St. Anastasia soon gave way to the celebration of the Nativity of the Lord.

The epistle for the Mass at Dawn was cho­sen because of its identification with the Byzantine feast of Epiphany: "...the kind­ness and love of God our saviour for mankind were revealed" (Titus 3.4-7). The gospel (Luke 2.15-20), used in Bethlehem the day before Epiphany at the Place of the Shepherds was chosen for the Mass at Dawn. Both readings have been retained in the present lectionary.

Guidelines for Celebrating Christmas Masses

Next to the celebration of the paschal mystery at the Easter Triduum, the Church holds most sacred the annual celebration of the birth of Christ. It is fitting that parish communities prepare well for the celebration. The following guidelines are offered to assist pastors and parish liturgi­cal committees in their preparation for the Christmas Masses.

Respect the Tradition and Liturgical Texts

In our Roman Catholic tradition, the litur­gical celebration of Christmas includes four distinct celebrations of the Eucharist. The Vigil Mass of Christmas may be cele­brated in the evening of December 24, either before or after evening prayer I. On Christmas itself, following the ancient tra­dition of Rome, three masses may be cele­brated: namely, the Mass at Midnight, the Mass at Dawn, and the Mass During the Day.

Each celebration possesses a unique char­acter which is defined by its proper texts and the time of day when it is to take place.

Whenever possible, the full cycle of Christmas Masses should be celebrated with their proper texts. Out of respect for the unique character of each celebration, the Masses are to be celebrated at their proper times.

Provide a Welcome to All

Christmas Masses attract large numbers of people from diverse backgrounds who bring with them a wide variety of faith experiences. Among those who celebrate with the Church at Christmas are faithful parishioners, their relatives and friends, those who are irregular in their participa­tion in the liturgical life of the Church, and complete strangers. It is important that all are made to feel welcome so that as God's people, they will be united in the prayer of the Church and give thanks and praise for the gift of salvation offered to them in Christ.

Select Appropriate Music

Music is an integral part of every liturgical celebration. Those who are responsible for selecting music for the eucharist should remember that the purpose of music in the liturgy is to support and enrich the liturgi­cal texts and to accompany the actions of the community. Liturgical music also serves to foster the participation of all the members of the assembly who sing those parts of the Mass which properly belong to them.

When selecting music for Christmas masses, priority is given to the singing of strong acclamations before the gospel and during the Eucharistic prayer. These accla­mations should be well known to the parish community. Hymns which are sung during Mass should also be well known and must be appropriate to the parts of the Mass during which they are sung.

Hymns and other forms of sacred music which are sung by the choir alone or by a soloist are best included before the liturgy begins.

Encourage Good Proclamation

When the scriptures are proclaimed dur­ing the Eucharist, God reveals to his peo­ple the mystery of redemption. Christ is present and God's people are nourished. All are led in the Spirit to give thanks to God for the gift of salvation.

In general, out of respect for the unique character of each celebration, the particu­lar readings assigned to each of the Christmas Masses are to be proclaimed. Since the scripture readings form the main part of the liturgy of the word, it is never permitted to replace them with non-bibli­cal texts.

The readings for the Christmas Masses are very familiar to the people who gather each year to celebrate the Lord's birth. However, it is important that these read­ings be proclaimed with special care and with deep faith. Readers are encouraged to prepare the reading well. The use of two readers, one for each of the first two read­ings, the observance of a period of silence following each reading, and the singing of the responsorial psalm will contribute to the effective proclamation of God's saving deeds in Christ.

Christmas pageants and tableaux, even though they may be based on the scrip­tures are not permitted during Mass. They belong outside the celebration of the Eucharist.

Encourage Sound Preaching

In the homily, the liturgy of the word and the liturgy of the eucharist are united to become a single proclamation of God's saving deeds in Jesus Christ. The purpose of the homily is to proclaim Christ's paschal mystery.

The homily should be the fruit of prayer, careful exegesis and preparation. It should be suited to the needs of all who partici­pate in the liturgical celebration.

Homilies which focus exclusively on the historical events surrounding the birth of Jesus are inappropriate during the Masses of Christmas. Likewise, reflections that are trite or sentimental are to be avoided. While the homilist needs to be sensitive to the needs of particular groups within the assembly (e.g., young children, visitors and strangers) he must never depart from preaching to the entire community.

Arrange for Ministers

Whenever the Christian community gathers for the liturgy, a variety of minis­ters is required so that all may participate fully and actively in the celebration.

When additional Masses are needed, and where larger than usual crowds participate in the Christmas Masses, pastors and litur­gical committees will have to arrange for and prepare additional ministers. Addi­tional readers, musicians, special ministers of the eucharist, servers and ushers will likely be needed so that every celebration of the eucharist at Christmas is prayerful and a worthy expression of the Church's faith.

Guidelines for Scheduling Christmas Masses

Anticipated Masses

It is permitted for the faithful to fulfill their obligation to participate in the Sunday Mass by their participation in the celebration of Mass on the preceding Saturday evening. The Instruction on Worship of the Eucharist clearly instructs pastors to "teach the faithful the meaning of this favour" and to "take steps to pre­vent its lessening in any way the sense of what Sunday is" (Eucharisticum mysterium, no. 28). This same Instruction notes that permission for anticipated Masses is a con­cession which is meant to enable the faithful in today's conditions to celebrate more easily the day of the Lord's resurrec­tion. Finally, the Instruction leaves it to the local ordinary to determine the hours for anticipated Masses.

All of these points apply to the celebration of Mass that, for the same reason, is per­mitted on the evening before a holyday of obligation.

Normally only one anticipated Mass may be celebrated in a church, and this is per­mitted only for genuine pastoral need. It is never permitted simply for convenience.

Additional Masses

Where pastoral need exists, additional celebrations of the Vigil Mass may take place prior to the Midnight Mass, and additional celebrations of the Mass at Dawn or Mass During the Day may be scheduled for December 25.

(Examples of need would be to provide Mass for a mission which is some distance from the parish church, or to alleviate overcrowding at the other Christmas Masses.)

The following questions will be helpful to pastors and liturgical committees when determining a schedule of additional Christmas Vigil Masses and/or Masses on Christmas Day.

a)  Is there a genuine pastoral need for additional Masses in this parish, or are additional Masses being considered simply for convenience?

b)  Will the multiplication of Vigil Masses diminish or obscure the importance of December 25 as the day on which the universal Church celebrates the Nativity of the Lord? Can the needs of special groups (e.g., families with young children) be met more properly within a regularly sched­uled Mass of Christmas Day?

c)  Are there sufficient liturgical ministers available for additional Masses so that a worthy celebration can take place without undermining the quality of celebration during the Midnight Mass or the regularly scheduled Masses on Christmas Day?

d)  Will the scheduling of additional Masses place an undue burden on the parish priest, or necessitate his cele­brating more than three Masses on the feast of Christmas?

Particular Diocesan Legislation

Pastors and liturgical committees are to respect any diocesan legislation concern­ing the number of Masses or the hours for Christmas Masses which have been deter­mined by the local Ordinary.

When Christmas Is Celebrated on Saturday

It is important to keep the celebration of Christmas and Sunday distinct, and to be mindful of the extra demands which are placed upon priests and other liturgical ministers when Christmas and Sunday are celebrated on consecutive days.

The following recommendations will be helpful.

a)  If possible, additional celebrations of the Vigil Mass of Christmas are to be avoided.

b)  If necessary, only one anticipated Midnight Mass should be celebrated around 10:00 p.m.

c)  The regularly scheduled Saturday evening Mass in anticipation of Sunday should be omitted altogether.

When Christmas Is Celebrated on Monday

Sunday is the original and primary feast day for the Christian people, and the heart of the liturgical year. Christmas, the cele­bration of the incarnation of the Son of God and of his birth as our Saviour, is a distinct feast. For this reason, the two cel­ebrations should be kept distinct. It is therefore recommended that no Sunday Mass be celebrated on Sunday evening, in order to avoid any confusion between the two celebrations. If possible, additional Vigil Masses for Christmas should be avoided, and if necessary, only one antici­pated Midnight Mass should be celebrated around 10:00 p.m.

Last Updated on Friday, March 05 2010  
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Canadian Centre for Ecumenism
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