Traditionally there have been three different masses at Christmas. Each of the Masses was designed to take place at a different time of the night or day. And each of them was related to light as an image of Christ’s coming into the world.
The first of the three Masses is the Mass at midnight. This is designed to be celebrated in the darkness of midnight – a time when people are not usually awake. It emphasised the uniqueness of the coming of Christ by having it at such a time. And significantly the people in true Advent fashion waited and stayed awake for his coming in that Eucharist. This Mass highlighted Christ as the light coming into the darkness. The gospel of this Mass was the account of the birth of Jesus from St Luke’s Gospel.
The second Mass is the Mass at dawn. The imagery of light continues in this Mass but now the emphasis is on the dawning of the light which banishes the darkness and lets us see the world in its true colour and reality. Christ is deliberately compared to what happens at dawn each day. The gospel for this Mass is that of the shepherds going to Bethlehem to see this child. Again it comes from St Luke’s Gospel.
The third Mass is Mass during the Day. In it Christ is compared to the sun having ascended into the sky in its full brightness. Again the sun is seen as an image of Christ whose light shines and illumines the world. The gospel of this Mass is the glorious first part of St John’s gospel in which the wonder of the incarnation is set forth by St John in a prologue to his whole gospel.
The succession of these images is itself an image of the history of Christ’s coming into the world: his presence entered the world but his presence and penetration of the world is quite incomplete. We have not yet come to what is imaged in the third Mass – his shining presence throughout our world. This is the reason for our continuing to celebrate Advent each year: we are still waiting for what is imaged in that third Mass.
But of course normally we all go to only one Mass at Christmas. It is probably only in monasteries that all three Masses are still celebrated. Likewise, at whatever time we celebrate Mass, we use the passage of the Gospel of St Luke recounting the birth of Jesus as this is the gospel we need to hear on the feast.
Since the reform of the liturgy following Vatican II, there has been a fourth Mass added that of the Vigil. It uses the gospel of the birth of Jesus from St Matthew’s Gospel which gives us the long lead up to his birth in the old testament – his genealogy – and the story of his birth is told through Joseph rather than Mary. In parishes we will generally find that it is the texts for the Mass at midnight that are used for this Mass for the reason that the gospel of the birth of Jesus be heard.
May we all celebrate a Happy and Holy Christmas.
By Fr Frank O’Loughlin
Image: Gerard van Honthorst – Adoration of the Shepherds (1622) (wikicommons)