Christmas Vigil Masses; Options on Readings

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Christmas Vigil Masses; Options on Readings

ROME, 8 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university. Q1: In my parish, they have scheduled more Masses on Christmas Eve than on Christmas Day. Isn't it inappropriate to celebrate more vigil Masses than Sunday Masses? Moreover, the pastor generally selects one set of readings (of the four available for Christmas) and uses them at every Mass. Is this proper? Mass at 7 p.m. on Dec. 24 should not use the readings and prayers for the Mass at Midnight, and so forth. Also, is an 11 p.m. Mass adequate to use the "Mass at Midnight"? And when exactly should the "Mass at Dawn" be used? — A.P., Saginaw, Michigan

Q2: In preparing for the upcoming Christmas liturgies, a pastor chose the readings he wanted to use from the four sets of Christmas Mass readings found in the lectionary. Is it permissible to mix the readings from the four sets? Is it permissible to use the first reading from the "Midnight Mass," the second reading from the "Mass During the Day," and then switch back to the "Midnight Mass" for the Gospel? And would it be permissible to use this new set of readings at the 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Masses and the 10 a.m. Christmas Day Mass? — J.W., Columbus, Ohio

A: Although it is quite unusual for there to be more vigil Masses scheduled than Masses on Sunday, there is no law that expressly prohibits it. It would, however, be inappropriate during Ordinary Time, since pastors should favor as much as possible the celebration and sanctification of the Lord's Day itself, notwithstanding the faithful's possibility of fulfilling their obligation to attend Mass on Saturday evening.

The celebration of more Masses on Christmas Eve might be due to the fact that most parishes celebrate the vigil Mass and the Midnight Mass. This latter is actually the first Mass of Dec. 25 and hence not a vigil Mass.

It might also be an adaptation based on pastoral experience, for example, if the priests recognize that the majority of parishioners attend the vigil and Midnight Masses while attendance is lighter on Christmas Day. In such a case, the priests would be offering a realistic pastoral response.

While there is leeway regarding the celebration of the Mass at Dawn, it should be celebrated fairly early while still dark or with crepuscular light. With the exception of some Northern Hemisphere parishes, I would say that if the Mass begins after 8 a.m. or so, the Mass During the Day should be preferred. In other words, the Mass During the Day is used once normal daylight is established.

Regarding readings: A rubric in the lectionary for Christmas indicates that it is permitted to choose among the readings for the three Masses for Christmas Day, depending on pastoral needs. This choice must respect the proper liturgical order of: Old Testament, psalm, epistle and Gospel.

Notably, the rubric appears in the lectionary only after the readings of the vigil Mass and refers only to the three Christmas Day Masses (Midnight, dawn and during the day). It would appear, therefore, that the readings for the vigil Mass fall outside the possibility for selection.

The pastoral choice offered for the readings does not necessarily extend to the other liturgical formulas, and I believe that these must be respected in accordance with the time of celebration.

For the above reasons, I maintain that it is not liturgically correct to anticipate the celebration of the formulas of Midnight Mass to an earlier hour. At the very least, a celebration should begin at such a time that most of the Mass takes place after midnight.

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Follow-up: Christmas Vigil Masses; Options on Readings [12-22-2009]

A deacon from Toledo, Ohio, had a question related to the topic of Christmas readings (see Dec. 8). He asked: "Could you clarify why the lectionary omits the last part of the Archangel Gabriel's greeting to the Virgin Mary ('Blessed are you among women')? The Gospel according to Luke is very clear on the subject; as a matter of fact, both at the Annunciation and at the Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth we see that the archangel's last words and Elizabeth's first words of salutation are the same: 'Blessed are you among women.' I have seen different Bibles in Latin, Spanish, Italian and English, and they are identical. Who authorized a translation for a lectionary to be read at Masses which shortchanges our Blessed Mother's unique attribute?"

The reason why the lectionary omits the angel's greeting of "Blessed are you among women" is that, according to most modern scholars, the angel probably never said it.

Let me explain. St. Luke's original text is no longer available. All we have are copies from later centuries, even though some of these copies or fragments of the text get quite close to the time of the apostles. Many of these handwritten copies have slight variations among them, and scriptural scholars must decide which text is closer to the original.

The angel's greeting of "Blessed art thou among women" is one such text. For example, the Jerusalem Bible, one of the most authoritative Catholic Bibles, omits the clause but mentions in the footnotes that some ancient authorities include it.

How do the exegetes decide? They usually follow a set of practical rules such as the text's presence or absence in the oldest manuscripts, the number of its appearances, and if a plausible explanation for its inclusion can be found.

In the case of this clause, a plausible cause of its inclusion was that very early on, the angel's greeting was united to Elizabeth's as a popular prayer, a kind of proto-Hail Mary. This popular usage likely led some copyists, perhaps unconsciously, to add the text to the angel's greeting while copying new versions of the Gospel; and this amended copy was the base of still later copies.

Such a text was the Greek copy used by St. Jerome when he worked on the Vulgate, on which almost all Catholic Bibles were based until relatively recently. The Protestant King James version also used such a text. Thus we have the Latin for Luke 1:28: "et ingressus angelus ad eam dixit have gratia plena Dominus tecum benedicta tu in mulieribus." And we have the King James text: "And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women."

Modern scholars are now practically agreed on the original Greek text of the New Testament and hence usually omit this part of the angelic greeting. Thus the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible: "He went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour! The Lord is with you.'" And the Protestant Revised Standard: "And he came to her and said, 'Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!'"

The lectionaries, therefore, are not deliberately shortchanging the text but rather are following established scriptural versions.

Even if the angel did not say to Mary that she was blessed among women, the Holy Spirit said so through St. Elizabeth, and that more than justifies our greeting her every day with the same words.

Finally, in my previous column I reaffirmed my conviction that the Christmas Midnight Mass should be celebrated at midnight or as close to this time as possible. Recently it has been announced that the Holy Father has decided to celebrate it this year at 10 p.m.

While I stand by my reasoning insofar as I interpreted the rubrics, it would appear that the Holy Father, as supreme legislator in the Church, has allowed himself some flexibility.

This initiative might be for personal reasons such as his advanced age and has not been accompanied by any formal change in the norms. All the same, it would still appear that he considers a late-hour celebration as sufficient for the Midnight Mass, especially if the Mass ends after midnight as is almost certain in the case of St. Peter's Basilica.

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