Midnight Mass and 9 p.m.

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Midnight Massat 9 p.m.

ROME, 23 DEC. 2008 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Editor's note: Two years ago this column mentioned that it was not liturgically correct to bring forward the Christmas "Midnight Mass" to 9 p.m. and that rather the vigil Mass should be used.

In response an Anaheim, California, reader wrote: "I understand your point about anticipating 'Mass of Christmas' on Christmas, but would like to make two points regarding celebrating 'midnight Mass' at 9 p.m. or at midnight. First, the missal does not refer to 'Midnight Mass'; it refers to 'Mass at Night.' While many celebrate it at midnight, there is no requirement to do so or to limit it to midnight. Second, the rubrics permit the interchange of the readings of all four Christmas Masses (vigil, during the night, at dawn, and during the day). This considerably explains the options regarding the time and texts to be used."

A: With respect to the readings, the General Introduction to the Lectionary, No. 95, states: "For the vigil and the three Masses of Christmas both the prophetic readings and the others have been chosen from the Roman tradition." Our reader is correct in saying that for pastoral reasons the readings of the four Masses may be interchanged, provided that the proper order (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel) is respected. This allows a pastor to choose the most adequate readings for the specific assembly.

However, the possibility of a pastoral choice of readings does not really affect the question regarding the times for the three Christmas day Masses. And I would respectfully disagree with our reader that the "Midnight Mass" may be anticipated.

According to No. 34 of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar:

"The Mass of the vigil of Christmas is used in the evening of 24 December, either before or after evening prayer I.

"On Christmas itself, following an ancient tradition of Rome, three Masses may be celebrated: namely, the Mass at Midnight, the Mass at Dawn, and the Mass during the Day."

I admit that the official translation given here as "Mass at Midnight" is more of an interpretation than a literal translation of the Latin original, which more precisely says "Mass during the night." It is a valid interpretation, however, because the night referred to is the first night (that is, early morning) of Dec. 25 and not the waning hours of Dec. 24. As the first Mass of Dec. 25, the midnight start is the earliest possible hour. Celebrating the "Mass at night" at 3 a.m. is possible but improbable.

I would accept that if the Mass were to finish after midnight, some "moving forward" of the celebration would be allowable. This even happened at the Vatican last year when the Mass exceptionally began at 11 p.m., although the Pope's calendar for 2008 has him reverting to the midnight hour.

All this hairsplitting regarding arcane Mass formulas need not perturb our readers as they prepare to welcome the newborn Christ into their hearts and homes. The important thing is to attend any of the available Masses and allow the mystery of the Incarnation to transform our lives.

A blessed and holy Christmas to all!

* * *

Follow-up: "Midnight Mass" at 9 p.m. [1-13-2009]

Pursuant to our comments on Christmas Midnight Mass (see Dec. 23), an Eastern Catholic priest who is bi-ritual in the Roman rite asked the following question:

"On Christmas Day, as I was celebrating Mass in a Roman-rite parish, I wanted to use Eucharistic Prayer 4 because it lays out so majestically the whole plan of salvation vis-à-vis the Anaphora of St. Basil the Great in the Eastern Churches. However, I was not aware that it had its own Preface until I turned to it. Since I had already prayed the Christmas Preface, I decided I should not use Prayer 4. Would I have been wrong to have done so?"

Father was correct in refraining from using Eucharistic Prayer 4 and precisely because it has an invariable preface that forms a unity with the rest of the anaphora.

This beautiful prayer is theologically and structurally modeled on Eastern anaphoras, such as that of St. Basil. But it is stylistically and literarily more akin to traditional Latin prayer formulas although with a clear biblical background.

Because of its special structure and invariable preface it may not be used on feasts which have an obligatory preface of their own, such as Christmas and other solemnities, Sundays of the major liturgical seasons, and the fifth week of Lent.

It may be used when an assigned preface is not obligatory, such as on weekdays and Sundays of ordinary time; whenever a seasonal preface (rather than a preface of the day) is to be used; or for votive Masses. For example, Eucharistic Prayer 4 may not be used on Pentecost or the feast of Corpus Christi, but it may be used for a votive Mass of the Holy Spirit or of the Holy Eucharist even though the rubrics indicate the use of proper prefaces. In the case of votive Masses the use of the proper preface is not obligatory.

The most suitable Eucharistic Prayer to use on Christmas Day is the Roman Canon (No. 1). This ancient prayer has a traditional specific formula for this day that may be used every day of the Christmas octave.

While some bishops' conferences have composed special Christmas formulas for Eucharistic Prayers 2 and 3, they do not quite match the beauty of the traditional insertion.

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