Pastor’s Corner – December 21, 2014

LITURGY CORNER 16
with Fr. James

Meanings of Christmas Mass

It is well-known that the word “Christmas” derives from the phrase “Christ’s Mass.” The earliest attested use in English is “Cristes Maesse” in A.D. 1038. Since at least the year A.D. 800, three distinct Masses were celebrated in Rome on December 25th in honor of the Nativity of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Since Vatican II, with permission to celebrate vigil Masses, the number of Masses a parish might celebrate on Christmas has proliferated. Yet to this day we have different sets of readings for the Vigil Mass, the Night Mass, the Mass at Dawn, as well as for Mass during the Day. But what was the symbolism, centuries ago, for the tradition of three Christmas Masses?

St. Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologiae III.83.2) explains that one way of looking at them is as representing three nativities of Christ: the Night Mass stands for Christ’s being “born of the Father before all ages” as we say in the Creed. The Mass at Dawn speaks to us of his spiritual birth within believers, as “the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter 1:19). And the third Mass represents his physical birth into the world through Mary, the Incarnation of the Son of God.

There is also an ancient chant from the Roman Martyrology which gives a solemn proclamation of the Nativity of the Lord. It begins with creation, and situates the Nativity in time, relating to the Flood, Abraham, the Exodus, King David, and the year 752 A.U.C. (from the founding of Rome), which was the 42nd year of the reign of Caesar Augustus. In many churches today, this is still chanted just before the beginning of Midnight Mass. We plan to continue that tradition this year at our Midnight Mass. And, yes, Midnight Mass will be at midnight!

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