Every year, it comes upon a midnight clear or a midnight snowy in Alaska. For at least the last 1,600 years, Catholics around the world have been venturing to church in the middle of a dark December night to celebrate the birth of Christ. The Christmas Midnight Mass is a unique liturgy honoring the Infant Savior — the everlasting Light that brightened the dark streets of little Bethlehem and all of human history.
FROM STABLE TO RESURRECTION
The custom of the Christmas Midnight Mass in the first dark hours of the day can be traced to an ancient practice of Christians in the land where Christ was born. On Jan. 6, they gathered for a midnight vigil at Bethlehem, and then processed by torchlight to Jerusalem where at dawn they arrived at the Church of the Resurrection (or “Anastasis” in the original Greek).
By the late 300s, the Christmas feast was held across the universal church on December 25 — and according to ancient texts for church liturgies, three Masses were designated to mark the occasion — at midnight, dawn and day — mirroring the custom in the Holy Land. In Rome, the Midnight Mass took place at St. Mary Major, whose grotto-like oratory evoked the Bethlehem stable in which Jesus was born (relics of his manger crib are still enshrined at the church). And the pope celebrated the dawn Mass at St. Anastasia’s Church, built to reproduce the Anastasis basilica in Jerusalem.
THREE MYSTERIES OF CHRISTMAS
The Christmas Midnight Mass calls to mind the first of three mysteries of the Incarnation — the Word Made Flesh, God Made Man. According to Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Midnight Mass marks the moment when God the Son is “begotten” by God the Father. In his “Summa Theologica,” the saint explains this is the mystery of Jesus’ “eternal birth” which is “hidden in our regard.” The second Mass marks Jesus’ “nativity in time, and the spiritual birth, whereby Christ rises ‘as the day-star in our hearts,’” he notes. And the third Mass honors Christ’s “temporal and bodily birth.”
As each Mass accentuates a different aspect of the Incarnation, there are different Scripture readings, prayers and hymns. Still, since Christ was literally born during the night, Saint Thomas Aquinas notes, the Gospel of Christ’s “nativity in the flesh” is read at the Midnight Mass, too.
THE MIDNIGHT MIRACLE
Out of the solemn stillness of the nighttime world — and at the conclusion of four weeks of Advent — the faithful enter Catholic churches replete with symbols showing how Jesus “came to the darknesses of our infirmity,” as Saint Thomas explains. Churches are vibrant with candlelight, evergreens that are ever green, plants in flower and a crèche scene whose miniature manger is now filled with a figurine of the Baby Jesus.
The popular custom of installing a crèche, a representation of Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem, is tied to the Christmas Midnight Mass. In 1223, Saint Francis of Assisi visited Rome and explained to the pope plans of building a model of the Nativity scene, and the pope approved. Later on Christmas Eve, Saint Francis constructed a crib and placed around it figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph, the stable animals and the shepherds. At the Midnight Mass, he served as a deacon. At the words of the Gospel, “and they laid him in a manger,” Saint Francis knelt and meditated on the Incarnation. Then, as Saint Thomas explains, “there appeared in his arms a child surrounded by a brilliant light.”
The crèche can be a valuable illustration of the reality of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In “How to Make Your House a Home,” Franciscan Father Bernard Stokes urges parents to “show the children the Infant Jesus in the Nativity scene in church and remind them that, although the infant in the crib is only a statue, Jesus is really present up on the altar (and in their hearts).”
Attending any of the Christmas Masses — vigil, midnight, dawn or day — will fulfill the Christmas Mass obligation. For Mass times, call your local parish.