24 December 2010

How eager are you?

Sometimes people wonder why I am not especially fond of vigil Masses (the Vigil of Easter excepted). Father Raymond de Souza does a good job explaining some of why I don't prefer them, using the example of the vigil of Christmas.

Consider this, with my emphases and comments:

The Church has four Masses for Christmas – the vigil, Mass at midnight, Mass at dawn [I've never been to a Mass at Dawn; going to Mass at Midnight makes this a little tricky: I need my sleep] and Mass during the day. The readings begin with the human origins of Jesus in Matthew's genealogy (vigil), the account of the birth and the angels (midnight), the visit of the shepherds (dawn) and finally the divine origins of the newborn baby, taken from the magnificent prologue of John's Gospel (day).

The typical parish gets little of this. Some years ago at the 5 p.m. Mass on Christmas Eve (about which more later), I did use Matthew's genealogy – to universal complaint. The people wanted the nativity story. So the usual thing found in most parishes today is several vigil Masses on Christmas Eve, none of which use the vigil readings, and all of which are absolutely jam-packed [I use the readings appropriate to the time of day]. There is often no Mass at midnight, and a solitary Mass on Christmas morning, usually poorly attended [this is sadly true; the majority of people seem to want to get Mass "out of the way" so they can focus on presents in the morning].

How we arrived at this position is curious. Many priests consider the vigil Masses – especially the early ones before 7 p.m., sometimes as early as 4 p.m.! – to be pastoral failures, with large congregations but a certain chaotic, distracted quality [while this isn't true of everyone who attends a vigil Mass, there is a certain truth to it across the board]. Pastors know when the Church's liturgy clearly points to the midnight Mass as the high point of the Christmas liturgy, there is something awry with singing "Adeste Fidelis" at 5 p.m.
This is why I love Midnight Mass at Christmas:

Midnight Mass is the ultimate sign that we are adjusting our lives to fit Christmas. In the whole year – sacred or profane – no other event begins at midnight. For no other reason do we head out in the middle of the night. In the heart of the night, in the heart of the darkest season, in the heart of the winter bleakness, Catholics gather because they have seen a great light. It is the Christmas tradition par excellence.

Why toss it away for greater convenience? Just as the introduction of Saturday evening Masses have made Sunday less central as the Lord's Day, so too the multiplication of Masses on Christmas Eve have stripped Christmas Day of its significance. Christmas Day begins at midnight, and Mass at that hour indicates that the Catholic people are so eager for Christmas that they want to wait not one minute longer than necessary.
Patience? Who needs patience?

I encourage you to read Fr. de Souza's text but, in case you don't, here is his conclusion:

Catholics frequently complain about the secularization of Christmas. There is little we can do about that, but to the extent that we have an alternative to offer, it means becoming more Catholic not less.


  1. Elaine5:29 AM

    "In the whole year -- sacred or profane -- no other event begins at midnight."

    Not to change the holiday subject here, but ideally, shouldn't the Easter Vigil also begin at midnight or in the wee hours of the morning? Of course nearly all Catholic churches have it mid-evening, around 8 p.m. (but before the shift to Daylight Time, it used to be around 7 p.m.)

    I once attended a Greek Orthodox Pascha (Easter) service that began at 11 p.m. and lasted until 3 a.m. and was followed by a sit-down "agape" dinner. I LOVED it. It was reverent and wonderful and also great fun. I remember there were even several young couples in formal dress who joined the service in progress and stayed for dinner -- they were high schoolers coming from their prom! And I remember thinking at the time "Now this is the way the Catholic Church should be doing it."

  2. Ideally, yes.

    The Easter Vigil cannot begin before nightfull and must conclude before dawn.