When is Midnight Mass not Midnight Mass? No, not when it’s at another time. Rather, when it’s called “the Mass of the Angel.” (Which can be at a different time other than midnight.)
Many people may not have noticed it, but, like Easter, Christmas has several different Masses. (For Christmas, there are three — or four, if you count the Vigil Mass on Dec. 24.) They are the Mass at Midnight, the Mass at Dawn and the Mass during the Day.
Easter was, of course, the first feast to be celebrated and that celebration is why we have Mass on Sundays all year long, to honor the Resurrection. However, other feasts developed as the church spread and grew. One of these was the feast of the Nativity of Christ, which was not formally celebrated until about the fourth century — the year was 336, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. The Catholic Encyclopedia, however, only lists that it started in the fourth century and does not list a specific year. It also cites earlier references dating to the year 200, when the Nativity feast was marked in spring.
The Catholic Encyclopedia also notes that the Gelasaian Sacramentary of the eighth century (and named for Pope Gelasius I) listed three Masses for Christmas. These were the three Masses noted above. The encyclopedia also quotes St. Thomas Aquinas as saying that these three Masses served to remind us of Christ’s triple birth: “in eternity, in time and in the soul.”
For about 500 years, starting in the sixth century, the pope celebrated three Masses on Christmas. The first would be held in the grotto, built by Sixtus III to resemble the grotto in Bethlehem, at the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The second was at the Basilica of Sant’Anastasia in the Palatine, originally called “the Anastasis” and built to replicate the tomb of Christ in Jerusalem (also called the Anastasis). The final Mass was held at the Basilica of St. Peter. The pope today celebrates Christmas Eve Mass at St. Peter’s.
It was only later that the three Christmas Day Masses received the names of the Angel’s Mass, the Shepherds’ Mass and the King’s Mass.
The reasons for each can be found in the Scripture readings that are used for each of the three Masses.
- The first Mass of Christmas, the Mass during the Night, is the Angel’s Mass. This is the Mass that has the longest history, marking, by tradition, the hour when Jesus was born. The Gospel comes from Luke (2:1-14) and is the announcement of the birth of Christ to the shepherds: “’Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’ And then the choirs of angels appear with the first angel and praising God.”
- The second Mass of Christmas is the Mass at Dawn, also called the Shepherds’ Mass. Here, the same Gospel of Luke continues, with the shepherds deciding to see what the angel had announced to them and traveling to Bethlehem (Lk 2:15-20). They returned home, like the angels, “glorifying and praising God.”
- The final Mass is the Mass during the Day, which is called the King’s Mass. The first reading, from Isaiah (52:7-20), promises Zion, “Your God is King!” The Gospel switches from Luke to the majestic beginning of John’s Gospel (1:1-18): “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The Mass that so many of us are familiar with on Christmas Eve, which parishes sometimes call “the Children’s Mass” because many families attend this “early in the evening” liturgy, is a recent addition to the church calendar. While it is still technically Christmas Eve, the Christmas Mass at Night readings — traditionally used at Midnight Mass — are used for this Mass.
If you were to attend the true Vigil Mass for Christmas, which is a Mass in anticipation of the great feast of Christmas, you would hear for the Gospel the genealogy of Christ, according to Matthew (1:1-25).
This is famously known — from the Protestant Bible translation — as “the begats.” The Catholic translations refer to each individual as the one who “became the father of…” The list starts with Abraham and ends with “Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.” The same Gospel continues to the story of Joseph’s dream, when an angel tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife and that “you are to name him Jesus.”
In a way, this Christmas Vigil Mass could also be called an “Angel’s Mass because God’s messenger arrived on the scene as Joseph slept.
A final tradition comes to us from Hispanic roots. In this, the Mass at Midnight is known as the Misa de Gallo, or the Rooster’s Mass. The tradition holds that, when Christ was born at midnight, a rooster crowed. Perhaps this foreshadows the events of Holy Week, when the rooster crows — as Jesus predicted — as Peter denies him.
Just like midnight usually is, this time of denial was a dark time for followers of Christ. But the light of Christ shone through even that darkness. As the Gospel for the Christmas Mass during the Day — the King’s Mass — says, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Christmas Masses give us so many images and events to reflect upon that the story is ever new every year.