ROME, 19 DEC. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara,
professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: When, where and why did the practice of Midnight Mass begin?
F.S., Columbus, Ohio
A: Like many liturgical practices the origin of the three Christmas
Masses (midnight, dawn and during the day) is not totally certain.
Christmas as a liturgical feast falling on Dec. 25 originated at Rome,
in or around the year 330. It is very likely that the feast was first
celebrated in the newly completed basilica of St. Peter.
From Rome the celebration of Christmas then slowly spread eastward and
little by little was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the
principal Churches. Some of these Churches had celebrated Christ's birth
on Jan. 6 and they have continued to give more importance to this date
even after accepting Dec. 25.
During this period the Church at Jerusalem had established some
Egeria, a woman who made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land from 381 to
384, described how the Christians of Jerusalem commemorated the
Christmas mystery on Jan. 6 with a midnight vigil at Bethlehem, followed
by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem arriving at dawn to the Church
of the Resurrection (Anastasis in Greek).
Fifty years later at Rome, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) decided to honor
the proclamation of Mary's divine maternity at the Council of Ephesus
(431) by building the great basilica of St. Mary Major on the Esquiline
Among other elements Sixtus III built a chapel that reproduced the cave
of Bethlehem. (The relics of the Crib, still found today in St. Mary
Major's, were not placed in this chapel until the seventh century.)
Sixtus III, probably inspired by the custom of the midnight vigil held
in Jerusalem, instituted the practice of a midnight Mass in this
In Rome the custom already existed of commemorating important feasts
with two distinct offices, one held at night and the other toward dawn.
It is easy to see how the simple feast initiated by Sixtus III at St.
Mary Major's increased in importance and developed. The first
development was that the oldest Christmas office, which was sung at St.
Peter's, began to be also held at St. Mary Major's.
A further development occurred around 550. The Pope, and some members of
the curia, celebrated a second Mass sometime before dawn at the Church
of St. Anastasia.
At the beginning this happened because St. Anastasia's feast day also
fell on Dec. 25 and had nothing to do with Christmas. Later however,
probably inspired by the practice of the dawn Mass in the Church of the
Resurrection in Jerusalem, and coupled with the similarity of the name
Anastasia, this celebration was transformed into a second Christmas
After this almost-private Mass, the Pope would go directly to St.
Peter's where a large assembly of faithful awaited the solemn dawn
office of Christmas. This custom continued at least until the time of
Pope Gregory VII (died 1085).
Initially the privilege of three celebrations at Christmas was reserved
to the Pope. The first evidence we have of a single priest celebrating
the three Masses is from the Monastery of Cluny before the year 1156.
All priests may still avail of this privilege and celebrate three Masses
on Christmas Day providing they respect the proper hours. The first Mass
is celebrated at Midnight (the vigil Mass of Dec. 24 does not count as
the first of the three Masses), the second at dawn and the third at some
time during the day. ZE06121925
* * *
Follow-up: 3 Masses on Christmas [1-9-2007]
After our column on Christmas Masses (Dec. 19) a reader from Singapore
asked: "In my archdiocese, the practice has become widespread that
parishes would celebrate two Christmas 'midnight' Masses: once earlier
in the evening of Dec. 24 around 9 p.m., and another at midnight. Is
this good liturgical practice?"
Since the missal provides a vigil Mass to be celebrated on the evening
of Dec. 24 it makes little sense to anticipate the formulas and readings
of Midnight Mass which presume that Christmas day has already begun.
The rubric for the vigil Mass clearly states that it is celebrated in
the afternoon of Dec. 24, before or after Evening Prayer I of Christmas.
The Midnight Mass by its very name starts around midnight.
The slight differences in focus can be seen for example by the entrance
The vigil Mass says: "Today you will know that the Lord is coming to
save us, and in the morning you will see his glory."
Midnight Mass goes: "Good News and great joy to all the world, today is
born our Savior, Christ the Lord."
As assisting at either Mass fulfills the Christmas obligation, and both
Masses have exactly the same external elements, differing only in
formulas and readings, it is not good practice to anticipate the
formulas of Midnight Mass to an earlier hour. ZE07010928
* * *
Follow-up: Christmastide Custom [1-16-2007]
As a conclusion to our several columns on Christmas themes (see Dec.
19), I would like to share with our readers the practice of a Sydney,
Australia, parish led by the Conventual Franciscans.
This initiative, described by a reader, might be of help in other
countries as well:
"On the feast of the Holy Innocents, the parish celebrated with the
faithful, the annual Mass of the Holy Innocents. The main celebrant of
the Mass was the Most Reverend Anthony Fisher, O.P, episcopal vicar for
life and health for the Archdiocese of Sydney. The Mass is held annually
on this date, for the reparation of the sin of abortion and sanctity of
"Within the friary grounds, the Conventual Franciscan friars have
established a Shrine for the Unborn. For the past 12 years, every month
the faithful have gathered here for a Mass dedicated to the reparation
of the sin of abortion and the sanctity of human life. This is preceded
with 14 hours of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament." ZE07011628