ROME, 8 DEC. 2009 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ
Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina
Q1: In my parish, they have scheduled more Masses on Christmas
Eve than on Christmas Day. Isn't it inappropriate to celebrate
more vigil Masses than Sunday Masses? Moreover, the pastor
generally selects one set of readings (of the four available for
Christmas) and uses them at every Mass. Is this proper? Mass at
7 p.m. on Dec. 24 should not use the readings and prayers for
the Mass at Midnight, and so forth. Also, is an 11 p.m. Mass
adequate to use the "Mass at Midnight"? And when exactly should
the "Mass at Dawn" be used? —
A.P., Saginaw, Michigan
Q2: In preparing for the upcoming Christmas liturgies, a pastor
chose the readings he wanted to use from the four sets of
Christmas Mass readings found in the lectionary. Is it
permissible to mix the readings from the four sets? Is it
permissible to use the first reading from the "Midnight Mass,"
the second reading from the "Mass During the Day," and then
switch back to the "Midnight Mass" for the Gospel? And would it
be permissible to use this new set of readings at the 5:30 p.m.
and 10 p.m. Christmas Eve Masses and the 10 a.m. Christmas Day
J.W., Columbus, Ohio
A: Although it is quite unusual for there to be more vigil
Masses scheduled than Masses on Sunday, there is no law that
expressly prohibits it. It would, however, be inappropriate
during Ordinary Time, since pastors should favor as much as
possible the celebration and sanctification of the Lord's Day
itself, notwithstanding the faithful's possibility of fulfilling
their obligation to attend Mass on Saturday evening.
The celebration of more Masses on Christmas Eve might be due to
the fact that most parishes celebrate the vigil Mass and the
Midnight Mass. This latter is actually the first Mass of Dec. 25
and hence not a vigil Mass.
It might also be an adaptation based on pastoral experience, for
example, if the priests recognize that the majority of
parishioners attend the vigil and Midnight Masses while
attendance is lighter on Christmas Day. In such a case, the
priests would be offering a realistic pastoral response.
While there is leeway regarding the celebration of the Mass at
Dawn, it should be celebrated fairly early while still dark or
with crepuscular light. With the exception of some Northern
Hemisphere parishes, I would say that if the Mass begins after 8
a.m. or so, the Mass During the Day should be preferred. In
other words, the Mass During the Day is used once normal
daylight is established.
Regarding readings: A rubric in the lectionary for Christmas
indicates that it is permitted to choose among the readings for
the three Masses for Christmas Day, depending on pastoral needs.
This choice must respect the proper liturgical order of: Old
Testament, psalm, epistle and Gospel.
Notably, the rubric appears in the lectionary only after the
readings of the vigil Mass and refers only to the three
Christmas Day Masses (Midnight, dawn and during the day). It
would appear, therefore, that the readings for the vigil Mass
fall outside the possibility for selection.
The pastoral choice offered for the readings does not
necessarily extend to the other liturgical formulas, and I
believe that these must be respected in accordance with the time
For the above reasons, I maintain that it is not liturgically
correct to anticipate the celebration of the formulas of
Midnight Mass to an earlier hour. At the very least, a
celebration should begin at such a time that most of the Mass
takes place after midnight.
* * *
Follow-up: Christmas Vigil Masses; Options on Readings
A deacon from Toledo, Ohio, had a question related to the topic
of Christmas readings (see Dec. 8). He asked: "Could you clarify
why the lectionary omits the last part of the Archangel
Gabriel's greeting to the Virgin Mary ('Blessed are you among
women')? The Gospel according to Luke is very clear on the
subject; as a matter of fact, both at the Annunciation and at
the Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth we see that the
archangel's last words and Elizabeth's first words of salutation
are the same: 'Blessed are you among women.' I have seen
different Bibles in Latin, Spanish, Italian and English, and
they are identical. Who authorized a translation for a
lectionary to be read at Masses which shortchanges our Blessed
Mother's unique attribute?"
The reason why the lectionary omits the angel's greeting of
"Blessed are you among women" is that, according to most modern
scholars, the angel probably never said it.
Let me explain. St. Luke's original text is no longer available.
All we have are copies from later centuries, even though some of
these copies or fragments of the text get quite close to the
time of the apostles. Many of these handwritten copies have
slight variations among them, and scriptural scholars must
decide which text is closer to the original.
The angel's greeting of "Blessed art thou among women" is one
such text. For example, the Jerusalem Bible, one of the most
authoritative Catholic Bibles, omits the clause but mentions in
the footnotes that some ancient authorities include it.
How do the exegetes decide? They usually follow a set of
practical rules such as the text's presence or absence in the
oldest manuscripts, the number of its appearances, and if a
plausible explanation for its inclusion can be found.
In the case of this clause, a plausible cause of its inclusion
was that very early on, the angel's greeting was united to
Elizabeth's as a popular prayer, a kind of proto-Hail Mary. This
popular usage likely led some copyists, perhaps unconsciously,
to add the text to the angel's greeting while copying new
versions of the Gospel; and this amended copy was the base of
still later copies.
Such a text was the Greek copy used by St. Jerome when he worked
on the Vulgate, on which almost all Catholic Bibles were based
until relatively recently. The Protestant King James version
also used such a text. Thus we have the Latin for Luke 1:28: "et
ingressus angelus ad eam dixit have gratia plena Dominus tecum
benedicta tu in mulieribus." And we have the King James text:
"And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that
art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed
art thou among women."
Modern scholars are now practically agreed on the original Greek
text of the New Testament and hence usually omit this part of
the angelic greeting. Thus the Catholic New Jerusalem Bible: "He
went in and said to her, 'Rejoice, you who enjoy God's favour!
The Lord is with you.'" And the Protestant Revised Standard:
"And he came to her and said, 'Hail, O favored one, the Lord is
The lectionaries, therefore, are not deliberately shortchanging
the text but rather are following established scriptural
Even if the angel did not say to Mary that she was blessed among
women, the Holy Spirit said so through St. Elizabeth, and that
more than justifies our greeting her every day with the same
Finally, in my previous column I reaffirmed my conviction that
the Christmas Midnight Mass should be celebrated at midnight or
as close to this time as possible. Recently it has been
announced that the Holy Father has decided to celebrate it this
year at 10 p.m.
While I stand by my reasoning insofar as I interpreted the
rubrics, it would appear that the Holy Father, as supreme
legislator in the Church, has allowed himself some flexibility.
This initiative might be for personal reasons such as his
advanced age and has not been accompanied by any formal change
in the norms. All the same, it would still appear that he
considers a late-hour celebration as sufficient for the Midnight
Mass, especially if the Mass ends after midnight as is almost
certain in the case of St. Peter's Basilica.