Even if the celebration of many Masses on the same Sunday may be an ordinary experience for many parish priests too often, Christmas, with its three distinct Mass settings for three different times of the day, remains a unique liturgical occasion.
In the middle of the night, a great light surrounds the shepherds “watching over their flock” (Luke 2:8-14). Hymns of praise fill the air: Gloria in excelsis Deo! The Saviour is announced: He is “Christ the Lord” in the shape of “a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”. The paradox of the Incarnation shines forth as a star in the night: the Lord is in the manger; this Babe is our Saviour; God is made flesh.
The Midnight Mass begins with the Gregorian Chant introit: “Dominus dixit ad me… The Lord said to me: You are my Son. It is I who have begotten you this day.” (Psalm 2:7). A childlike melody, perfectly simple and fittingly subdued – as if attuned to the silence of the sacred night – plunges us into an eternal dialogue. The divine Babe points to His Father. The night of Christmas is enlightened with the revelation of the Holy Trinity, not as an abstract dogma, but under the sweet appearance of the Holy Child whose origin is eternal.
The priest lifts up the Host and our faith adores the Son of God.
No night will be shut off from the light evermore. Our humanity is cared for at the very heart of the most sublime mystery of the Triune God.
At dawn, the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem where they find “Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger”. The little ones, the despised and outcast, have been given eyes to see the light and hearts to adore Christ. The “Wondrous God, Prince of Peace, Father of future ages”, of whom the introit Lux fulgebit sings with Isaiah’s words, shines over the world at this early hour of the day.
Between the first morning of the creation, when all was new, and the morning of the Resurrection, when all is renewed, Christmas keeps the secret of the morning when divine newness appears in our world. This is nothing other than the unutterable gift of God’s real presence among us. Here He is: God with man; God with us: Emmanuel! Here He is: in the Holy Host on the altar, totally given for us, totally present with us.
No daybreak will ever find us lonely.
In the full light of day, the Child who “unto us is born” (introit Puer natus est nobis, after Isaiah 9:5), “comes forth like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and like a strong man runs his course with joy” (Psalm 19:5). In the middle of His course, at His midday, the Son pitches His tent among us: “The Word was made flesh and he dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Gospel, taken from the Prologue of John, moves from the beginning, when “the Word was with God, and the Word was God”, to the end, when the “only Son […] is in the bosom of the Father”.
Christmas Day stands in the centre of all time. The moment when eternity enters time is the moment when time reaches its fullness. The world is opened up to divine grace from within by God now dwelling in it. The children of God are born anew. Christ’s humble and powerful light penetrates the hearts of all believers who communicate with the Bread of Life offered on the Eucharistic table of the mystical Bethlehem, the Church, the true “house of the bread”. Not a region in the world, not a single heart, is excluded from the invitation of divine Love. Communion with God is the horizon of life.
On Christmas Day, beginning at midnight – which is why a Midnight Mass should ideally not be celebrated before this symbolic hour – the Church offers Mass three times. In a wonderful exchange, Christ comes to us on the altar from the heights of the Father who sent Him into the world, and Christ reaches to the Father from the depths of our humanity which He made fully His own.
At midnight, at dawn, in the day, Christ’s mystery shines. Christ sanctifies all times and all places by His presence. He opens the riches of God’s Mercy to all hearts. There cannot be an apter expression of gratitude than the threefold offering of Eucharistic thanksgiving which Mother Church presents us with on Christmas Day.
Dom Xavier Perrin OSB is the abbot of Quarr Abbey