Gloria in Excelsis Deo: What to Know about the Different Christmas Masses
As one of the principal christian feasts, Christmas has many popular traditions and customs. Celebrating the birth of the Son of God, his becoming man for us, has been important to christians for centuries. The feast of Christmas therefore also has some unique liturgical elements that set it apart from the other feast days in the year. Among these is the tradition of celebrating three different Masses on Christmas.
To understand this custom, let us go back in time to the celebration of Christmas in early medieval Rome, perhaps about the year 900. The pope’s ceremonies for the celebration form the model which was adopted into the liturgical books of Rome. From there, the practice of the three Masses was taken up in the entire western Church.
On December 24, Christmas Eve, the people were preparing for the great feast by fasting and abstinence from meat. As on vigils, the daily Mass would be postponed until midafternoon, after the celebration of nones (one of the hours of the Divine Office, about 3pm). The final rites of advent were thus complete.
The feast of Christmas began with First Vespers, around sunset. After these joyful chants hand ended, Christians returned home for a meal, to break their fast. The pope and the people gathered again in the night, perhaps around 10 or 11pm. They went to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, which held the relics of the crib of Christ from Bethlehem. Then a long service would begin–the Church’s nightly vigil of prayer called matins. Many psalms and readings were sung. At midnight, the hour for Christ’s birth was finally here. The pope celebrated the first Mass of Christmas, the Mass of the Night.
After this, the pope would visit the church of St. Anastasia. St. Anastasia was a martyr killed in Diocletian's persecution on December 25. She was very popular to the Roman people in the early church, so her feast day was kept with solemnity. After the feast of Christmas rose in importance, the pope would still celebrate Mass at her church in Rome at dawn on December 25. This is the origin of the dawn Mass of Christmas, our second Mass. While it may have originally been in honor of St. Anastasia, soon it became another Mass in honor of Christmas, and later liturgical books only retained a prayer commemorating the saint.
Finally, at midmorning, the third Mass was celebrated by the Pope at St. Peter’s Basilica. This Mass took place at the usual time for Mass on feasts, at terce. Thus on this holy day, the pope would have to celebrate three very solemn Masses in around 12 hours!
This custom has survived through the centuries to the present day. In the present Missal, three different sets of texts are provided for the three Masses of Christmas, along with a rubric that all priests may celebrate three times this day, rather than the usual single Mass.
If you attend the Midnight Mass this year, you will hear the reading from the prophet Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom a light has shone.” The Gospel is taken from St. Luke. It is the story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem and the angels announcing this to the shepherds, singing Glory to God in the highest!
The second Mass contains the Gospel reading from St. Luke which follows, recalling how the Shepherds went to see this newborn child with Mary and Joseph. It mentions too how they began to spread the word of the Lord’s birth among the people, and Mary “kept these things in her heart.” As the sun rises, we celebrate the appearance of the Sun of Justice, our Jesus.
The third Mass recalls how Jesus is the Eternal Son of the Father, and how is reigns in Glory over all peoples. The Gospel is taken from the beginning of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”
Now, as with many liturgical facts, subsequent spiritual significances have been attributed to these three Masses over time.
One pious interpretation views the three Masses representing the three comings of Christ which we are preparing for in advent. The midnight Mass, literally at the time of Christ’s nativity, is the hidden coming of Christ in time in Bethlehem. The dawn Mass, partially light and partially hidden, is the quiet coming of Christ in our hearts. And the day Mass, which speaks of the Glory of the Son of God, points toward the coming of Christ to judge the living and the dead.
Another interpretation, spoken of by St. Thomas Aquinas (this tradition was universal by the 1200s), is that the Masses signify the three “births” of Our Lord. For Jesus Christ is born eternally from the Father, in time in Bethlehem, and finally he is born in our hearts. St. Thomas cited the entrance antiphons as giving the themes of each of these Masses, and these are still used today.
At the midnight Mass, the Church sings “The Lord said to me: you are my Son. it is I who have begotten you this day,” signifying his being begotten of the Father. At dawn, it is, “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us; and he will be called wondrous God, prince of peace, Father of future ages: and his reign will be without end.” This is the birth of Christ in our own souls. And finally the day Mass signifies Christ’s historical birth with the chant, “A child is born for us, and a son is given to us; his scepter of power rests upon his shoulder, and his name will be called Messenger of great counsel.”
One final interpretation would state that the three Masses signify the three great ages of the world, the time before the Law was given to Moses, the period under the Law, and the current period under Christ’s Law of Grace. Thus, the darkness gives way to light as we proceed from the night Mass, to the dawn Mass, to the daytime Mass, just as the human race was gradually enlightened by the revelation of God.
It is the final, definitive revelation of God, Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas. Christ came for us, taking on our flesh and being born of woman, in order to glorify God and save us. As we worship him and ask him to be born in our hearts, let us join the Church in offering a sacrifice to his name today.