The Catholic Defender: Midnight Mass is very Ancient
Christmas today is challenged on many fronts, we see the onslaught of the Secularists who strive to not only take Christ out of Christmas, but to take out Christmas itself. There are also a small group of Protestant groups that challenge Christmas claiming it was founded by the Emperor Constantine and it was to them paganism.
President Trump made Christmas part of his Presidential campaign which he made the promise to defend Christianity against the tide of secularism hitting the Western World by storm.
But Christmas is shown through history, scripture, tradition, and science to be a real authentic happening taking place from the beginning of Christian roots.
Pope Telephorus is accredited with establishing the custom of celebrating the Midnight Mass (for Christmas) beginning in 125 A.D.
It is just a few more years (129 A.D.) that he began instituting songs for this Mass about angels.
It is probable that all this is true, but St. Telephorus was not the first formerly to offer Midnight Mass!
Acts 20:7 states, “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the morrow; and he prolonged his speech until midnight. There were many lights in the upper chamber where we were gathered. And a young man named Eutychus was sitting in the window. He sank into a deep sleep as Paul talked still longer; and being overcome by sleep, he fell down from the third story and was taken up dead. But Paul went down and bent over him, and embracing him said, ‘Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him. And when Paul had gone up and had broken bread and eaten, he conversed with them a long while, until daybreak, and so departed. And they took the lad away alive, and were not a little comforted”.
Here is a written record of someone falling asleep during one of St. Paul’s sermons.
God was able to show his favor with St. Paul through this as the boy fell out of a third story window.
In this case, St. Paul was going to be leaving so this was a late service.
Midnight Mass is late, but it is ushering in the day of Christmas. This tradition would branch throughout the Christian world as the Church would survive terrible persecutions.
In AD 129, Pope Telephorus said that a song called ‘Angel’s Hymn’ should be sung at a Christmas service in Rome. This tradition would take off as the people developed a universal celebration of Christmas.
Singing on Christmas Eve was symbolic of the shepherds who kept vigil over the flocks when the angels announced the good news, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
During this time, we also read the following words of Theophilus (A.D. 115-181), Catholic bishop of Caesarea in Palestine: “We ought to celebrate the birthday of Our Lord on what day soever the 25th of December shall happen.”
In the 2nd century, a massacre in the catacombs on December 25th was recorded as having occurred on the date of the Nativity.
Shortly thereafter in the second century, Saint Hippolytus (A.D. 170-240) wrote in passing that the birth of Christ occurred on December 25:
“The First Advent of our Lord in the flesh occurred when He was born in Bethlehem, was December 25th, a Wednesday, while Augustus was in his forty-second year, which is five thousand and five hundred years from Adam. He suffered in the thirty-third year, March 25th, Friday, the eighteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Actual date was April 3, 33 A.D. which is very close), while Rufus and Roubellion were Consuls.”
Music would become very important in the Mass. By the fourth century a Greek religious, St. Cecilia is regarded as the patroness of music, because she heard heavenly music in her heart when she was married, and is represented in art with an organ or organ-pipes in her hand. 397 A.D. The hymns of St Ambrose began to inspire many.
In Bethlehem, the early Christians would celebrate Midnight Mass carrying torches to the site believed to be where Christ was born. By 313 A.D. the Early Christians built a Church over the site of where Jesus was born, Constantine was by this time a Christian.
With Constantine’s “Edict of Milan”, the people in Jerusalem built the Church of the Nativity over the traditional site of Christ’s birth in about 326 A.D. Today, there are a number of other Christmas Masses offered earlier on Saturday, mostly for children, and Mass on Christmas day are celebrated all over the world.
379 A.D. The preaching of Saints such as St. Gregory Nazianzus spoke of Christmas continuing the tradition of December 25.
Saint Augustine confirms the tradition of March 25 as the Messianic conception and December 25 as His birth:
“For Christ is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”
Soon several orchestras and choirs were drawing large crowds in the cities enhancing the popularity of Christmas Carols. Christmas carols were very popular at Midnight Mass along with the candlelight services.
At times because of war and plagues, Christmas caroling slowed down, at other times, it was most popular. Today, I hope that we can renew the interest in Christmas caroling in society as different groups try to keep alive the Christmas spirit.
Lord, in this holy season of prayer and song and laughter, we praise you for the great wonders you have sent us: for shining star and angel’s song, for infant’s cry in lowly manger. We praise you for the Word made flesh in a little Child. We behold his glory, and are bathed in its radiance.
Be with us as we sing the ironies of Christmas, the incomprehensible comprehended, the poetry made hard fact, the helpless Babe who cracks the world asunder.
We kneel before you shepherds, innkeepers, wise-men. Help us to rise bigger than we are. Amen.
By the 4th century it was becoming universal as December 25th became solidified.
Some placed emphasis on January 6 because this is the Feast of the Epiphany or “manifestation” and so the Eastern Lung of the Church has this strong tradition.
In 567 A.D. the Council of Tours established the Seasons of Advent and Christmas adding these seasons into the Church calendar.
The Christmas Season runs from December 25th through 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, the Wise men.
In 1223 St. Francis began setting up Nativity plays throughout Italy and through the singing of these plays, the people began to spread this devotion to France, Spain, Germany and throughout Europe.
Christmas caroling would grow as people of good will everywhere wanted to share the Christmas story in song.
My Mother would take me to Midnight Mass when I was young and so this was instilled in me very early as a family tradition.
I took my family to Midnight Mass all their growing up years as well. What a great blessing it was celebrating Midnight Mass in Saudi Arabia.
I look back at that time remembering the candles, the Humvee’s, the desert uniforms, the outdoors under the bright stars touching the hearts with Christmas.
Over the years many traditions and customs developed in the many Countries around the world that reflect the ushering in the Christmas story.