The Catholic Defender: Midnight Mass of Christmas
Before Midnight Mass begins, there is a special proclamation that dramatically sets the stage for Jesus' birth.
In the Catholic Church, it Mid-night Mass begins with a special proclamation of Jesus’ birth at Christmas Midnight Mass. The proclamation summarizes salvation history by placing Jesus’ birth in the context of various historical events.
The proclamation begins with the creation of the world and then gradually goes through many biblical events before it explains the Roman world into which Jesus was born.
The text for his proclamation is from the Roman Martyrology, which is the Roman Rite’s official catalogue of liturgical dates and celebrations. The Church has used a martyrology since at least the 4th century and it has expanded every year to include new saints and feasts.
Here is the latest English translation of the proclamation, which can be used as a beautiful Christmas meditation, reflecting on the reality of Christ’s birth and where it was situated in the history of the world.
The Twenty-fifth Day of December,when ages beyond number had run their coursefrom the creation of the world,when God in the beginning created heaven and earth,and formed man in his own likeness;when century upon century had passedsince the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood,as a sign of covenant and peace;in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith,came out of Ur of the Chaldees;in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Mosesin the Exodus from Egypt;around the thousandth year since David was anointed King;in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel;in the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;in the year seven hundred and fifty-twosince the foundation of the City of Rome;in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus,the whole world being at peace,
JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence,was conceived by the Holy Spirit,and when nine months had passed since his conception,was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah,and was made man:The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.
The tradition of midnight Mass appears to have started in Jerusalem, where a European Christian woman named Egeria spent three years and said she saw Christians there take part in a midnight vigil every year to honor the birth of Jesus on the Dec. 25
Pope Telephorus is accredited with establishing the custom of celebrating the Midnight Mass (for Christmas) beginning in 125 A.D.
By the twelfth century, the practice of midnight Mass had become more widespread as all priests had been granted the faculty of celebrating three Masses on Christmas Day (previously reserved to the Pope), provided the three different propers were celebrated at their appropriate times of midnight, dawn and day.
traditionally celebrated Midnight Mass with church services beginning at midnight. Since 2009 the Vatican has conducted a liturgically similar Christmas Eve Mass earlier in the day, first at 10:00 pm, designated a Mass during the Night, then subsequently earlier in the evening.
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.
Jesus was born in Bethlehem at night and the church celebrates Mass at Midnight to honor the very hour He was born. Midnight Mass is also known as the Angel’s Mass recalling the announcement of the Angel to the Shepherds proclaiming the birth of Jesus.
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.