Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The symbolism of Midnight Mass

Perhaps my biggest pet peeve about the secularization of Christmas is the substitution of Santa's appearance for the birth of Christ. This eloquent description reiterates the importance of Midnight Mass (and is shamelessly lifted from my parish's December 12 bulletin).

Christmas, the Easter Vigil and Easter Mass, and Pentecost are three of the greatest feasts in the liturgical year. However, I would raise the question – Do we do justice liturgically to these great celebrations of our redemption? In Holy Week we have the Sacred Triduum to celebrate – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. One could argue the greatest moment in the liturgy of the Sacred Triduum is the Easter Vigil which culminates at midnight with the celebration of the Easter Eucharist. But how many of our parishioners attend the Easter Vigil and Midnight Mass. The answer is: very few. Admittedly we do anticipate the Vigil (in a truncated way) by pushing up the beginning of the celebration to 8 o’clock in the evening. But then again, not as many are in attendance as there are on Good Friday; and on Good Friday, there are not as many parishioners at worship as there are on Holy Thursday.

Then there is the question of Christmas. Parents and little children love to attend the Vigil Mass at 4 o’clock on Christmas Eve. That is wonderful and all who attend enjoy the celebration of the Eucharist very much. Many others over and above parents and children also attend the 4 o’clock Christmas Eve Mass and that brings our total attendance for that Mass over the 500 mark. But how many attend the Midnight Mass? The answer, once again, is “very few”.

I know elderly folks cannot get to Midnight Mass, those who are ill cannot get to Midnight Mass. It seems to me, however, that many younger and healthier persons could do so, and were they to do so, they would be echoing a two millennium tradition more or less of greeting the Savior’s birthday the moment it begins.

Perhaps the reader is thinking my column this week is more of a commercial, and to some extent it is, but I thought it might be good to indicate some of the riches of the Midnight Mass as found in the prayers and readings that are traditional for that Mass. Listen to what we say in our Opening Prayer at Midnight Mass: “Father, you make this holy night radiant with the splendor of Jesus Christ our light. We welcome him as Lord, the true light of the world. Bring us to eternal joy in the kingdom of heaven, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” The first reading is from the Book of Isaiah, who is the great prophet of Advent and Christmas. He seems to think of all the people in the world walking in darkness, but now at midnight seeing a great light. Isaiah has already told us that our God will come to save us. At midnight, Isaiah tells us “For a child is born to us, a son is given to us; upon his shoulders, dominion rests. They name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace.” Isaiah, of course, knew nothing of the Lord Jesus except that someone would come to take over David’s throne and David’s kingdom, and would bring judgment and justice to the world.

In the second reading, the lector has proclaimed with great enthusiasm what St. Paul had written to his colleague Titus: “The grace of God has appeared saving all, and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live temperately, justly and devoutly in this age, as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.” The Lord Jesus is, indeed, the great gift of God, he’s our blessed hope, he’s our only hope. Only He can claim for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good. It is thrilling to hear these words at the Midnight Mass of Christmas.

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