Q: When, where and why did the practice of Midnight Mass begin? -- F.S., Columbus, Ohio
A: Like many liturgical practices the origin of the three Christmas Masses (midnight, dawn and during the day) is not totally certain.
Christmas as a liturgical feast falling on Dec. 25 originated at Rome, in or around the year 330. It is very likely that the feast was first celebrated in the newly completed basilica of St. Peter.
From Rome the celebration of Christmas then slowly spread eastward and little by little was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the principal Churches. Some of these Churches had celebrated Christ's birth on Jan. 6 and they have continued to give more importance to this date even after accepting Dec. 25.
During this period the Church at Jerusalem had established some particular customs.
Egeria, a woman who made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land from 381 to 384, described how the Christians of Jerusalem commemorated the Christmas mystery on Jan. 6 with a midnight vigil at Bethlehem, followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem arriving at dawn to the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis in Greek).
Fifty years later at Rome, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) decided to honor the proclamation of Mary's divine maternity at the Council of Ephesus (431) by building the great basilica of St. Mary Major on the Esquiline hill.
Among other elements Sixtus III built a chapel that reproduced the cave of Bethlehem. (The relics of the Crib, still found today in St. Mary Major's, were not placed in this chapel until the seventh century.) Sixtus III, probably inspired by the custom of the midnight vigil held in Jerusalem, instituted the practice of a midnight Mass in this grotto-like oratory.
In Rome the custom already existed of commemorating important feasts with two distinct offices, one held at night and the other toward dawn. It is easy to see how the simple feast initiated by Sixtus III at St. Mary Major's increased in importance and developed. The first development was that the oldest Christmas office, which was sung at St. Peter's, began to be also held at St. Mary Major's.
A further development occurred around 550. The Pope, and some members of the curia, celebrated a second Mass sometime before dawn at the Church of St. Anastasia.
At the beginning this happened because St. Anastasia's feast day also fell on Dec. 25 and had nothing to do with Christmas. Later however, probably inspired by the practice of the dawn Mass in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and coupled with the similarity of the name Anastasia, this celebration was transformed into a second Christmas Mass.
After this almost-private Mass, the Pope would go directly to St. Peter's where a large assembly of faithful awaited the solemn dawn office of Christmas. This custom continued at least until the time of Pope Gregory VII (died 1085).
Initially the privilege of three celebrations at Christmas was reserved to the Pope. The first evidence we have of a single priest celebrating the three Masses is from the Monastery of Cluny before the year 1156.
All priests may still avail of this privilege and celebrate three Masses on Christmas Day providing they respect the proper hours. The first Mass is celebrated at Midnight (the vigil Mass of Dec. 24 does not count as the first of the three Masses), the second at dawn and the third at some time during the day.
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Follow-up: Substituting the Creed
Our response on omitting or substituting the creed (Dec. 5) generated a surprisingly heavy correspondence which requires us to further nuance our earlier reply.
Regarding the omission of the creed, a priest pointed out that the Ritual for the Christian Initiation of Adults does offer the possibility of omitting the creed when the Scrutinies are celebrated with the Elect on the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent (No. 156), to wit:
"When the Eucharist is to follow, intercessory prayer is resumed with the usual general intercessions for the needs of the Church and the needs of the whole world; then, if required, the profession of faith is said. But for pastoral reasons these general intercessions and the profession of faith may be omitted. The liturgy of the Eucharist then begins as usual with the preparation of the gifts. …"
A similar option also occurs in some other moments such as the "Sending of the Catechumens for Election" which occurs in the parish church when the Rite of Election will occur with the bishop at the cathedral (see No. 117 RCIA).
In this case we are before a possibility that is to be used if and when there are good pastoral reasons for doing so. The correctness of this possibility should always be explained to the faithful so as avoid confusion when the creed is omitted.
A reader in Biloxi, Mississippi, asked if the creed may be omitted whenever an Advent wreath or Nativity scene is blessed during Mass. The Book of Blessings, the reader wrote, "mentions that the blessing takes place on the First Sunday of Advent (BB 1509), and the Order of Blessing During Mass first mentions the homily (1517), then says (in 1518), 'The general intercessions follow.' No mention is made of the Profession of Faith."
The examples come from that part of the Book of Blessings which does not form part of the Latin original but are approved supplements for the United States. Unlike the case of the Scrutinies, where the possibility of omitting the creed is explicitly mentioned, the absence of any indication here is perhaps a case of a rubrical oversight.
Since the creed is not normally left out, even on solemn occasions such as priestly ordinations, it would seem strange that a humble blessing of an Advent wreath should occasion its omission.
With respect to substituting the creed with the renewal of baptismal promises on Easter Sunday, one reader correctly pointed out that it was not a universal practice. Rather, it was an adaptation which the Holy See approved for the United States and may have approved for some other bishops' conferences as well.
It was also pointed out that Pope John Paul II sometimes substituted the renewal of promises for the creed at World Youth Day Masses.
That approval by the Holy See, or a personal initiative of the Pope who is the supreme legislator, is required for such a change would indicate that a priest should not presume to introduce it into the liturgy on his own initiative. This also applies even when the change would appear appropriate, such as for the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
For such occasions, as another correspondent noted, the rite of blessing and sprinkling with holy water at the beginning of Mass (which also recalls baptism) may be profitably used.
It is certainly true that the baptismal promises are just another form of profession of faith. But the Church has good pastoral reasons for reserving the renewal of baptismal promises to specific times and situations and requiring that the habitual form of profession of faith be the recitation of the creed.
All the same, if the occasion warrants it, the rite of renewal of baptismal promises may be used with the creed or on days where the creed is not required. Such occasions could be pilgrimages or the conclusion of retreats and spiritual exercises.
This brings us to the topic of using either the Nicene or the Apostles' Creed on a Sunday. An acute reader pointed out: "You wrote […]: 'According to the new Latin missal the Apostles' Creed may be used during Lent, Easter and at Masses for Children. Some countries have received permission to use the Apostles' Creed every Sunday."
I believe it is an option in every country, every Sunday. The rubric is: "19. Loco symboli nicaeno-constantinopolitani, praesertim tempore Quadragesimae et tempore paschali, adhiberi potest symbolum baptismale Ecclesiae Romanae sic dictum Apostolorum" (Missale Romanum, Page 513). The meaning of "praesertim" is "especially, particularly."
The rubric could be rendered thus: "The Roman Church's baptismal creed, the so-called Apostles' Creed, may be used in place of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, especially in Lent and Eastertide."
Our interlocutor is correct that under this formulation the Apostles' Creed could be recited every Sunday and the Nicene Creed left aside.
Yet, I believe that if such an interpretation were widely applied it would go against the legislator's intention and would impoverish the richness of the liturgy.
Through this rubric the Church expresses a desire that both creeds should be known and used by all the faithful. The Nicene Creed would remain that of common use while the Apostles' Creed would also be used on occasion. The mention of this latter creed's primarily catechetical origin as a baptismal symbol is an indicator of why it is proposed especially for Lent and Easter.
Used in this way, the advantages of both creeds could be brought to the fore. The concise Apostles' Creed can be used to express the essential tenets of the faith in the context of baptism and the baptismal commitment.
The more theological Nicene Creed affords an opportunity to deepen into these essential elements and into the mystery of Christ and of our salvation.
It must also be remembered that historically it was the Nicene Creed that was first introduced into the Eucharistic liturgy. And this was not originally done to recall baptism but rather to express the fullness of the faith in Jesus Christ. Likewise, it is this creed, and not that of the apostles, that is liturgically recited by practically all forms of Christianity.
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