O Come Emmanuel: The Four Masses of Christmas


By Hung Pham

While most liturgical celebrations have one Mass, certain solemnities may have two different Masses: a Vigil Mass and a Mass for the Day.  However, the celebration of Christmas is unique.  For the Nativity of the Lord, the Church gives us four different Masses to celebrate: the Vigil Mass and the three traditional Masses of Christmas Day – Mass during the Night, Mass at Dawn, and Mass during the Day.

While each of the Masses celebrate the birth of Christ, they have different readings and prayers assigned to them which emphasize a different aspect of the Nativity and lead us on a journey from the waiting of Advent to the joy of Christmas.

The Vigil Mass: Joyful Anticipation

We are still in a time of waiting and anticipation, which is clear in the Entrance Antiphon: “Today you will know that the Lord will come, and he will save us, and in the morning you will see his glory.” We are moving out of Advent into the joy of Christmas, still somewhat waiting in joyful anticipation. This is also reflected at the beginning of Mass in the Collect as we pray: “O God, who gladden us year by year as we wait in hope for our redemption, grant that, just as we joyfully welcome your Only Begotten Son as our Redeemer, we may also merit to face him confidently when he comes again as our Judge.”

In the Gospel for this Mass, we hear not about the actual event of the birth of Christ, but the same Gospel readings that we read a week prior in Advent.  They recall the genealogy of Jesus and one of the events that led up to his birth. One last time, the Gospel reading is preparing us for the impending birth of the Lord.

Mass during the Night: Hearing the Good News

While the Roman Missal titles this as simply Mass during the Night, most Catholics will know this as the Midnight Mass. Here we go from the anticipation of the birth of the Lord found in the Vigil Mass to celebrating the actual birth of Christ. We begin with the Entrance Antiphon telling us: “Let us all rejoice in the Lord, for our Savior has been born in the world. Today true peace has come down to us from heaven.” Celebrated at night, the time at which Jesus was born, the Collect contrasts the darkness of the night to the Light of Christ: “O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of true light, grant we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven.”

It is also during this Mass that we hear the well-known story of Christmas in the Gospel from Luke, with the angels making known the birth of the Lord to the shepherds announcing, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.” For this reason, this Mass is also known as the Angel’s Mass.

Mass at Dawn: Basking in the Light of the Son

At dawn, we begin with acknowledging the Light of Christ in the Entrance Antiphon proclaiming, “Today a light will shine upon us, for the Lord is born for us.” At this Mass, we pray in the Collect: “Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illuminates our minds, may also shine through our deeds.” 

We highlight the parallel between Jesus and the dawning sun. As the sun rises and illuminates the world, Jesus’ birth brings illumination to our thoughts and actions.

The Gospel reading for this Mass continues the story from the previous Mass. After having listened to the announcement from the angel, the shepherds hasten to find Mary and Joseph and to worship the Christ Child. In turn, just as the angel made known the birth of Christ to them, the shepherds make him known to others. The focus here is on the role of the shepherds in proclaiming the goods news of Christ’s birth, which is why this Mass is sometimes known as the Shepherd’s Mass.

Mass during the Day: Contemplating the Mystery of the Incarnation

The last Mass of Christmas occurs during the full light of day. With our minds now illuminated by the Light of Christ, our focus now shifts to the mystery of the Incarnation and to Divine Generation. The Entrance Antiphon proclaims” “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.” At the Collect we pray: “O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Christ was born for us, so that we may share in his divine majesty. This theme is emphasized in the Gospel of this Mass, where we shift from the narrative of the birth of Jesus found in Luke to the prologue of the Gospel of 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.”

This child that we have waited in anticipation for, that the angels announced, and that the shepherds made known to others, is the Word, who is God, made flesh. To we who accept him, he gives power to “become the Children of God.”  This child born for us has made us children of the Father.  As we enter into the Christmas Season, let us contemplate the Incarnation through the lens of the Christmas Masses, and come to recognize the wonder of being a child of God. 

Hung Pham is the Director of Liturgy for the Archdiocese of Denver.

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!