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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.

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