"Midnight Mass" at 9 p.m.

And More on Christmas Cribs in Church

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ROME, DEC. 23, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Editor’s note: Two years ago this column mentioned that it was not liturgically correct to bring forward the Christmas «Midnight Mass» to 9 p.m. and that rather the vigil Mass should be used.

In response an Anaheim, California, reader wrote: «I understand your point about anticipating ‘Mass of Christmas’ on Christmas, but would like to make two points regarding celebrating ‘midnight Mass’ at 9 p.m. or at midnight. First, the missal does not refer to ‘Midnight Mass’; it refers to ‘Mass at Night.’ While many celebrate it at midnight, there is no requirement to do so or to limit it to midnight. Second, the rubrics permit the interchange of the readings of all four Christmas Masses (vigil, during the night, at dawn, and during the day). This considerably explains the options regarding the time and texts to be used.»

A: With respect to the readings, the General Introduction to the Lectionary, No. 95, states: «For the vigil and the three Masses of Christmas both the prophetic readings and the others have been chosen from the Roman tradition.» Our reader is correct in saying that for pastoral reasons the readings of the four Masses may be interchanged, provided that the proper order (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel) is respected. This allows a pastor to choose the most adequate readings for the specific assembly.

However, the possibility of a pastoral choice of readings does not really affect the question regarding the times for the three Christmas day Masses. And I would respectfully disagree with our reader that the «Midnight Mass» may be anticipated.

According to No. 34 of the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar:

«The Mass of the vigil of Christmas is used in the evening of 24 December, either before or after evening prayer I.

«On Christmas itself, following an ancient tradition of Rome, three Masses may be celebrated: namely, the Mass at Midnight, the Mass at Dawn, and the Mass during the Day.»

I admit that the official translation given here as «Mass at Midnight» is more of an interpretation than a literal translation of the Latin original, which more precisely says «Mass during the night.» It is a valid interpretation, however, because the night referred to is the first night (that is, early morning) of Dec. 25 and not the waning hours of Dec. 24. As the first Mass of Dec. 25, the midnight start is the earliest possible hour. Celebrating the «Mass at night» at 3 a.m. is possible but improbable.

I would accept that if the Mass were to finish after midnight, some «moving forward» of the celebration would be allowable. This even happened at the Vatican last year when the Mass exceptionally began at 11 p.m., although the Pope’s calendar for 2008 has him reverting to the midnight hour.

All this hairsplitting regarding arcane Mass formulas need not perturb our readers as they prepare to welcome the newborn Christ into their hearts and homes. The important thing is to attend any of the available Masses and allow the mystery of the Incarnation to transform our lives.

A blessed and holy Christmas to all!

* * *

Follow-up: Christmas Cribs in Church

In response to our piece on the placement of the Christmas crib (Dec. 9), several readers mentioned a norm in the Book of Blessings. One wrote:

«The Book of Blessings (1544), while allowing for the placement of the manger in the church, forbids its placement in the presbyterium. From my understanding this might not prohibit its placement in the sanctuary (such as on a side altar no longer used) but would not permit the crèche to be placed around or in front of the altar, chair, ambo or tabernacle. Would this be your understanding also?»

I would first of all point out that the rite of blessing a manger in church, and hence the accompanying rubric, is found in the English-language Book of Blessings but not the original Latin. Therefore, this norm is not universally applicable.

All the same, it is a sensible norm, and I think the interpretation offered by our reader is valid. It is best to keep the crib separate from the immediate sanctuary area so as to make it easier for private devotion and avoid possible occasion of distraction during Mass.

I do not believe that this norm would exclude the custom of placing an image of the infant Jesus in the sanctuary area. This custom is quite common in many places, including St. Peter’s Basilica where an image of the Infant is customarily placed on a stand located at ground level in front of the high altar. Besides this image, there is also a fully populated Nativity scene in another part of the basilica and the huge display in the square outside.

Speaking about the relative authority of documents, a reader commented: «In your recent response on cribs in church, you stated that ‘Although they have no legal authority outside of the United States, the U.S. bishops’ conference guidelines on church buildings Built of Living Stones makes some sensible suggestions on this topic that can be applied everywhere.’ This implies these guidelines have legal authority in the United States, but this is not the case. My understanding is that documents similar to this one were one reason the Holy See recently placed new restrictions on what bishops’ conferences can publish without proper approvals.»

I believe that our correspondent is confusing this document with its predecessor Environment and Art. The earlier document, questionable on many points, had been issued by a committee of the bishops’ conference and had never been approved by the full body of bishops. In spite of this, some liturgical experts endowed it with an authority bordering on divine revelation.

On the contrary, the year 2000 document Built of Living Stones was expressly issued to replace the earlier document with something more authoritative. It was discussed and approved by the entire bishops’ conference and reflects and incorporates many universal norms.

Because they are guidelines, and not particular law, this document did not require specific approval from the Holy See. Its norms, however, while lacking the legal weight that comes with legislation, are much more than a series of helpful suggestions that can be taken up or left aside according to taste.

The document allows for exceptions in particular circumstances. But because this class of document is backed by the bishops, their indications should generally be observed and applied in the spirit of obedience and in virtue of «sensus Ecclesiae,» which desires to do all things as the Church desires to do them.

* * *

Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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