Today is the Vigil of the Nativity of the Lord, popularly known as Christmas Eve. Tonight when those of us who do so celebrate Vespers, or Evening Prayer, the Church says that the solemnity of Christmas officially begins. Advent comes to an end as we enter into our celebration of the Nativity of the Lord. Some parishes will celebrate Masses as early as four o’ clock this afternoon. Many of the parishes in our diocese will have at least one of the Masses tonight dedicated to children for obvious reasons, because our youngest parishioners may not be able to make it through that late Mass.
Speaking of the late Mass, what used to be called the Midnight Mass has generated no small amount of recent chatter on Facebook and the internet in the Catholic blogosphere because of a story in The Tablet which points out that the liturgy which used to be known as Midnight Mass is being celebrated less and less at midnight, more parishes are celebrating it earlier, and the Roman Missal no longer calls it “Mass at Midnight,” but it is simply “Mass at Night.” Deacon Greg Kandra shared the story as part of a post on his blog The Deacon’s Bench a few days back. Some of the discussion came from people who were glad that the traditional Christmas night Mass had been moved to earlier times. Others, as the story circulated about, lamented the death of an old tradition. Some said that everything was giving way to people’s “convenience.” As a matter of personal opinion, I do think there is some truth to that. The “late” Mass at my own parish is to be celebrated tonight at 9 pm, the earliest such liturgy that I have ever heard of. Even the Pope isn’t having Mass tonight until 9:30. Yes, as I have said on this blog before, my more traditionalist instincts lead me to the belief that the Christmas Mass wherein the Gospel According to Luke is traditionally read ought to be celebrated at…midnight.
However, the many people who seem to have gotten excited to share their opinion on the internet about when Christmas liturgies ought to be celebrated (those who favor the traditional Midnight Mass seem to be quite vocal, and some are filled with much verve), may be missing a much larger and more important point. When Mass is celebrated for the Nativity of the Lord is far less important than making sure that people come to Holy Mass on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. If I might be so bold as to paraphrase something my pastor, Father Patrick Brownell, said a few weeks ago, we hear people say “keep Christ in Christmas,” and that is true enough. But the word Christmas is a medieval English term, and it denotes the day the Mass of Christ’s birth is celebrated…the CHRIST MASS. So if we are going to “keep Christ in Christmas,” the only way we can really do that is to keep the Mass in Christmas, indeed to keep the Mass at the very center of our Christmas celebration. That brings me to the real point of today’s reflection…
Tonight or tomorrow in many of our parishes around the Diocese of Knoxville, or wherever you are from as you read this, we will see many new or unfamiliar faces. Some of these people, of course, are travelling and are passing through as they spend Christmas with their families and friends. Others have been away from the Church for a long time and, as it is Christmas, maybe they just feel that tug to go to Mass tonight or tomorrow. If you see a new person you don’t recognize at Mass this year, greet them during the sign of peace or at the conclusion of Mass. Just say hello to them. Perhaps they’ll come back next week…and then the next, and again, when the allure of the pretty carols and the beautiful decorations goes away as the liturgical season changes. There is another group of people in our part of the country who may find their way into Holy Mass this evening or tomorrow morning, a great number of people who are not Catholic at all. Some of these folks come from another Christian faith background, but they know that when they come and celebrate with us, they are going to get a whole lot of Christmas and a whole lot of Jesus. Unlike some ecclesial communities, we will be worshiping even if Christmas falls on a Sunday. Some are impressed with the way that the Lord’s Nativity is celebrated in the Catholic Church, and so they will be joining us to be a part of it.
Then there is another group of folks we might encounter tonight and tomorrow. Some might come to Mass with a friend or a family member, or perhaps they just stopped in because it is Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. These are people who are what we might today call “unchurched” people, or those who do not know Christ. There might even be someone you encounter tonight who will be hearing the Gospel for the very first time. Perhaps there will be someone there who, when they hear the priest say the Words of Institution, they will be hearing what Jesus Christ did for them in a way that no one had ever before explained:
On the day before he was to suffer, he took bread in his holy and venerable hands, and with eyes raised to heaven to you, O God, his almighty Father, giving you thanks, he said the blessing,
broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, saying:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND EAT OF IT,
FOR THIS IS MY BODY,
WHICH WILL BE GIVEN UP FOR YOU.
In a similar way, when supper was ended, he took this precious chalice in his holy and venerable hands,
and once more giving you thanks, he said the blessing and gave the chalice to his disciples, saying:
TAKE THIS, ALL OF YOU, AND DRINK FROM IT,
FOR THIS IS THE CHALICE OF MY BLOOD,
THE BLOOD OF THE NEW AND ETERNAL COVENANT,
WHICH WILL BE POURED OUT FOR YOU AND FOR MANY
FOR THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS.
DO THIS IN MEMORY OF ME.
The purpose of celebrating Christmas is to celebrate that Jesus Christ, God from God and Light from Light, was born to give his life that we may have forgiveness of sins and victory over death. Tonight and tomorrow, you just might encounter some people who have never heard that, or never listened to it, before.
Christ is coming to our parishes this Christmas, he comes in the old and the young, in the newcomer and the long-time parishioner. He comes in the people who come to us not even knowing him, but who really long for an encounter with the Christ Child. Let us make him welcome.