Celebrating the Birth of Christ

The first Christmas celebration we can date is in the year 336 in Rome. Two main factors were involved in the establishment of this Christian feast:i) to replace the pagan feast of the unconquered sun god which was celebrated at the winter solstice (December 25th at that time) when the days began to lengthen again,ii) to counter the Arian heresy by celebrating the eternal Word made flesh in a practical, tangible way.
The three Masses now celebrated at Christmas developed over a period of time. The present Mass during the Day was the original papal Mass celebrated at St Peter’s from the feast’s establishment in 336. The theme of light shining in the darkness which is predominant in the readings and prayers of this Mass is appropriate for a feast celebrating the triumph of the “unconquered son” of justice.
The Mass at Dawn, or “Shepherd’s Mass”, was the second to develop and was celebrated at St Peter’s from the end of the 4th century. From around 550, however, it was replaced for a while by the Mass of St Anastasia, an Eastern martyr whose feast fell on December 25. Later the Shepherd’s Mass was restored with a simple commemoration of St Anastasia included. The latter was removed by post-Vatican II reforms of the calendar.
The Mass during the Night is the newest of the Christmas Masses. Since the middle of the 5th century Roman Christians have celebrated the liturgy “at night” (neither the old or new Latin missals specify midnight) near a replica of Bethlehem’s manger in the Basilica of St Mary Major. In fact, the original Mass seems to have been celebrated at cockcrow at the end of an all-night vigil. By this time, the theme of the feast had changed from a holistic celebration on the incarnation and manifestation of Christ to a more particular celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
When we gather for Christmas Mass as a community of faith, we leave behind the commercial hype and the vaguely religious figure of Santa Clause. We don’t come together to listen to lovely music or to watch a splendid ritual, but to meet and worship the Lord, who is God’s great gift to the world.
Next Sunday the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family. This feast emphasises the humanity of Jesus Christ: “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (Jn 1 : 14). In Jesus we see a God who stands in solidarity with us all.
A week after Christmas is the solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, the Church’s most ancient and most important festival related to Mary. It is also New Year’s Day. What liturgical New Year resolutions might we make to extend this season of peace and goodwill throughout 2002? Perhaps to become better informed about liturgy which is, after all, “the work of the people”, or to support those who prepare and lead worship in parishes by offering positive feedback rather than only criticism when something doesn’t suit us, or to enter wholeheartedly into parish liturgical celebrations by being attentive and welcoming and by singing and responding enthusiastically!
“When the Word became man,earth was joined to heaven.May he give you his peace and good will,and fellowship with all the heavenly hosts.” (Solemn Blessing, Midnight Mass)

Elizabeth Harrington