"Emmanuel": God is with us! - 21st December 2014

A notable feature of the Church’s celebration of Christmas is the fact that four different sets of Mass texts are provided for use. There are different Masses each with its own set of scripture readings and prayers for a Vigil Mass, Mass at Night, Mass at Dawn and Mass during the Day.

It is a pity that some parish liturgy teams and presiders decide to simplify planning and preparation by choosing just one of these four to use at all parish Masses whenever they happen, because the images in the readings and prayers of each one correspond to the time when the Mass is meant to be celebrated.

The different Christmas Masses developed over a period of time. The present Mass during the Day was the original papal Mass celebrated at St Peter’s 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. It was celebrated at St Peter’s from the end of the fourth century. For a while the Mass of St Anastasia, an Eastern martyr whose feast fell on December 25, replaced it but the Shepherd’s Mass was then 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 fifth century, Christians have celebrated the liturgy “at night” (the missal does not 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.

Over time the theme of the Christmas feast had gradually changed from a holistic celebration of the incarnation and manifestation of Christ to a more particular celebration of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

A parish music coordinator I know was criticised for scheduling “Take and Eat” instead of a Christmas carol as the Communion hymn at Christmas Masses. At Christmas, as at every liturgy, we celebrate the whole of the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s incarnation, life, passion and resurrection. Of course Christmas focuses on Christ’s birth, but not at the expense of ignoring the rest of the story.

When we gather for Christmas Mass as a community of faith, we come to meet and worship the Lord, who is God’s great gift to the world. People need to hear the real message of Christmas – that Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-with-us”, here and now in the trials and tribulations of our lives. Christmas celebrates not only the light of the star over Bethlehem, but Christ as the light of the world.

May God, who willed that the great joy of his Son’s saving Birth
be announced to shepherds by the Angel,
fill your minds with the gladness he gives
and make you heralds of his Gospel.
May God, who by the Incarnation
brought together the earthly and heavenly realm,
fill you with the gift of his peace and favour
and make you sharers with the Church in heaven. (Solemn Blessing for Christmas)

Elizabeth Harrington