Will you go to Midnight Mass this Christmas Eve? Now, let me ask you another question: Are you planning to go to Midnight Mass this Christmas Eve? How are those two questions different? The first asks, “Will you show up at Midnight Mass?” The second asks, “Will you go to Midnight Mass prepared?”
Many people show up at Midnight Mass for many different reasons. I wonder if they might be more likely to be positively changed after Mass if they altered the way they came to Mass, that is, if they came to Mass prepared. (Notice how I avoided speaking of people “getting more out of Mass”—that unfortunate phrase is another topic for another time.)
What do I mean by preparing for Midnight Mass? Of course, you can and should review the Scripture readings of Mass beforehand. The readings for the Midnight Mass may be found here. That’s a good way to start, but it is only a fraction of what needs to be done.
Part of your preparation for Midnight Mass (after reviewing the Scriptures) is to take note of the desires that the Scriptures stir in you. Then, resolve to ask God for what you desire. Throughout his Spiritual Exercises, Saint Ignatius Loyola states in his meditations, “Here I ask for what I desire …” If the readings for the Mass stir in in you a longing for joy or wonder or gratitude—then resolve to call upon God at Mass and ask for joy or wonder or gratitude. It seems an obvious point, but you’d be surprised by how many overlook it. To enter into prayer with grace-filled, grace-inspired desires is to enter into prayer expecting to meet a living God Who cares about the longing of your heart. In prayer, we approach the loving Father of Jesus, not a vague notion of an indifferent Celestial-Bureaucrat.
Now comes the really hard part of preparing for Midnight Mass—and this will immediately reveal whether your preparations for Mass are founded upon the rock of real resolution or are made up of wisps of wishful thinking: GO TO MASS EARLY.
Yes, I know that it can be a logistical nightmare to get to Midnight Mass early, especially if the weather is inclement or you are making the venture in the company of young children. But if you are serious about giving God every opportunity at Midnight Mass to love you into lasting change, then you must make the effort to arrive at least half an hour before Mass starts. Why?
An early arrival is necessary not just to “get a seat” at an especially crowded Mass (preceded by the struggle find a place to park before walking into the church). An early arrival is necessary not just to take off hats and gloves and other winter gear. An early arrival is necessary because of the intimate and insistent link between body and soul, which, by the way, is one of the reasons we celebrate Christmas.
For a much more detailed (and glorious) account of recollecting and composing yourself before Mass, please read Romano Guardini’s profound yet simple, Meditations Before Mass. For now, I will just note that nowadays we are in an especially distracted, scattered, overstimulated and anxious culture. We make it much harder to cooperate with God’s grace at Mass if we crash into a crowded pew moments before the opening hymn, with our nerves jangled, our minds racing and our hearts pounding. Coming to Mass early allows us to slow ourselves down, filter our inner noise, and put our restlessness on a short leash. Even to say that, however, is not enough.
If we come to Mass early, we are declaring to God, “You are worth my time.” It’s a double irony, isn’t it? First, we offer the eternal and timeless God our time. (Yet time is a great gift, when it is offered by one who knows that eventually he will die.) It’s also an irony because we must give to God the one thing we hoard like misers and that we spend like drunkards, and that is our time. People who spend countless hours looking at cute photos of ugly cats on the internet begrudge God an extra 30 minutes once a year.
“Ok, Father. I prayerfully review the Mass readings beforehand. I identify in advance the graces that I desire—graces for which I will ask God at Mass. I arrive at the church 30 minutes before Mass. I still myself, catch my breath, quiet my mind and heart. And then?”
Start by being amazed: “Good Lord! I’m here! Alive! At Midnight Mass! I can practice my faith! Throughout the world, so many Christians risk danger and death just for being Christian—and here I am. Lord, why have You so provided for me? And what is a worthy response to this amazing grace?”
Continue by being contrite: “Oh, dear God! Before Your throne, in the presence of Your Eucharistic Son, in the stillness you have given me here—now I can see and smell the awful stains of my sin. Into the mess of human life, a mess to which I have contributed more than my fair share, into this mess of human life, You have decided to enter and to dwell. I have known this for so long, yet I have ignored this amazing truth. You offered human life a dignity and destiny beyond what the Pagans could imagine and beyond what the Moderns could comprehend, and by my sin I rejected the great Gift-of-Yourself.”
Then turn to thanksgiving: “My loving Savior! Yours is a most stubborn love! By your compassionate Cross You prove that You would rather go through Hell for me than go to Heaven without me. You decided that sin and death should not own and destroy the world our Father made. As You became one of us, now You call me to be one with You. Thank you!”
Conclude with supplication: “Almighty and glorious God! My loving Father! With the boldness of a child, I ask you now for what I desire. I ask for joy—the delight of being in the presence of the beloved. As Mary and Joseph found joy in the Christ Child, so too may I find joy as I behold Your Christ given for me. I ask for healing—that the wounds and weakness that come from sin may be replaced by the beauty and goodness that come only from grace. And I ask for hope—the security of trust in Your fidelity. Just as You were faithful in sending Your Son to us as a Child, may I find security in Your promise that He will return in glory to perfect His saving work.”
This year, do more than just go to Midnight Mass. Plan to go to Midnight Mass, and give God every chance to bless you as He blesses all those who offer Him their time and their trust.
When I write next, I will reflect on the ending of one year and the start of the next. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.