The custom is centuries old and highlights different aspects of the Nativity story.
In the Roman Catholic Church, however, that is only the beginning. The liturgy provides not only a Mass on Christmas Eve night, but also one at dawn and also during the day, each having different readings and prayers.
Why is that? Isn’t one Mass enough?
Historically this tradition of three different Masses goes back at least to the 6th century. One of the reasons for celebrating these separate Masses was to emphasize different parts of the Nativity story. (Note: a Christmas Eve Mass, celebrated in the early evening hours, was not a widespread practice until recently.)
Various traditions place the birth of Jesus at midnight and so the first Mass celebrated for centuries was at midnight. It is sometimes called the “Angel’s Mass,” recalling the announcement of the angels to the shepherds, proclaiming that Jesus Christ was born.
The Collect (opening prayer) for this Mass highlights the contrast between the darkness of night and the light of Christ.
O God, who have made this most sacred night radiant with the splendor of the true light, grant, we pray, that we, who have known the mysteries of his light on earth, may also delight in his gladness in heaven. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Following the Nativity narrative, after the announcement of the angels, the shepherds travel in haste to find the newborn Messiah. This Mass is celebrated at dawn and the readings highlight the shepherd’s role in proclaiming the good news of Christ’s birth.
The Collect again focuses on the light that has come to earth as the sun rises at dawn.
Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, as we are bathed in the new radiance of your incarnate Word, the light of faith, which illumines our minds, may also shine through in our deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Celebrated during the day, this Christmas Mass rejoices in the coming of Jesus and invites all to worship the King of Kings, looking forward to the coming of the Magi at Epiphany.
The Collect focuses on the profound mystery of the Incarnation.
O God, who wonderfully created the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant, we pray, that we may share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever
Read more: When was the first Christmas?
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