the Roman Church (whose liturgy we follow) took over a custom originally observed by the Christians of Jerusalem.
They used to go to Bethlehem, there to celebrate Mass in the grotto of the Nativity at what was believed to be the very hour of Our Lord's birth. Then they came back to Jerusalem at dawn, which they thought was the hour of Our Lord's Resurrection, and went to the Church of the "Anastasis" (Resurrection) for a second Mass.
Later, when the whole city was up and about. they had a third Mass with special solemnities in another church.
Now Rome has the very Crib wherein Christ was laid; it was preserved in the Church of St. Mary Major; and so Midnight Mass was celebrated there.
Rome also had a church dedicated to the Resurrection. It is now called St. Anastasia's but formerly was "of the Anastasis." Here was celebrated the Dawn Mass.
Finally the Day Mass was celebrated at St. Peter's, the greatest of all Roman churches. But in the 12th century the Popes, then living at the Lateran, found St. Peter's rather far away. and • transferred the Day Mass to the high altar of St. Mary Major's. That is why the "Stations" given in the missal for the three Christmas Masses are "The Crib, at St. Mary Major's," "at St. Anastasia's" and "at St. Mary Major's."
THE liturgy of the three Masses can be regarded from several aspects. St. Thomas Aquinas saw them as celebrations of the Triple Birth of Christ—in Eternity, in Time and in Our Souls. But they may be unified if we regard them as a progressive manifestation of Christ the Light of the World_ Each Mass is filled with references to "light," and the thought of "manifestation" is in place because the very feast of Christmas is a derivative from the feast of the Epiphany ("Showing forth"). The fact is that the Epiphany was celebrated in both East and West long before Christmas was kept at all, and though popular piety puts Christmas into the first place, it is Epiphany which has officially the higher rank. Take out your missal now and follow the rest of this article with its help. Then we can hope that some of these thoughts will come back to your mind when you are actually taking part in the Masses of the feast, FR Midnight Mass we ather in a spirit of expectation; we are longing for the Coming of the Lord. And the Introit reminds us that He whom we await is "dwelling in light inaccessible," for He is none other than the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. "Thou art my Son . . . I have begotten Thee this day." But His Light is about to break forth from eternity into time; and we pray that "God who has made this sacred night to glow with the radiance of the true light" will "grant that we may share to the full in heaven the joys of that Light whom we know sacramentally on moth." St. Paul, who first knew Him in the blinding light that struck him to earth on the way to Damascus, now assures us that "the grace of God, our Saviour. has dawned on all men"; and he exhorts us "to look forward, blessed in our hope, to the day when there will be a new dawn of glory of the great God, the glory of our Saviour, Jesus Christ." Then comes the "good news of great rejoicing"—that the Light has begun to shine even in this world; He is with His mother, who has wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. At first He is seen by her alone; the shepherds, like ourselves, are still in the darkness of the night. But an overflow of His heavenly light is granted to them (and to us in our hearts) by the appearance of the angel. "The glory of the Lord shone about them," and they learned that the "Light inaccessible" bad now become accessible to them; they would find Him lying in a manger. He is accessible to us now sacramentally, as we recalled in the Collect. So, in the spirit of the Offertory, "glad to greet the Lord's coming," we put outhelves into the gifts on the altar and say in the Secret prayer: "Accept, Lord, this day's festal offering, and in Thy gracious bounty grant that through this interchange of sacred gifts we may grow like Him in Whom our human nature is made one with Thine!" What a wonderful prayer! We are qualified to offer our Mass only because in Baptism we were given a share in the Priesthood of Christ. Our baptismal grace is a "participation of the divine nature." As the Secret says, "in Him our human nature is made one with Thine." Thus we may dare to propose that "interchange of sacred gifts" which the Mass actually is; for we shall offer to God sacramentally His Incarnate Son, and then God will bestow on us sacramentally, in Communion, that "same Jesus Christ our Lord" as a return gift. We who have been "born again" will receive into our hearts that True Light who "amid the splendour of the holy places" was "born before the day-star rises" (Communion). Thus we may enter personally into the mystery of His birth.
IN the Dawn Mass the Great Light is manifested still further. "This day shall a light shine upon us," begins the Introit. The Light will be shown not only to His mother but to us also, since "for our sakes a child is born." So we pray in the Collect that "we who are bathed in the new light of Thy Incarnate Word may show forth in our deeds the light that by faith shines in our hearts." The Epistle gives us the motives that "the kindness of God, our Saviour, has dawned upon us . . . in accordance with His merciful design He saved us, with the cleansing power which gives us new birth and restores our nature through the Holy Spirit." Indeed, as the Gradual bids us to reflect, "This is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes." "The Lord is God and He has given us His light." So, in company with the shepherds, we approach the manger; we "see for ourselves this happening which the Lord has made known to .us."
With sentiments of a dor a tio n, gratitude and love we offer our gifts, and pray that "As this day's newborn human child shone WO the brightness of the Godhead, se may the earthly substance of this offering bring the divine within our reach" (Secret). That, in fact, is precisely what Our Lord has come to do for us; we can never, of ourselves, reach the divine; but through Him we can do so. Because "through the mystery of the Word made flesh divine splendour has shone before our mind's eye with a new radiance; and through Him Whom we recognise as God made visible we are carried away in love of things invisible" (Preface).
WHEN the fullness of day shines about us we betake ourselves in spirit to St. Peter's in Rome. For this was the original "Station" for this Mass, and this gives us an indication of its purport.
St. Peter's is the principal church of the world; it is from there that Christ rules over the whole world.
We are to realise that the Babe of Bethlehem is in fact He "whose shoulder will bear the sceptre of princely power" (Introit), The psalm, of which only the first verse now remains, is the 97th; when sung in its entirety (as it was in olden days) it tells of "the Lord Who has made known pis salvation to all the ends of the earth. Acclaim the Lord. all the earth . . . for He comes to rule the earth." The Great Light, then, is to be manifested more widely than to His mother (as in the First Mass), beyond the ranks of us His followers (as in the Second Mass)—even to the whole earth, to all "whom the old slavery holds fast beneath the yoke of sin" (Collect). The Epistle continues this theme, explaining how "God . . . in these times has spoken to us through a Son, Whom He has appointed to inherit all things, Who is the radiance of His Father's splendour." And so, in the Gradual, we are hidden to realise that "a hallowed day has dawned upon us; come you peoples, and adore the Lord; for this day a great light has descended upon the earth." Now we have the perfect setting for the wonderful prologue to St. John's Gospel wherein we hear of Him "in Whom there was life, and that life was the light of men. And the light shines in darkness, a darkness which was not able to master it"; of the "man sent from God whose name was John. . . . He was not the light; he was sent to bear witness to the light. There is One who enlightens every soul born into the world; He was the true light. . And the Word was made flesh and came to dwell among us; and we had sight of His glory, glory such as belongs to the Father's only-begotten Son, full of grace and truth." Realising, then, the universal dominion of Christ, to whom belong "the heavens and the earth . . . the world and all it holds" (Offertory), we come before His Throne bearing our gifts in fealty; and after they have been consecrated and "carried by the hands of the angel up to God's altar on high" (Canon), we conclude by asking that "the Saviour of the world, whose birth on this day has brought about our own re-birth in godliness, may also bestow on us immortal life" (Postcommunion).
IN these three Christmas Masse s, then, we find a crescendo of the manifestation of Christ the True Light. At midnight He shines on Mary, as her "Jesus" ("Saviour"); at dawn He shines on the "elect" (shepherds, as representing ourselves) as our Saviour; and when the sun has fully risen He shines on all men as the Saviour of the whole world. As Zachary sang, in anticipation of this day, "Such is the merciful kindness of our God, which has bidden Him to come to us, like a dawning from on high, to give light to those who live in darkness, in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace."
"Glory be to God," then, "in high heaven; and peace on earth to men that are God's friends."