Dec 23: a liturgical “hinge day”?

I have never paid much attention to December 23, except as a way through to what really mattered, namely December 24 (in my culture of origin, Christmas Eve is the emotional highpoint of Christmas, when the family gathers, the Christmas tree candles are lit, and presents are exchanged, all followed by a festive meal and midnight mass).

But this year, my experience of December 23 has changed. The day suddenly seems more important in and of itself, something akin to a liturgical hinge day, when things begin to turn.  As the last of the O-Antiphons is chanted today, our Advent waiting draws to a close and we stand on the threshold of something new.  Maybe December 23 – as one of those liminal, threshold days when things liturgical begin to turn — is akin to Holy Saturday (if only in that regard); maybe here are other such liturgical hinge days.

The antiphon for this year’s responsorial psalm at Mass puts us on high alert for what is to come:  “your redemption is near at hand.”  With that assurance, Advent’s waiting turns toward a new and different kind of encounter with God, as we turn towards the moment of ultimate mystery: God being born in our midst.

Of course our faith is lived within cultural trends that force other experiences of time to the forefront on this December 23: the last few, frantic hours of shopping have arrived.  And the retail industry will begin to report on whether its hopes have materialized, in the form of consumers who meet or exceed the expectations of the industry.  We cannot escape these peculiar rhythms around December 23.  It is precisely within their context that Christians, once again, have to struggle to embody their own rhythm of expectation and materialization.  This rhythm invites us, on this day, to begin to slow down rather than to speed up, and to turn, so as to be able to be present, really present, to the heart of Christmas, the mystery of the Word made flesh.


  1. My understanding is that before Vatican II the liturgical character of December 24th changed at Lauds, when the office of the day was celebrated as a Double, that is as a festive office where antiphons where sung before and after the psalms.

    The Polish tradition was the 12 course festive meatless meal on Christmas Eve.

    For many years now my celebration of Christmas has begun with the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols which is broadcast live by PBS at 10am EST (actually starts at 4pm in England) on December 24th.

    So the hectic December 24th 4-6 pm Masses, (last weeks bulletins were filled with pastors pleading for people to make other choices, even statistics of how many will be left standing at those times, and how many pews are likely to be empty at other times) are not quite as out of keeping with the liturgical character of December 24th as we might like to think.

    Fortunately the local Orthodox Church has advanced the time of its Christmas Vigil Service (Office but no Divine Liturgy) and the local parish has moved one of its Masses to the later evening so that I will be able to do both back to back, avoid the crowds at the early Masses, not have to stay up for Midnight Mass, and not have to go to church on Christmas morning. A Blessed Christmas!!!.

    I wish everyone the same!

  2. “…and not have to go to church on Christmas morning. A Blessed Christmas!!!.

    I wish everyone the same!”

    I do hope this was tongue in cheek. I can understand that the obligation to participate in Mass can be filled at a vigil Mass (and can be a boon to busy parents, for example, or people with differing work patterns). However, to celebrate not going to church on Christmas Day fills me with sadness. Despite the obstacles, shouldn’t we want to go to Church on the actual day we celebrate the birth of our Redeemer?

    How many of us would be happy to know our guests celebrate our birthdays by getting it over with for an hour or so the previous afternoon?

    1. Mary,

      Vigil Masses are not a concession to necessity but rather restoring the notion of the liturgical day beginning at sunset the evening before as in the Jewish and Byzantine traditions. Away with this modern Western stuff! Celebrate the Lord’s birthday at the beginning of the day beginning with a vigil service after sunset.

      According to Adams book on the Liturgical Year, the original Christmas Mass at Rome was in St Peters on Christmas morning.

      When Saint Mary’s was built in Rome with the crib; they brought over the Jerusalem custom of celebrating Epiphany with a Mass in Bethlehem the night before, and then Mass the next day in Jerusalem. (Remember Christmas originated in Rome; Epiphany in the East).

      The Dawn Mass originated in the Sixth century in the imperial church of Saint Anastasia, an Eastern martyr (the Greeks ruled Rome at that time). The Pope probably did this to get along with the emperor.

      Seems the readings service at Saint Mary Major began at dusk like our Easter Vigil and Mass followed immediately. Remember there were no modern clocks for people to know that it was time for Midnight Mass. Actually by moving back the “Midnight Mass” to 10pm the Pope is simply going back toward the earlier Roman tradition, which I am observing even better by combining the Orthodox Vigil with Mass.

      I plan to celebrate the Divine Liturgy with the Orthodox on Monday morning; they observe this as a feast of Mary. Somehow, I suspect that will not ease the disturbance you feel about me not being at Mass during the Western 24 hour day. Well, this modern 24 hour stuff disturbs me.

      God is with me, assuredly as much in that modern 24 hour day in my home as elsewhere in time and space. The liturgy of the heart is always with us.

  3. Our 4 PM on 12/24 will have the good folk hanging from the rafters! The 6 PM and midnight will be close to a regular Sunday mass in terms of attendance (though the 6 is deceptive; that mass has some child-friendly elements and there will be many children there; they don’t take up as much room so the church me be more full that is immediately apparent).

    The 10 AM on Christmas will be like a handful of BB’s in a boxcar.

    This year we are using the Christmas Day readings at all four masses.

    Not to be selfish, but for priests it is good when Christmas is on a Sunday from a workload perspective.

    1. While I delight in most of your tinkerings, I am saddened to hear you will only use the Mass during the Day scriptures. There is something beautiful to the parish encountering the various movements of the liturgical night and day – and more profound for those of us who must attend all the Masses. My parish seems to have the same schedule as yours – and we will do the Vigil Mass at 4/6PM the latter slightly modified as we cater to kids at ours too…. Mass during the Night at 10PM, Dawn at 9AM and Day at 11AM. My preference is that the geneology be proclaimed in it’s fullness at the 4PM. Perhaps it’s the most attended, but that’s the reading assigned – and it is profound. I believe it is the pastoral choice TO read it all. And one certainly not need change their homilies – it’s all nativity based, but from different angles.

  4. My understanding is that in earlier times folks went to all the Christmas Masses — Vigil AND During the Night, AND Day. (Dawn, I am not so sure about, because of its papal origins.) Anyone know if I am right about this? Source, please, whatever. Thanks, and Blessed Christmas to all!

  5. The former popularity of the Midnight Mass had a lot to do with the ending of the Vigil fast, and the fact that if you received at that Mass, there was only a nominal Eucharistic fast.

  6. I’ve been celebrating the “Mass During the Night” at 10pm for about 25 years. Glad to see the Pope following suit albeit for reasons of age. I think the practice of continuing Mass at midnight is an example of how many Catholics confuse traditions with Tradition. People ought to be bed at midnight or at least enjoying the aftermath of festive meals and gift giving at home with family. For me, the best Christ–Mass is at 10 am. Maybe 250 people– a number of them returning after one of the Eve Masses–with full choir. Just lovely and unhectic like Christmas Eve. Merry Christmas to all!

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