That old joke doesn’t work anymore, for it’s now a legitimate question what time the Mass is celebrated in Christmas night. And it’s mostly not at midnight anymore, but earlier.
To be a bit technical, there never was anything called “Midnight Mass” in the Latin liturgical books. The four Masses of Christmas are now given as:
- in vigilia (vigil),
- in nocte (“in the night”),
- in aurora (“at dawn”), and
- in die (“of the day”).
Since the old rules didn’t allow the Mass in the night to be celebrated before the clock said it was Christmas day, and apparently there was this laudable desire to celebrate Eucharist as early as possible on the great feast day, “Midnight Mass” in common parlance was born.
And since the old rules began the Communion fast from food and drink at midnight… you can guess where this is going. In effect, no fasting was required before Midnight Mass, and one could eat and drink (and drink and drink) right up until Mass time. I’ve been told by older priests on the East Coast that there were “incidents” at times in the old days because of drunken worshipers at Midnight Mass.
Some tough old pastors announced that Communion would be given to no one at Midnight Mass, but immediately following it there would be a quick, read “Low Mass” with distribution of Communion. This was the “Mass of the Shepherds,” named for the Gospel reading of the third Mass. (In the terminology of the preconciliar missals, this was the second Mass of Christmas Day.) The sober ones would be able to hold out for this Mass.
“It’s a hell of a church,” as someone I know used to say.
Now, “Midnight Mass” is for the most part just one more piece of Catholic lore that has bitten the dust. The holdouts are getting to be few and far between.
St. John’s Abbey fell a few years ago – in part but not only because the boys in the boy choir sing better when it isn’t the middle of the night. Mass is at 10pm now. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most of the monastic community, particularly older monks, welcomed the change, but younger monks were quite disappointed. But when Pope Benedict moved the Mass up to 10pm in St. Peter’s Basilica, resistance became hopelessly futile.
The Tablet out of London says that Midnight Mass is falling victim to “drunken yobbos [is that what they call them over there??] and a drastic shortage of priests.” One priest estimated that fewer than 25% of parishes offer Mass at midnight. But the line that some Masses are as early as 5pm suggests that perhaps not everyone at The Tablet gets the difference between the first and the second Mass of Christmas.
25% seemed like a high estimate compared to things around here. I did a quick online search of about a dozen and a half Catholic parishes and monasteries in St. Cloud, Minnesota and westward down the interstate. Of the 20 Masses on December 24, the most popular time is 5pm (5 Masses). Then follows 4pm (4), 8pm (4), and 10pm (4), and 9pm (3). Nothing at midnight. One can only guess which of these are the vigil Mass and which are the Mass in the Night.
I regret the loss of Midnight Mass, truth be told. But Morning Prayer on Christmas Day, and also Noon Prayer and festive meal with the monks, sure works a lot better when one is well-rested and not tired and crabby. Thanks be to God for that, I guess.