“The Last Supper Was No Breakfast,” But What Is the Right Time for the Eucharist?

Most Christian traditions celebrate Eucharist in the morning hours. In the Roman Catholic Church Eucharistic celebrations in the afternoon, in the evening, or at night were not permitted until the 20th century. Many Eastern Churches demand that the Eucharist be finished before 12 p.m. Something else might be permitted by the bishop – e.g. when an Orthodox community has no other option than using a Catholic church at a given time in the evening –, but this feels somehow irregular, and some texts of the liturgy make little sense when spoken at the end of the day.

Since Roman Catholics have received permission to celebrate Eucharist at other times of the day, this practice has become more and more common – at least on business days, but also on Sundays.

I remember a Benedictine monk – by the way: he is a professor in Rome now – saying: “Jesus instituted a supper, not a breakfast!” He grinned when he said this. Of course this was not meant to be a serious argument. It was rather an ironic expression of his own experience. He was one of the many people who simply cannot sing well in the morning and who can hardly concentrate on anything within the first hours after awakening. So he prefers to do complex things like celebrating Eucharist later in the day.

Like him, I am more of on urban guy: I prefer to go to bed late and sleep long in the morning, and I reserve my evenings for the more interesting things. On the other hand, my inner theologian prefers the morning hours for the Eucharist. Here is why.

The Eucharist is not an imitation of the Last Supper. At what time Jesus celebrated with the Twelve is simply irrelevant. The Eucharist is a celebration of the entire paschal mystery, and the most important aspect of that is the resurrection. Christian liturgy has always seen a connection between sunrise and resurrection: the natural rhythm of creation around us is an integral element of liturgical symbolism. Sunrise is a divine revelation, and its symbolic meaning (the victory of light over darkness) differs from the sunset’s meaning (everything is mortal, everything needs help in the darkness).

The juridical approach of prescription, permission, and prohibition is not entirely adequate, although it has a kernel of truth. I do not see any theological reason why celebrating Eucharist should be prohibited at certain times of the day. But if resurrection is the deepest focus of the Eucharist, the morning time befits its meaning much better. The morning draws a connection between the liturgical symbolism and the nature around us – both of which are of divine origin and belong together.

Maybe the Eastern approach that I mentioned above is the most suitable: for good reason, you may celebrate Eucharist at any time of the day. But the hours of the rising sun (from daybreak to the highest point of the sun’s cycle) are the best choice.

20 comments

  1. I’m thinking that the required fasting from midnight had something to do with morning Eucharist too?

  2. I cannot find the reference quickly, but I remember reading Odo Casel saying something like: Regardless of the clock time, all Eucharistic liturgies occur in the evening. He quotes the liturgy (and the Psalm) – “the lifting up of my hands as an evening sacrifice.”

    1. @Adam Wood:
      In the eastern Churches, the “evening sacrifice” is the offering of incense at Vespers and not the Eucharistic Sacrifice. The censing around the 4 sides of the altar and antiphonal singing of Ps. 141 at the Divine Liturgy of the Pre-sanctified Gifts served during the Great Fast reinforces this.
      Liborius–what about the connection between the sunrise and the resurrection to the celebration of Mass facing east (to the rising of the sun) and it’s additional significance and symbolism?
      I would thing that we are imitating the Last Supper on Holy Thursday since the revisions to Holy Week, state that the Mass of Holy Thursday is only celebrated in the evening. Correct?

  3. Yeah. Eucharist was instituted *in the context of* the Paschal Supper, and not to be a reenactment of it’s rites. Otherwise the world would be in a serious lamb shortage.

    Also, sunrise is a representation of resurrection, thus, to me, most fitting time to celebrate the Eucharist.

  4. Eucharist “in the evening, or at night were not permitted until the 20th century…” Is this strictly true? It is true of the recent past, but I remember reading that it was Pius V who legislated that Mass must be in the morning. Does anyone know what was the practice in the medieval period? I have the impression that evening Masses were not unknown. Certainly the evening mass on Holy Thursday was still celebrated in some parts of Europe in the early middle ages, but I would be interested to hear more about exactly when that ceased, and what was the case with other Masses, especially on week days. (I raise this despite the fact that my preference is very much for morning Mass.)

    1. @Martin Wallace:
      I believe that, over a course of centuries, there was a gradual effective relaxation of the Eucharistic fast (which started at midnight) by the acceleration of the canonical Hours, so that Mass after None in the midafternoon moved back to what had been Sext at midday, as it were (hence the eventuality of “noon”), though the Lenten daily fast regime resisted this acceleration longer, if I remember my prior reading correctly.

      1. @Karl Liam Saur:
        Yes, thanks, I remember reading something of that sort. I also remember reading that when St Peter Martyr founded the various “Confraternities of the Praises of Mary” in the churches of the Dominicans in the 13th century, they would meet for confessions, prayers , sermons and Mass on Wednesday afternoons. However, I am not sure whether that was an accurate account (e.g. whether Mass really was part of the wednesday devotions), or for that matter how late in the day these devotions took place.

  5. True confessions: I love evening Masses! Always have. Even nighttime Masses. In my college years I went to daily Mass at midnight. It was wonderful. I am really not a morning person. But I do go to Mass in the morning now… only not too early… my best slot is 11:00, which isn’t exactly sunrise…

    Does this mean I am insensitive to the paschal mystery?? I hope not!!! Here comes a proof text: When did the disciples recognize the risen Lord at Emmaus? (Hint: “Stay with us, for it is almost evening…”)

    To be clear, I am not in any way opposed to morning Masses. And if the rising sun works to make the resurrection seem more palpable, great. But I would suggest that the richness of the Eucharist is so great that it allows us to open up any number of associations, at many different times of day — while still keeping a paschal awareness alive in each of them.

    P.S. Very thought provoking essay. Thank you, Liborius!

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      I went to college in rural North Carolina, on a Presbyterian campus. Our mass was Sunday night. I enjoyed walking through campus at night, in the quiet of Sunday evening, to go to our small Eucharist. And I always prefer midnight mass. And the Easter Vigil. Ordinary time during the summer also means wandering to mass in the late afternoon. When I lived in Houston, I went to mass with the community of the Houston Dominican Sisters. Their community mass is held in the afternoon.

      I find it calming to spend my day waiting for mass.

    2. @Rita Ferrone:
      For the clergy, there are practical considerations. I always disliked evening masses, usually because I had arisen to celebrate a Mass at 6:30am. As the numbers of clergy diminish, it makes for a sometimes achingly long day.

  6. I am with Rita with loving a good evening Mass. I especially like evening Masses as the natural light differences of the natural seasons give a unique insight to the liturgical seasons, at least in the Northern hemisphere. For example, celebrating Mass in the darkness of late fall/early winter highlights both All Saints/Souls and Advent, both of which have a sense of persistent hope for me.

    While I appreciate the theology of light and resurrection for Sunday/Lord’s Day, I would challenge the notion that morning Mass was the norm from the beginning of Christian. Yes, morning Mass does seem to be the norm post-legalization of Christianity aka liturgy’s ‘Golden Age’ and age of Christendom. However, I have a feeling that the first few centuries of Christianity probably had Mass in the overnight/pre-dawn break as evidenced by the existence of Easter Vigil, other vigils, and the Ember Saturday Eucharist taking the place of Sunday’s Eucharist, all of which are made possible to the Jewish understanding of time. Plus, the early Christians had to get to work since it was the first day of the (work) week after all!

    All that said, I strongly believe the best time for Mass is the one that allows for the community to effectively gather to celebrate the Paschal Mystery, something I think the local community can best decide.

  7. When I was at Loyola in Chicago in the early 1980s, there was a 10:15 pm Sunday mass that was packed with students. There would be a mass exodus from the library at 10 pm and the mob would move down the lakefront a couple of hundred yards to the chapel.

    1. Jim Pauwels : When I was at Loyola in Chicago in the early 1980s, there was a 10:15 pm Sunday mass that was packed with students. There would be a mass exodus from the library at 10 pm and the mob would move down the lakefront a couple of hundred yards to the chapel.

      It’s at 9 p.m. now, and I gather it’s still quite popular. I live nearby and love hearing the new bells from Madonna della Strada Chapel ring just before 9 and just after 10 on Sunday nights. Also on Wednesdays, when they have a Taize service that starts at 9:30 p.m.

      1. Ah, yes. Walking along Chicago’s lakefront at night. In December. Or in January. I’d say 300 days indulgence for every one of those Masses.

  8. It seems to me that the prime deciding factor for the time for celebrating Eucharist is: Whenever the community can gather.

  9. “When did the disciples recognize the risen Lord”?

    Well, yeah, in the evening. But when did our Lord rise? Early in the morning. We do not celebrate and commemorate recognition of resurrection but the resurrection itself.

    To be a Christian is to keep vigil. And what better time to keep vigil than throughout night until dawn when the Orient visits us? The early Church did it in the morning. I see no reason for departure.

    The only day that there was an Eucharist in the evening in the early Church was commemoration of the Last Supper on the Maundy Thursday. In Africa it was celebrated even after a meal and there was a dispensation from the Eucharistic fast.

    And what is more beautiful than that the first food and drink of the day be the Bread of Life and Spiritual Cup of Salvation?

  10. Christians surely keep vigil throughout the day as we do not know the hour when the Master will come. On the time at which Mass is to be celebrated, I think the rubrics are silent.

  11. Yes, they kept vigil throughout the day too, but night was special.
    We know what Pliny the Younger says to the emperor Trajan about when Christians had the custom of gathering. Before dawn.

  12. Given that we often refer to Sunday as a “little Easter”, with its implications of dawn and resurrection, it seems that the morning is perhaps a more appropriate time.

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