ROME, DEC. 19, 2006 (Zenit.org
).- Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: When, where and why did the practice of Midnight Mass begin? -- F.S., Columbus, Ohio
A: Like many liturgical practices the origin of the three Christmas Masses (midnight, dawn and during the day) is not totally certain.
Christmas as a liturgical feast falling on Dec. 25 originated at Rome, in or around the year 330. It is very likely that the feast was first celebrated in the newly completed basilica of St. Peter.
From Rome the celebration of Christmas then slowly spread eastward and little by little was incorporated into the liturgical calendar of the principal Churches. Some of these Churches had celebrated Christ's birth on Jan. 6 and they have continued to give more importance to this date even after accepting Dec. 25.
During this period the Church at Jerusalem had established some particular customs.
Egeria, a woman who made a long pilgrimage to the Holy Land from 381 to 384, described how the Christians of Jerusalem commemorated the Christmas mystery on Jan. 6 with a midnight vigil at Bethlehem, followed by a torchlight procession to Jerusalem arriving at dawn to the Church of the Resurrection (Anastasis in Greek).
Fifty years later at Rome, Pope Sixtus III (432-440) decided to honor the proclamation of Mary's divine maternity at the Council of Ephesus (431) by building the great basilica of St. Mary Major on the Esquiline hill.
Among other elements Sixtus III built a chapel that reproduced the cave of Bethlehem. (The relics of the Crib, still found today in St. Mary Major's, were not placed in this chapel until the seventh century.) Sixtus III, probably inspired by the custom of the midnight vigil held in Jerusalem, instituted the practice of a midnight Mass in this grotto-like oratory.
In Rome the custom already existed of commemorating important feasts with two distinct offices, one held at night and the other toward dawn. It is easy to see how the simple feast initiated by Sixtus III at St. Mary Major's increased in importance and developed. The first development was that the oldest Christmas office, which was sung at St. Peter's, began to be also held at St. Mary Major's.
A further development occurred around 550. The Pope, and some members of the curia, celebrated a second Mass sometime before dawn at the Church of St. Anastasia.
At the beginning this happened because St. Anastasia's feast day also fell on Dec. 25 and had nothing to do with Christmas. Later however, probably inspired by the practice of the dawn Mass in the Church of the Resurrection in Jerusalem, and coupled with the similarity of the name Anastasia, this celebration was transformed into a second Christmas Mass.
After this almost-private Mass, the Pope would go directly to St. Peter's where a large assembly of faithful awaited the solemn dawn office of Christmas. This custom continued at least until the time of Pope Gregory VII (died 1085).
Initially the privilege of three celebrations at Christmas was reserved to the Pope. The first evidence we have of a single priest celebrating the three Masses is from the Monastery of Cluny before the year 1156.
All priests may still avail of this privilege and celebrate three Masses on Christmas Day providing they respect the proper hours. The first Mass is celebrated at Midnight (the vigil Mass of Dec. 24 does not count as the first of the three Masses), the second at dawn and the third at some time during the day.