My experience of Midnight Mass this year...

This Advent season has been a very difficult time for many people whether it is because of the Sandy Hook shootings, joblessness, weather related phenomena, the looming fiscal cliff, or what-have-you; it has been difficult. It has been much worse for some than others, and for some it has not been bad at all.

After what seemed to me to be a long Advent season, I was excited to go to Mass at midnight to celebrate the long-awaited birth of our Lord. There is something nostalgic, to be sure, about Midnight Mass for me. As a child my mother took us to Midnight Mass every year, and every year Midnight Mass was at midnight. It was not until I moved as a ten-year-old that I first encountered 'Midnight' Mass at some other hour of Christmas Eve. I was horrified.

Nevertheless, the earlier-than-midnight Mass spoke to the American-pragmatist in me. It is difficult and uncomfortable to actually celebrate Midnight Mass at midnight, and we can make it easier for others to attend Mass by playing with the schedule. For instance, this year my parish celebrate the Mass at Night (as it is technically called in the Missal) of the Nativity of our Lord at 8:00pm. There was no Mass celebrated at Midnight. Then, there were two Christmas day Masses: 8:00am and 10:00am. My baptismal parish celebrated it at 7:00pm.  Again, the schedule is all about convenience.

I do not want to have a discussion on the pastoral value of such a practice, nor the theological significance of changing times and the the appointed liturgical hours of the day. I merely want to recount my experience this Christmas.

So, I have rarely found Midnight Mass to be celebrated at midnight since moving from Los Angeles as a child. I cannot fully deny that I did not like getting Mass out of the way to get home and start the real celebration. As I grew older, however, I developed a sense of loss for that tradition. I missed it. I missed the joy of Christmas in the midst of night.

I started seeking out Midnight Mass every year that I had the opportunity, but because I tended to go home for Christmas the opportunity rarely arose. The last two years I was able to go to Midnight Mass at midnight, and it was not until this year that it struck me 'like a ton of bricks,' as they say, the value of this late-night celebration.

Painting a background...

There are layers upon layers that take place, and I will do my best to peel them away carefully. I would be remiss to exclude some background on what I am talking about.

Adam sinned, and by that sin brought sin and death into the world. Original sin, a.k.a. concupiscence, is passed from our first parents to us. Original sin has two material defects, namely the weakening of the will, whereby it is more difficult to do what is right and good, and darkening of the intellect, whereby it is difficult to know good from bad. The more we sin, the harder it is to do what is right. Every particular sin instills in us a habit of sin, and thus, every sin decreases the strength of our will and darkens our intellect more.

In the context of history, the more sinful the individuals who make up a community or nation, the more difficult it is for others within that community or nation to know what is good and right. Sin begets sin, and the intellectual darkness grows darker.

We count pride as the head of all other sins. It is from self-love that all other sins are born. Therefore, pride is the source of our intellectual darkness and moral weakness. God, however, sheds light on this darkness by revealing the Law. First he reveals the Old Law with Moses and then the New Law in Christ. As such the darkness is gradually dispelled by the Law. The prevenient law of our world is the Natural Law and has been God's revelation of law since the beginning. About the Old Law St. Thomas Aquinas says this:
It was fitting that the Law should be given at such a time as would be appropriate for the overcoming of man's pride. For man was proud of two things, viz. of knowledge and of power. He was proud of his knowledge, as though his natural reason could suffice him for salvation: and accordingly, in order that his pride might be overcome in this matter, man was left to the guidance of his reason without the help of a written law: and man was able to learn from experience that his reason was deficient, since about the time of Abraham man had fallen headlong into idolatry and the most shameful vices.
It is at the height of darkness, in this case idolatry of other gods, that the Old Law was revealed. Likewise, it was at the height of darkness, namely the idolatry of the Old Law, that the New Law entered the world. The spirit of the Law was lost on the people of Israel. A rigorist approach to the letter of the law had overwhelmed good-will toward God and neighbor.

Christ came as the New Law to shed light on our darkness.

The darkness into which He was born...  

So, for us the opportunity to reenact, if you will, the spiritual, intellectual, and moral darkness into which Christ was born comes around every year with the winter solstice. The winter solstice unfortunately has its symbolic value limited by the equator and the position of the sun relative to earth. Nevertheless, the winter solstice is that time of year where, in the northern hemisphere, darkness is at its height and night reaches its longest duration. 

The celebration of Christ's birth in the Catholic Church, which in its earliest days was predominately a European and Oriental Church placed the celebration of Christ's birth as near as possible to the solstice. On top of that, in order to drive the point home, the Mass at Night was celebrated in the very heart of the darkness - the middle of the night.

There is sometimes prudence in waiting till the last minute. A "don't shoot till you see the whites of their eyes" approach can be the only way to bring about the necessary change. God hardened Pharaoh's  heart until he had suffered the death of his first-born son (not something that God Himself is unfamiliar with), and only then did Pharaoh let His people go so that they may worship Him in the desert. Even then, Pharaoh only let them go long enough that they would have the perfect head-start once they got to the Red Sea. 

Similar to the Midnight Mass I attended.
(I left my camera at home)
God came to the world in the midst of darkness and is for it a Radiant New Dawn. And this is where I would like to pick up my experience once again. 

I went to bed Christmas Eve at 9:30pm to try and get some sleep before Mass - always a fatal error. My alarm went off at 11:30pm and I struggled to pull myself out of bed. I debated for awhile whether or not we (my wife and I) should just wait until morning. We even made a decision to just go in the morning. After about five minutes of not falling back to sleep immediately, I made the decision that we would go to Midnight Mass even if it killed us. So we did. 

We suited up and  made the five minute walk to the monastery to celebrate Mass with the Carmelite sisters. They solely make use of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and having been there the previous year, I was expecting the lights of the chapel to be out and candles to be lighting the high altar.  As expected, I entered the chapel to the soft glow of 64 candles beautifully arranged around the altar. 

A small Christmas tree stood in the corner of the sanctuary and another larger one next to the crèche. Two small tea-lights in each window added a bit of light along the side aisles of the pews. Nevertheless, with all the candlelight it was still dark, too dark in fact to read your Baronius Press Daily Missal

It was stirring. Dark, quiet, cold - I could not have imagined a greater representation of the sort of darkness that we experience with sin. As dark and cold as it was, the altar shone with such splendid beauty that I could not help but think of my own personal need for Christ in the midst of the darkness that fills my own heart. Maybe I have hit the bottom like Pharaoh or maybe I just saw something I did not see before in the beauty of the liturgy. 

St. Augustine says:
Our heart when it rises to Him is His altar; the priest who intercedes for us is His Only-begotten; we sacrifice to Him bleeding victims when we contend for His truth even unto blood; to Him we offer the sweetest incense when we come before Him burning with holy and pious love; to Him we devote and surrender ourselves and His gifts in us; to Him, by solemn feasts and on appointed days, we consecrate the memory of His benefits, lest through the lapse of time ungrateful oblivion should steal upon us; to Him we offer on the altar of our heart the sacrifice of humility and praise, kindled by the fire of burning love.
I saw in that altar that night, a reflection of the light I need in my heart. I saw the fire of love that I lack in my own heart. In the darkness I saw my pride and selfishness.

My prayer that night was that the Sun of Justice might rise in my heart. That the darkness of sin be dispelled and that the Faith He offers us truly influence my actions. I prayed that we all, who dwell in darkness, might open our hearts to receive Him and that His light might shine on all through us.

"And night shall be no more. And they shall not need the light of the lamp, nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall enlighten them. And they shall reign for ever and ever"(Rev 22:5).

Leave me a comment about your experience of Midnight Mass. Do you attend Midnight Mass? What time is your Mass at Night and do you like that time? Why or why not?


  1. Thanks, Abram, nice reflection. One bit of clarification, Midnight is NEVER considered a "vigil" since it is the beginning of a new day - the beginning of the Feast of the Nativity. Even the orations are proper depending on the Mass celebrated. The texts of the vigil Mass clearly indicate a weight anticipation, while those of the Midnight Mass (or, technically as it is called in the Missal - Mass at Night) are celebratory of the fact that Christ comes to illumine the darkness. Great article, but just a point of clarification. FWIW, our "Mass at Night" was celebrated at 11pm (which I find a silly accommodation, but this is my first year here, so we shall see about moving it back.).

    1. Thank you, Fr. Totton. I have made the necessary changes.