Friday 10 December 2010

Christmas. Why we've got it wrong and not the world

Each year in the Archdiocese to which I belong the Archbishop "asks and encourages" priests NOT to celebrate a Vigil Mass for Christmas but to wait for the wonder and special moment that is the Midnight Mass (at midnight!) He points out that children can be brought to this Mass and the unusual activity of going out so late in association with all the Christmas excitement only makes the Feast all the more memorable and distinct. I think he is quite right in this but in many, many parishes the most popular Christmas Mass is the Vigil at 8pm, 7pm 6pm - even 5pm. In my own parish I have caved in to the established practice and while I have re-introduced Midnight Mass have (until this year) kept a 6pm Vigil Mass. But this has led to the crazy situation where there are more people attending Mass the day before Christmas than there are on Christmas Day itself. Surely that's a nonsense? Who has the wedding party the day before their marriage ceremony? Who sings "Happy Birthday" the day before the birthday?

The vigil Mass for Sundays was introduced for special circumstances, for example, those who couldn't get to Mass on Sunday because of work, perhaps in those places where one priest looks after two or even three parishes. Again, we now have the situation that many Catholics (in perfectly good standing) have not actually been to Mass on a Sunday for many years. How does this fulfil the biblical command to keep the sabbath day holy? I know of at least one bishop who, although keen on the introduction of this novelty at the time, now thinks it was a big mistake, seriously undermining the Church's position when Sunday opening of shops was extended in this country. Perhaps making something too easy can have the effect of de-valuing it.

In regards to Christmas, I have just read an excellent blog by James Preece who, as so often, looks at things with fresh eyes and states what should be obvious but where we haven't managed to see the wood for the trees. Every year we lament the secularisation of Christmas but "the fact is that the secular world is secular and has been for quite a while and frankly we ought to be used to it by now."

He points out that we can hardly expect people who are not Christians to keep Christmas in a fully Christian way. Perhaps we should be glad that they keep it at all because it is we in the Church who have secularised the Faith.

We secularised the Sacraments, we turned the Mass from the Holy Sacrifice at Calvary to a big meeting for a group hug. One of our toys was called Confession but we secularised that by deciding we can talk to God on our own thanks and the priest is just some bloke in a box and if he's just some bloke in a box then we might as well use the box as a dusty old store cupboard.

We filled those cupboards with old books of chant that we don't need anymore since we secularised our music. We secularised our buildings which are no longer designed to lift the mind to thoughts of heaven but rather to be practical, functional structures like secular leisure centres.

We secularised our Bishops by turning them in to faceless managerial committees with just enough authority to tie their own shoelaces so long as they get it risk assessed first and certainly not enough authority to actually reply to the letters you send them about the Holy Days of obligation that we secularised by, well, not having them.

We secularised our schools, we secularised our charities and we secularised our families. Prayer? Sacraments? Feasts? Seasons? We barely even know what they are. Lent is when people tell me that rather than fasting they "would rather do something useful". Baptism is for getting children in to schools, no wait... these days, there are no children to worry about.

But, as I say, perhaps we should be thankful that the world does keep some sort of Christmas - if it didn't, then we might have dumbed down Christmas as well - if not moved it to the nearest convenient Sunday. The only reason we still keep it on the actual 25th December is because that's what the world does. Otherwise it would be transferred like the Ascension, Corpus Christi and the Epiphany.

We can't say that Christmas is about more than just a secular celebration when we have reduced all the other parts of Christianity to be entirely secular!
The re-introduction of making us different, of re-sacralising our worship and regaining a sense of the holy is very much part of the Holy Father's message. We have been given the good tidings of great joy - why are we so afraid of letting them be seen?


RJ said...

Father, I thought we were following the Jewish liturgical practice of counting the days from sunset to sunset, rather than 'numerically' (from midnight to midnight), so in fact the Lord's day begins at sunset on what we refer to 'numerically' as Saturday. Hence, those who attend the vigil do not go "the day before".

Fr Simon Henry said...

Technically, yes. But who really does that in real life? Also, we are not Jewish. Plus, we would refer to it as starting from First Vespers of the night before. Just one further point, how do we explain the continuation of Masses on Sunsay evening as well as Saturday? I think common sense tells us, this idea doesn't really work.

RJ said...

As you say, Father. It would be first vespers to second vespers. I suppose those who say the Divine Office would have more of a sense of these things.

Monica said...

Thanks for this post, Father.

Sadly, the vigil Mass has become almost de rigeur for some and I've often heard good Catholics say "it's good to get it over with so that we can celebrate Christmas Day properly". What a sad reflection on our catechetical programmes.

It's good to hear, though, that at least one bishop is eager to promote Midnight Mass. There are parishes in the archdiocese in which I live where the vigil Mass is routinely celebrated at lunchtime (every saturday as well as Christmas Eve) - "because it's handy for shoppers".

GWAM said...

Exactly Monica - and the, entirely understandable, justification I have heard from many priests over the last decade (since this strange sabbath "Samedism" crept in), is that vigil Masses (which as you say are often as early as Saturday lunchtime) are vital for finances. No doubt. I've never actually got to the second stage of this debate with any priest because, usually, the first answer - "well, without that money the parish will inevitably close which means no Sunday Mass and you'll have to travel" - is seen as a trump all.

But, for the sake of exercise, let's face that debate head-on: 1) How long would it take for certain parishes to go bust without a vigil Mass?; 2) Moreover, how long would it take, if all parishes in a diocese were to curtail Saturday vigils, before they all closed?; 3) Surely, though, there would still be, say, at least one thousand people within any given diocese (I'm setting the bar deliberately low) still attending Sunday Mass - so they would deserve at least one parish remaining open, wouldn't they?

And then we'd know exactly what the true state of the Church was/is. Put it this way, we'd quickly see whether certain dioceses really do have a "shortage" of priests (in any case, what does the "shortage" label really apply to: the aggregate diocesan Mass attendance, the number of Masses expected, or the number of buildings where Masses are expected?)

We're afraid, though, of facing this ultimate "quantity v quality" leap. All of us. Laity, priests, bishops - perhaps even the Pope.

I'm not advocating running the Church into the ground as a test. Far from it. I'm actually advocating, however counter-intuitive it may sound, saving the foundational structures of the Church from the things corroding it; and Saturday vigil Masses, however lucrative and convenient, are a hidden acid (mea culpa, I've attended one as recently as June).

Christ said He would rise again on the third day. Friday aft until its evening was the first. Friday evening til Saturday evening was the second. Saturday evening til Sunday evening was the third. However, although that "third day cycle" had indeed commenced on Saturday evening, there is no known scriptural account that suggests that Christ rose once the sabbath was over and before the morning period. However, we have overwhelming evidence to believe that it was morning. Therefore it was the morning of Sunday - the first day, the "first fruit" of the week. Not the last.

Christ went out of His way to point out to us that He was introducing a New Covenant. Furthermore, He actually went to extreme pains - quite literally - to "passover" that particular Passover. It was all about that Sunday, not that Saturday. So why are we so eager, 2000 years later, to retreat back to Saturday and justify it by the rules pertaining to the Old Covenant? That which has passed. Over.

Right now we're all about protecting the visible super-structure of the Church and keeping the four walls standing. The unseen foundations, though, are taking a hammering beneath us. They will survive but what they'll be able to support unless we preserve them is another matter.

Frankly, I'd love to see the back of all Saturday vigil Masses - barring the Easter vigil - and, no matter how difficult we find things (and I've no doubt it would be a sobering reality), to just trust in the Lord's promises that the gates of hell will never prevail, that He will be with us til the end of time and that He will not leave us orphans.

The Church will last. Christ will see to that. As to what shape He finds it in - well, we'll all be accountable for that.

And if He returns on a Sunday and finds we've all "done our duty" the day earlier?


GOR said...

Here’s one vote for more emphasis on, and availability of, Midnight Mass. Certainly children can be brought to it. As a child in Ireland Midnight Mass was something special – walking to Mass all bundled up in the cold of winter, the opening of the Crib (It was set up before Christmas but remained covered up until Midnight Mass), the hymns, the sense of joy…

Our PP always celebrated the Midnight Mass and his ‘homily’ never varied. A short reminder of the meaning of Christmas, Happy Christmas - and the concluding words: “Now, go home quietly and don’t wake those who are still sleeping.” Then it was home to tea and ham sandwiches (a family tradition) and a quick sleep before opening gifts on Christmas morning. Somehow Christmas Day was never the same when it wasn’t preceded by Midnight Mass.

Unknown said...

It should be made clear here that there is a difference between the Mass of Christmas Eve and the Saturday afternoon or evening Masses. Simply put, the Saturday afternoon Masses are not vigil Masses at all and to call them that is a complete misnomer. Technically, a Vigil Mass should take place BEFORE 1st vespers of the following day whereas the Saturday evening Mass technically must wait until AFTER 1st Vespers of the next day.

Why the difference in time?

Because the Vigil (when there is one) takes place the day before the Sunday or feast and consists of a different Mass altogether from the Mass of the next day.

The Saturday Evening Mass waits until after 1st Vespers at which time it is, liturgically speaking, Sunday and that Mass will be identical to the Masses celebrated the next morning or evening.

Using the term Vigil Mass to describe the Saturday Evening Mass simply causes confusion and diminshes the importance of a true Vigil.