Christmas is one of the most celebrated dates on the Christian calendar. Commemorating the birth of the Savior Jesus Christ is only surpassed in importance by the celebration of Easter, a time when Christians remember Christ’s sacrifice of life for His people.
Christmas is often celebrated with much joy and fervor all around the world, with exchanges of gifts and special acts of charity all month long. One component of the Christmas celebration that has long been tradition and holds special meaning to celebrants is the Midnight Mass.
Churches all around the world hold four different Christmas celebrations, including three masses and a Christmas vigil. The Midnight Mass is perhaps the most cherished. Mass, a Christian liturgical rite that often involves the sacrament of the Eucharist, may begin prior to midnight and include Biblical readings that focus on the story of Christ’s birth depending on the church. At midnight on Dec. 24, carols may be sung and the ringing of church bells to signify the birth of Christ as Dec. 25 arrives. In Israel, a procession takes place from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. In the Catholic Pope’s home of Vatican City, the Pope himself heads the Midnight Mass and people in large numbers pray for peace among mankind.
Many theologians say that the Midnight Mass evolved from individuals making pilgrimages to Israel and the actual birthplace of Christ. Because the Bible states that Jesus was born at night and in a manger, to fully immerse oneself in the story and the liturgical significance of the moment, a Midnight Mass seems the best place to achieve these goals. The darkness and the gentle hush that nighttime provides helps set the scene and enhance the spiritual component of Christmas.
The Nativity of Jesus takes place in two Gospels of the Bible: the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of Matthew. The version of Luke goes much more deeply into the story of Mary’s virgin conception through the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Here is Christ’s birth according to the Gospel of Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town. And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord. And this will be a sign for you; you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’
Later, the Gospel continues, “He was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
Midnight Mass has become an important component in the celebration of Christmas for the faithful. While secular celebrations may focus on the arrival of Santa Claus at the midnight hour, religious celebrations often involve filling churches at midnight to spread the word of Christ’s arrival.