The Christmas Vigil Mass

Christmas is one of those feasts where I have had a very hard time settling on the exact right music. Everyone wants to hear Classic Christmas Carols, and Christmas is a time when people crave the familiar and the comfortable. They aren't looking to hear the themes of the readings match up with the themes of the music, they just want to get their kids to Mass and hear the story of the baby in the manger and sing some songs and follow all of their cherished family traditions. But we're Liturgists! We can give them so much more, and we don't even have to jolt them out of their Holiday Zones. How can this be accomplished?

The massive Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord comes in four parts: the Vigil, the Mass at Midnight, the Mass at Dawn, and the Mass During the Day. They all have their own special focus and character, and the readings and antiphons are different for each one. At Midnight, we get the narrative of the birth of Jesus from the census decree through to the angels delivering the news to the shepherds; at Dawn, we hear about the adoration of those shepherds and their report of the good news to all their neighbours; and at Mass During the Day, we hear the sublime introduction to the Gospel of St John - "In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It's a little like the real-time, three-day liturgy of Triduum, covering the events in the same space of time that they happened, with a fully mature meditation at the end.

At the Vigil, the focus is on the immanence of Christ's arrival - the psalms and antiphons keep using the word "tomorrow," and the gospel reading begins with the genealogy of Jesus. We can't really sing, say, O Come All Ye Faithful with it's triumphant final verse: "Yea, Lord we greet Thee, born this happy morning" because it's still the night before. But also, it is a Mass celebrating the Feast of the Nativity of the Lord, and for most of the faithful attending, it is the only one they will get to. How do we straddle this divide, but still do proper honour to this momentous event?

My recommendation is to choose meditative hymns that reflect this immanence, this silent waiting. Open with an Advent hymn (such as Creator of the Stars of Night), then move to, say, O Little Town of Bethlehem (try this gorgeous tune from Ralph Vaughan Williams instead of the more sentimental standard) for offertory - inviting Christ to be born into our hearts as we leave a space of waiting silence. Silent Night (or O Holy Night if you have a competent soloist) makes a great communion hymn, or Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming, for a Marian emphasis. My personal favourite, Of the Father's Love Begotten, is apparently not a well-known standard, but it should be!

You see what I am doing here? These hymns all have a theme of waiting, watching, silence, expectation. The joyful triumph is all for tomorrow. At Midnight, you can let it all loose - we Catholics invented the Midnight Release Party long before Harry Potter movies - but you don't have to sacrifice everyone's favourite traditional carols to keep the liturgy true to its assigned theme, and to distinguish the four Christmas liturgies from each other.

You may be asking yourself at this point - who cares if they are distinct from each other? Everyone is only attending once anyway, no one will know. To that I say, what are you in this business for, if not to do it right? Does your heart not rejoice to know that the Mass at Dawn has different readings from the Vigil? Do you have no longing of your own, just once, to attend all four Christmas liturgies in a row to see how different they are? When you make up a Christmas program, do you not instinctively move through the songs from Christmas Eve to Birth of Christ to shepherds abiding in the fields to calls for adoration to visits from the Magi? It is up to you to preserve the progression of the Christmas liturgies, to instill in the children (and to remind the adults!) a sense that Christmas Eve is different from Christmas Evening; that waiting for the Actual Day makes a difference. The Christmas Season has way too much chaos in it as it is currently celebrated - any beacon of order can only make things better.

PostScript: the Vigil Mass is a great time to show off the strength of your SATB choir, if you've got the singers to do the whole Mass a cappella!


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