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Office of Readings With Midnight Mass

Date: December 12, 2021
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: As a priest praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I'm always struck by the rubric that allows for a longer, more solemn celebration of the Mass at Midnight for Christmas by combining the Office of Readings with Midnight Mass. In a practical sense, how exactly would you go about doing this? I would like to try implementing this solemn liturgy in my parish at some point. Paragraph 98 of the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours speaks about starting Mass with the Gloria immediately following the second reading and responsory of the Office. However, this would leave out the Te Deum, which seems to be rather integral to the Office of Readings on one of the principal celebrations of the year. I tired looking in Peter Elliott's book, Ceremonies of the Liturgical Year, but he merely mentions the possibility without going into anything practical, and seems to prefer celebrating the Office of Readings immediately prior to and separate from Mass without combining the two. Furthermore, where would you put the Christmas Proclamation from the Roman Martyrology in such a celebration? Again, Peter Elliott suggests putting it after the second reading and verse, but before the Te Deum. What would you suggest? -- M.S., Rome

A: This possibility is explained in the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours when speaking about vigils. To wit:

“IV Vigils

“70. The Easter Vigil is celebrated by the whole Church, as described in the respective liturgical books. ‘The vigil of this night is so important,’ says Saint Augustine, ‘that it is called The Vigil as if demanding exclusively for itself a term which is common to the rest.’ ‘We spend that night in vigil, the night on which the Lord rose, and began for us in his own flesh that life where there is neither death nor sleep. Therefore, as we sing in our long vigil to him who has risen, so we will reign with him in life without end.’

“71. From the Easter Vigil the custom grew in different Churches of beginning certain solemnities with a vigil, especially Christmas and Pentecost. This custom is to be preserved and encouraged according to the special traditions of each Church. Wherever it is fitting to celebrate vigils for other solemnities and pilgrimages, the general norms for the celebration of the word of God should be observed.

“72. The Fathers and spiritual writers have very often exhorted the faithful, especially those who lead a contemplative life, to pray at night. By this they seek to encourage them to look forward to the Lord’s coming; ‘At midnight there was a cry, “The bridegroom is here! go out to meet him”’ (Matthew 25:6). ‘So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep’ (Mark 13:35-36). It is therefore praiseworthy to retain the nocturnal character of the Office of Readings.

“73. In the Roman Rite, out of consideration especially for those engaged in apostolic work, the Office of Readings is always of the same length. Those who wish to adhere to the tradition of marking the Vigil of a Sunday, solemnity or feast with a more extended celebration should proceed in the following way. Firstly, the Office of Readings should be celebrated as in The Divine Office as far as the readings inclusively. After both readings and before the Te Deum, canticles may be added, selected from the appropriate appendix. A Gospel passage is then read, followed if desired by a homily; afterward the Te Deum is sung and the concluding prayer said.

“The Gospel on solemnities and feasts is taken from the Lectionary of the Mass; on Sundays, it is taken from the series on the paschal mystery found in the Appendix of the book.”

The aforementioned canticles, found in the appendix, are three texts taken from the prophet Isaiah with proper antiphons for Christmas day. The Gospel is that of the Mass of the Vigil Mass, Matthew 1:1-25.

However, the rubrics of the Office of Readings offer an important clarification:

“If Mass follows immediately on the celebration of the Office of Readings the Gloria in excelsis of the Mass replaces the Te Deum and the introductory rites of the Mass being omitted the Collect of the Midnight Mass is said.”

With respect to the proclamation of Christmas from the Roman Martyrology, there is no official ruling on this. The custom of the Pope’s celebration places it at the very beginning of the celebration.

The Holy Father approaches the presbytery but remains standing before an image of the Child Jesus covered with a white cloth while a deacon or cantor sings the annunciation of Christ’s birth. Following this proclamation, the image is unveiled and incensed and the Holy Father then ascends the altar to begin the Mass. This is probably the most appropriate practice as this rite is not, strictly speaking, part of the Christmas liturgy.

Therefore, taking all of this into account the order would be: at the very beginning, before venerating the altar, the (optional) ceremony of the proclamation of the martyrology and incensing an image of the Infant Jesus takes place, the priest then venerates the altar in the usual manner, proceeds to the chair, and the Office of Readings begins. After the second reading and its responsory the canticles and Gospel of the Vigil Mass are added. Following the Gospel, the priest intones the Gloria followed by the collect. The Mass continues as normal with the Liturgy of the Word proper to the Mass at Midnight.

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Readers may send questions to zenit.liturgy@gmail.com. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city, and your state, province, or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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