This year Christmas Day is on Monday; for the clergy this means two major feast days in a row, with the Fourth Sunday of Advent falling today, Christmas Eve. Midnight Mass will be the fifth mass of the day for me, to be followed by three further masses on the morning of the 25th. Clerical heaven is the time when Christmas falls on a Sunday. But this year it is going to be a hard slog.
Midnight Mass, the one ceremony of the Catholic year that is familiar to many, is losing its appeal, and sticklers for tradition are fighting a constant battle to keep it at midnight. Some people want to have it at 9 p.m., because midnight is ‘too late’ for old people. Well, it may be, but what on earth is the point of having a Midnight Mass which does not begin at midnight? One might as well not have it at all.
The story of Midnight Mass is singular, as it was the only mass that was ever allowed to be celebrated in the hours of darkness. When the saintly Catherine of Aragon was dying, her chaplain was ready to say mass at her bedside and had everything ready for starting at dawn. As the queen was sinking rapidly, he suggested starting earlier, but she refused to even consider bending the rules. She died as she has lived, arguing about canon law. She heard mass, received communion and died later that day. She knew better than most, being married to Henry VIII, that the rules are all that stand between us and chaos.
The only mass at night that Catherine of Aragon would have known was the first mass of Christmas, said at midnight, which in her day was already a very old custom.