With the first Sunday of Advent just around the corner, Christmas is on the way — and this year the feast falls on a Monday in 2023, immediately following the fourth Sunday of Advent.
With Advent shrunk to the shortest possible count of days, Catholics get a little less time for seasonal anticipation, but they also get a back-to-back call to the festive celebration of Mass.
Christmas Day is, of course, a holy day of obligation, and the fact that it falls on a Monday doesn’t change the usual Sunday precept for Catholics to attend Mass the day before.
While there are a lot of different times, including vigil Masses the night before, at which Catholics can attend Mass and fulfill their obligations, it’s not — never — possible to fulfill them both with a single Mass.
Two obligations means two Masses, those are the rules.
Most Catholics, hopefully, don’t primarily think of going to Mass in terms of an “obligation,” but the domestic Christmas calendar can be packed — so, with Christmas coming on a Monday, what are the expectations, and options, for getting to church over the long weekend?
Option 1: Two for two
Many, maybe most Catholics will opt for simply going to their usual morning Mass on successive days — first on December 24 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and then again the next day for Christmas.
It’s easy to remember, simple to plan around, and the no-nonsense solution. Two obligations, two Masses, two days, Sunday and Monday.
Option 2: ‘Vigil’ all the way
There is, of course, more than one way to go to Mass twice in two days — especially at Christmas when a lot of people prefer to go to midnight Mass.
Anticipatory Masses can take place the day before a Sunday — and “vigil” Masses the day before a feast.
They come after the praying of vespers and are an “anticipated celebration” of the following day’s feast. In the first centuries, early Christians would often gather the night before Sunday to pray through the night in preparation for the coming Eucharist.
There is actually a long and surprisingly fierce debate among rival canonical schools of thought about when, exactly, you can start an anticipated Mass.
Some hold it can be any time after 12 noon on Saturday. Others argue you have to wait until a more suitable hour to say vespers — after one has had the chance to pray the hours of sext and none — usually 4pm or 6pm.
All of that is probably lawyers quibbling, as far as Pillar readers are concerned — though it’s worth noting different U.S. dioceses have different rules on the earliest hour at which you can begin a vigil or anticipatory Mass.
For readers’ purposes, though, whatever time the pastor schedules the Mass, that works. As long as it’s not Saturday morning. Obviously.
Option 3: The long weekend
Maybe there are some Pillar readers who’d like to take the whole day before Christmas for leisurely coffee drinking, meal preparation, or even some cross-country travel. Or maybe some Pillar readers live dangerously, and buy all their Christmas presents on Dec. 24.
And for some, getting the whole family dressed and to Mass on time for successive mornings or evenings is a tall order.
In those cases, you could opt for a Saturday anticipated Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and then go for morning Mass on Christmas Day, essentially giving yourself a day off in between celebrations.
Option 4: Super Sunday
Not for the faint-hearted, but insteading of spreading your Eucharistic obligations across three days, you could opt to pack them all into one Super Sunday.
To do that, you would go to Sunday morning Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, and then to Mass again, later that afternoon or evening, for a Christmas vigil Mass.
Option 5: Double Christmas
If you really want to maximize your carol singing chances, and double down on nativity narratives for the Gospel reading, you could opt for two Christmas Masses.
The Sunday obligation — that Catholics attend weekly Masses on the Lord’s Day — is one of those cases in which “liturgical time” and of-the-clock-time don’t exactly overlap, at least sometimes.
Catholics are obliged to attend Mass every Sunday, including the Fourth Sunday of Advent. And they are obliged to go to Mass for the feast of Christmas. Those two obligations are distinct, and have to be met separately — but there’s no rule mandating that the Mass Catholics attend for their Sunday obligation actually be celebrated liturgically for the Fourth Sunday of Advent.
So you could attend back-to-back vigil Masses for Christmas on Sunday evening, or a vigil Mass in the evening, followed by midnight Mass or Mass on Christmas Day, and have satisfied both your Sunday and Christmas Day obligations.
Of course doing so would mean missing out the final Advent liturgy, and trim your anticipatory experience of Advent back even further than the calendar already is — but that’s absolutely a valid option.
Whatever your plans for Christmas, please, pick one of the options above, and get to Mass. Twice. We’ll see you there.
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