I heard, in the newspaper, that our local parish back home was having a Christmas Eve Mass at 3:00 PM, December 24. This struck me with quite a surprise, and as quite odd. As I understood, no vigil mass could be celebrated before 4:00 PM the day before a Sunday or Solemnity. What was our parish doing??
There are four different masses which can be celebrated on Christmas, namely the Christmas Vigil on the evening of the 24th, then there is Midnight Mass, Mass at Dawn, and Mass During the Day. I believe that the priest's normal prescriptions on celebrating only two masses in a day are also lifted and three are allowed.
Well, I knew for sure that this mass couldn't possibly considered a "Midnight Mass", so we assume, for the moment, that this mass was the vigil of Christmas. The questions we need to answer are: when vigil masses can actually start, and whether or not the Christmas Vigil is an exception to the rules.
First, on the issue of when vigil masses can actually start, it is "common knowledge" that the liturgical day cannot occur earlier than 4:00 PM. I had heard this properly first from a priest friend, and was subsequently confirmed in this. Also, our home parish had moved the anticipated mass to 4:00 at some point, and I seem to think that was the earliest that was allowed.
The internet is quite quiet on the subject. The best commentary I heard was from Catholics United for the Faith. In their entry Saturday Vigil Mass in the Liturgy category of their Faith Facts section, they say: "The common practice for the earliest vigil Mass is 4 p.m." They expand on this, of course, but it seems to confirm my earlier suspicion. They say:
The Church allows Catholics to fulfill their Sunday or Holy Day obligation by participating in a vigil Mass prescribed for the particular Holy Day. “This Mass may be celebrated only in the evening, at times determined by the local ordinary.” When prescribing the times acceptable in their territory for vigil Masses, local ordinaries should consider the time of sunset in their locale as well as the liturgical cycle itself.So, it seems to be up to the local bishop. I've searched high and low on the USCCB's website, as well as that of the Archdioceses of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and Chicago. I came up empty on that, though it is probably hidden there, somewhere.
Depending on the season and place, the sun begins to set between 4 and 5 p.m. in many parts of the world. Because of this, local ordinaries have allowed the vigil Mass as early as 4 p.m. Any earlier scheduling would seem to violate liturgical guidelines for two reasons. First, the concept of a day beginning at sunset loses significance when the sun has not set. Secondly, the midafternoon prayer of the Liturgy of Hours may take place as late as 3 p.m. To celebrate a vigil Mass at such an early time diminishes the liturgical cycle.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
Can. 1248 §1. A person who assists at a Mass celebrated anywhere in a Catholic rite either on the feast day itself or in the evening of the preceding day satisfies the obligation of participating in the Mass.The word "evening" is "vesper" in Latin. So, who defines what is "evening"? Apparently the local ordinary would. I did come across an interesting article in Google's archives of the internet (the site itself was broken) here. Apparently there have been indults granted in various times and places which extend this permission beyond canon law to as early as Noon on Saturday. The United States, however, had its last indult expire in 1985, and I do not believe one has been requested or granted since this article was published. Therefore, we must go back to Canon 1248, which clearly states that evening (vesper) is the time.
Vespers traditionally are prayed at 6:00. The hour of None is celebrated at 3:00, and so clearly, 3:00 is too early. Here, even in the dead of winter, the sun does not set earlier than 4:34. Evening could be defined as when the day is "well spent" as in that article. This could reasonably be argued to be 4:00, but really couldn't be argued for 3:00, and even 3:30 could be pushing it. Since a special indult must be given to celebrate an anticipated mass at Noon or later, and that 3:00 is the hour of None, then 4:00 would be the earliest time a local ordinary could offer to his diocese for a vigil mass, unless he had special indult from the Holy See.
So, with the first point established, regarding when an anticipated mass can be held, we can move on to determining whether the Christmas vigil falls into some special class which is an exception to the rule. Again this is difficult to pin down.
The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar do have a special listing for Christmas.
34. The Mass of the vigil of Christmas is used in the evening of 24 December, either before or after evening prayer I.Well, we have this word evening again. I was unable to confirm that it is the same Latin word, but I think we can safely operate under that assumption. Canonically, if the word is the same, then the interpretation should be the same between them. Christmas is a special solemnity, in the sense that it has multiple special liturgies attached to it. There is but one liturgy for the Immaculate Conception, but 4 for Christmas.
If one were looking for a specific example of an exception, the pascal Triduum is a great example. I believe the Easter Vigil liturgy (with the candles and the 9 readings) must happen after sundown, rather than simply after a certain hour. I know of no such demands on Christmas Eve. Note also that the exception pushes back the time, rather than extending it.
I see no reason for the Vigil mass of Christmas, which can be celebrated before or after First Vespers, could be celebrated as early as 3:00, and in fact, the evidence seems to me that it would be subject to the same limitations as any other vigil or anticipated mass (though this is a proper vigil).
Therefore, I would conclude that the pastor here was in error when celebrating the liturgy of the Christmas Vigil at 3:00 PM, December 24. the GIRM states:
354. On Sundays, on the weekdays of the Advent, Christmas, Lenten, and Easter Seasons, on feasts, and on obligatory memorials:This was a mass with a congregation, the church was a diocesan parish, it was a weekday of advent (as established above), and so the mass for Monday of the Fourth Week of Advent should have been celebrated. The faithful who attended this mass, and none other on the 24th or 25th, according to my estimation, would not have fulfilled their Christmas obligation, though this would be of no fault of their own. The pastor would be to blame, for misleading the parish if he were not properly informed to the legalities of the solemnity. This is just the most recent in a line of liturgical abuses that have been noted in this parish.
a) If Mass is celebrated with a congregation, the priest should follow the calendar of the church where he is celebrating;
An inquiry of this rule may be sent on to the Diocesan Office for Divine Worship. If it is made, it and any response will be posted here.